As New COVID Variants Spread, Concerned NYC Officials Call For A Pause On Reopening

Two city elected officials are calling on Governor Andrew Cuomo to pause the state’s continued reopening because they fear a surge in coronavirus cases due to the variants.

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and Councilmember Mark Levine held a virtual press conference on Wednesday questioning the state decision to reopen sports arenas and arts and entertainment venues to limited capacities at the beginning of next month.

Starting April 1st, Mets and Yankees games can be held at their respective fields, bringing thousands of spectators who will have to prove vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test result. A day later, arts and entertainment venues can reopen to 33% capacity, or a maximum of 100 people indoors and 200 people outdoors. Those restrictions rise to 150 and 500, respectively, with proof of vaccination or a negative test for entry. An 11 p.m. curfew for casinos, bowling alleys, and movie theaters will be lifted April 5th.

Williams called those plans “anything but cautious” and urged the state to pause on relaxing more restrictions.

“We can’t rush or we’ll go backwards,” he said. “What you’re seeing here are some of the same voices that just a year ago [who] were pleading with our leaders—and particularly the governor—to shut down and shut down quickly. And, sadly, those pleas fell on deaf ears.”

Williams was referencing the days of back-and-forth between Mayor Bill de Blasio and Cuomo on whether to issue stay-at-home orders in March 2020, all while San Francisco locked down ahead of New York. A year since then, nearly 50,000 New York state residents died from COVID-19.

Dr. Celine Gounder, former advisor to President Joe Biden and New York University epidemiologist who joined the press conference, has been critical of expanding indoor dining and restarting events like weddings and other high-risk activities. As coronavirus variants lead to infections and second rounds of lockdowns in parts of Europe like France and Italy, she called for slower reopenings on this side of the Atlantic.

Read More: Former Biden COVID-19 Advisor Questions Governor Cuomo’s Decision To Relax Restrictions

“We have, in general in the U.S., trended about three to four weeks behind the Europeans in terms of our resurgences,” Gounder said. Gounder has been beating the drum on reopening too soon for weeks as the nation continues its vaccine campaign. “It’s sort of like taking your foot off the brake before you’ve put the car into park.”

New COVID-19 cases over a seven-day average have been between around 3,600 and 4,000 since the beginning of March in the city—a plateau for sure but one that represents a drop from early January when nearly 6,400 new cases were reported, per city data.The positivity levels have ranged between 6% and 10% since early January, though this percentage is not the only factor to watch since it’s influenced by how many people are getting tested. The rate of transmission—or Rt—remains around one in all boroughs but the Bronx, meaning coronavirus is spreading but more slowly. The Rt is under one in the Bronx, showing cases are falling.

“Just give us a little bit more time, get more folks vaccinated, and within another month or two, I think we’ll be in a place where we really can relax safely,” Gounder said. Levine added it seems people have become “numb” to the case counts.

“That’s an extraordinary public health crisis,” he said. “We can’t ignore it.”

Though the state Health Department did not immediately comment, Governor Cuomo’s office responded by claiming New York has the tightest restrictions on indoor activities in the country. It cited the progress with the state’s vaccine rollout while also stating that no outbreak clusters had been traced to fitness classes, even though some have been open for six months.

“Twenty-seven percent of New Yorkers have had at least one vaccination shot–including over 2.4 million New York City residents—and in the last week, we’ve put more than one million shots into arms,” Jack Sterne, a spokesperson for Governor Cuomo, said via email. “Thanks to these guidelines and our robust vaccination effort, more industries are reopening, while critical metrics like COVID test positivity, hospitalizations, ICU admissions, intubations, and fatalities have recently reached their lowest points in months.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio reiterated during his daily briefing on Wednesday that city officials have major concerns about the resumption of indoor fitness classes, which he called the “epitome of what not to do.” He also doesn’t want indoor dining capacity to rise above 50%.

“If we think any decision that was previously made is no longer tenable because of the health care environment, we’ll speak to that as well,” de Blasio added.

The mayor says the state should defer to city leaders on these decisions, but for now, city officials will focus public education on how to reduce COVID-19 risks, according to the mayor. NYC Health Commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi reiterated New Yorkers can avoid getting sick by avoiding indoor settings, sticking to small groups, and engaging in activities in which they can properly wear a mask.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to include a response from Governor Cuomo’s office.

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