ALBANY — New York state will remain on “pause” at least through May 15.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the extension on Thursday while discussing the generally good news as the COVID-19 infection rate has decreased. But with the apex reached, the big question facing New York is how to re-open.
Cuomo said the answer lay in a matrix, involving phases of priority and percentages — which businesses are essential, which ones are safer to reopen, how do they reopen and operate, and when do they reopen? Each question needs to be worked through on a case-by-case basis.
“The matrix is how important is the business to society, how essential a service is, and how risky is that business from a rate of infection,” Cuomo said. “Obviously the more essential a business, the lower the risk, the more they are a priority.”
Businesses would phased in by that priority, reopening same way they went down, which is by percentages. Cuomo said this will be an ongoing process over the coming weeks that New York is working through with the other states.
But reopening the economy will not be all about what the government does because the private sector now needs to think about what they do, how they do it and how they can do it differently the new normal.
Who can telecommute? How to social distance in the workplace? How to transport workers? How to interact with the public in a way to keep the public safe?
Cuomo stressed that testing is the single best tool to inform decisions, and while New York managed to do 500,000 tests in one month, there are 12 million people in the state and 9 million workers.
“They key to all of this, the calibration, is the infection rate,” he said, explaining currently they can’t track the infection rate and only see hospitalization rates, which happens after someone gets infected and only if someone gets severely ill. “But we don’t know how many people have been getting infected or are getting infected. We only know at this point how many people walk into a hospital.”
However with advance testing, a better idea of the population who has been actually exposed to COVID-19 will become clear. And the key to know when reopening the economy is how fast is the virus spreading and how quickly is the infection rate rising.
Early projection models assumed a higher rate of infection and spread, Cuomo said. However, New York slowed the infection rate by its actions.
“The infection rate is how many people does one person infect,” he explained.
So what does that mean?
Essentially, if one person infects less than one other person in the overall average, the disease is on the decline. If one person infects one more person, the rate of spread is stable.
A virus gets out of control — like “wildfire”, Cuomo said — when one person infects two people or more. And that’s what New York needs to control when it reopens the economy.
He noted that the infection rate on the Diamond Princes Cruise Ship involved every infected person spreading the disease to another 2.2 people. The city of Wuhan was 2 to 3 people and the 1918 Spanish Flue pandemic had an infection rate of 1.4 to 2.8 people.
With the severe projection rate for New York, it was believed it would infect 1.4 to 1.8 people, while a moderate projection rate was 1.2 to 1.45. However with mitigation efforts, the infection rate is currently 0.9.
After locking everything up — the severe quarantine in China that literally locked many people in their homes — Wuhan brought the infection rate to 0.3.
“We only have a margin of error of 0.9 to 1.2,” Cuomo said. “1.2 takes you back to the high projection rate. That does not live you a lot of wiggle room.”
He went on to say wearing a mask is one of the best things which can be done to slow the rate. New York lost 606 people on Wednesday — 577 in hospitals and 29 in nursing homes.
He acknowledged the resistance and anger toward Wednesday’s executive order requiring all people to wear a face mask or cloth overing over their mouths and noses in public when social distancing can’t be maintained, along with accusations of government overreach.
But he also noted the risk to medical staff and first responders. If people don’t believe 600 people died Wednesday or that it’s not a problem, he disagrees.
“I understand I’m not getting a lot of not happy phone calls off what I said (Wednesday) about wearing a mask in public. I’m sorry it makes people unhappy. I do not consider it a major burden and it really is a simple measure that can save lives,” he said. “Yes people say it’s a personal intrusion on them, but remember it’s not just about you.”