With cases surging in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced this week that he was canceling all further in-person press conferences.
“Since the beginning, we’ve talked about the important role the media has played in educating the public about this pandemic,” said senior Cuomo advisor Rich Azzopardi in a statement. “But given the new stricter [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines released Friday and the reality of rising cases in New York, going remote is now the most prudent action.”
While the press pool may be breathing a collective sigh of relief, workers across the state are still being compelled to head into offices, schools, and restaurants.
New York has continued to allow indoor dining as cases increased — though on Friday, Cuomo announced that he will be suspending indoor dining in New York City starting on Monday.
At the same time, the state has not been providing up-to-date information on the spread — instead, its maps tracking the coronavirus are often not updated or even showing decreases as the pandemic worsens. And as the virus surges, Cuomo suddenly changed the method for evaluating whether areas should be locked down — and the shift would allow more businesses to continue forcing employees back to their workplaces.
New York is experiencing a surge of COVID-19 cases similar to the wave it recorded in the spring when Cuomo’s late shutdown saw hospitals and morgues overwhelmed. Unsurprisingly, much of that surge is represented in New York City where less than 20 percent of hospital beds are vacant compared to 23 percent statewide.
Despite the surge, employers across the state have been calling workers back into offices, schools, and restaurants. Some remote-capable employees have also been compelled back. These workers face a difficult choice between their health and their financial security at a time when more than 19 million Americans are receiving unemployment aid.
“I Literally Have To Put My Health At Risk”
A family medicine resident who works in an intensive care unit upstate and did not wish to be identified by name sharply criticized the policy of allowing businesses to compel workers back into offices, explaining that it is “a phenomenally bad idea to put people in close proximity to each other unless you absolutely have to.”
“It’s not fair to put people in that situation,” the resident told The Daily Poster. “You’re basically telling them, ‘Risk your life or you don’t get any money.’ It’s not fair to all the hospital workers who have been dealing with this for the last 10 months and finally got shit under control, and now it’s exploding again, and no one seems to care. They’re going to run out of beds at this rate.”
The resident explained that their hospital has seen a 2,300 percent increase in the number of COVID patients in the last month, adding, “and that’s before the Thanksgiving spike that’s about to happen.”
Last month, the CDC issued a report recommending businesses “promote alternative work site options,” warning that COVID patients are twice as likely to work in offices than at home. A new report from the Wall Street Journal earlier this week warned that office break rooms were becoming COVID hotspots. Nevertheless, there is currently no mandate for remote work in New York state. By late October, 100,000 office workers had returned to their job sites in New York City alone.
Dan, a Brooklyn-based elementary school teacher who previously worked remotely, said he now must choose between the “possibility of getting sick or any chance of ever doing better than just scraping by.”
He told The Daily Poster that the stress of going into work gives him stomachaches but that he continues anyway because, “I have too many bills and no savings because of said bills and loans.” The district he works in has a roughly 10 percent positive rate. He says the stress levels of everybody in the building are “through the roof.”
“No one looks comfortable,” Dan said. “It's infuriating to listen to this man say that it's not safe for people to be around him during his press conferences but it's okay for people like me to be around children with no masks while they eat lunch.”
Workers are afraid outside the city, too.
“I literally have to put my health at risk from 10 A.M. to 7 P.M. every weekday to facilitate a bank squeezing money from people who are already financially struggling,” said Adam, who works at a call center for a collections company. “The only reason I even took this job is because my wife and I were hurting for money after I left my last job at a grocery store, back when I wasn't even allowed to wear a mask while ringing up [approximately] 100 people per day.”
Adam told The Daily Poster that for him and his girlfriend, “losing this job would mean resigning ourselves to living perpetually in the red, uncertain if we can even keep living in our apartment, or the city of [redacted] more broadly.” Unfortunately, he said the safety protocols at his job are lax.
“There's the expected Big Board of Symptoms and a temperature check station at which everyone is supposed to check in before every shift,” he explained. “Though, there isn't a dedicated employee ensuring this, and when someone is manning the station they do so with an utter lack of care. ‘Still no to all the stuff on the board, right? Okay, you're good.’”
According to Adam, he sits in concerning proximity to his co-workers.
“My department is about 25 people strong, all in a partitioned section of a building with maybe 40-50 other workers in other subsections,” he said. “Most of them are not in separate sealed rooms, but rather all arranged on a mostly open floor-plan.”
A new study out of South Korea indicates that COVID can spread much more easily than previously thought. A high school student was infected by a woman sitting 20 feet away for five minutes.
A Sudden Change In Metrics
New York faces a budget hole and limited options to provide for its citizens without federal assistance, which has been stymied by Republicans in Congress.
Cuomo, who has become something of a TV icon for his handling of the spring COVID wave, has been reluctant to raise taxes on the wealthy in his state, arguing — without basis — that they will flee the state. In September, Cuomo signaled possible openness to the idea. Still, a plan has yet to manifest and the state response to COVID has been limited.
While he has not compelled remote work even for remote-capable employees, the governor has been urging hospitals to recruit retired doctors to handle the new wave of infections and ordering them to increase their capacity by 25 percent.
Cuomo has gone so far as to change the state’s metric for determining which areas ought to close down to keep businesses running. Previously, severity of the outbreak in a so-called “micro-cluster zone” was determined based on the seven-day rolling average positivity rate and new cases per 100,000 people. But on Monday, with positivity rates and case numbers ticking upward across the state, the governor announced he would be classifying severity by hospital occupancy.
Under the new “surge and flex” strategy, only zones that reach “critical hospital capacity” — hospitals projected to be filled to 90 percent capacity in the next three weeks — will be designated as red zones, meaning non-essential businesses will have to close.
He also set the seven-day positivity rate requirement for orange zones — where certain businesses must operate at a reduced capacity — at four percent, which is an increase from where it was in November, and added an 85 percent hospital capacity requirement.
The foot-dragging from Albany drew the ire of New York Public Advocate Jumaane Williams earlier this week. Williams told a local ABC News on Tuesday that the state is making the same mistakes it made back in the spring.
“We seem to be getting it wrong again,” Williams said. “It’s very painful to watch and to see the governor’s decision-making process be very similar to what happened earlier and it actually just literally cost people’s lives unnecessarily.”
With cases rapidly rising, the state has not been providing accurate information on the new wave of infections. The New York state government’s county cluster maps are not being regularly updated. Only Brooklyn’s map changed between November 24 to December 10, and the change actually shows decreasing severity despite increasing cases and hospitalizations.
Rather than blame the new wave of cases on his reopening plan, which preceded a widely-available vaccine, Cuomo has instead pointed the finger at New Yorkers for not wearing masks or adhering to the CDC guidelines. At his December 7 press conference, Cuomo implored New Yorkers to ‘change their behavior’ over the holidays.
“This is nothing predestined, and we’re talking about life and the COVID increase like it’s a fait accompli,” Cuomo said. “It is not a fait accompli. So just change your behavior, change your behavior and get past this mistaken impression that I am home and my home is safe. I’m with my family and my family is safe.”
UPDATE: This piece has been updated to note that Gov. Cuomo announced on Friday that he will be suspending indoor dining in New York City next week.
Photo icon: Jeenah Moon / Getty Images
This newsletter relies on readers pitching in to support it. If you like what you just read and want to help expand this kind of journalism, consider becoming a paid subscriber by clicking this link.