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Cuomo: NY coronavirus cases surpass 2,000; Trump sending 'floating hospital' to NYC

Confirmed coronavirus cases on Long Island continue to spiral upwards, with 152 in Suffolk and 183 in Nassau. Here is your daily roundup of everything new concerning the pandemic for March 18. Credit: Newsday; NYS Governor's Office; Photo Credit: Newsday / Yeong-Ung Yang; Debbie Egan-Chin

Newsday is opening this story to all readers so Long Islanders have access to important information about the coronavirus outbreak. All readers can learn the latest news at newsday.com/LiveUpdates.

This story was reported by Alfonso A. Castillo, Matthew Chayes, Anthony M. DeStefano, Candice Ferrette, Laura Figueroa Hernandez, David Olson, Michael O'Keeffe David Reich-Hale, Craig Schneider and Yancey Roy. It was written by Olson.

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced Wednesday what he termed drastic but necessary steps to counter the coronavirus outbreak, including a mandatory limitation on business staffing and the deployment of a hospital ship to New York City.

The federal government's deployment of the USNS Comfort will mean there will be "literally a floating hospital" stationed in New York Harbor, as President Donald Trump helps the state through the crisis, Cuomo said.

Cuomo spoke of renewed cooperation with Trump, putting aside what's been, at times, a rocky relationship. 

He said he and the president agreed that “we’re fighting the same war, and this is a war, and we’re in the same trench, and I have your back and you have my back, and we’re going to do everything we can for the people of the State of New York.”

Starting Friday, businesses in the state will be placed under a "density reduction" mandate, Cuomo said, requiring them to operate with no more than 50% of their employees to allow for social distancing and prevent the COVID-19 virus' spread.

Cuomo said there is an exception from the mandate for "essential services" — including grocery stores, food production, warehousing, pharmacies, health care providers, utilities, the media, banks and other financial institutions, and "other industries critical to the supply chain."

He said he understood the burden on businesses and the negative impact on the economy.

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"But in truth, we’re past that point as a nation," he said. "There is going to be an effect on the economy, not only here in New York but all across the country. We’re going to have to deal with that crisis. But let’s deal with one crisis at a time. And let's deal with the crisis at hand, and the crisis at hand is a public health crisis.”

He aims to relax the rules as soon as possible. "Past data, China and South Korea shows," Cuomo added, "that if you take more dramatic actions sooner, you actually reduce the spread and you recover faster.”

In Washington, the U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan package Wednesday that includes more than $6 billion to help New York, raising the federal reimbursement share for Medicaid costs, according to the office of Sen. Chuck Schumer, who stated “this state is now the national epicenter in the coronavirus fight.” About $100 million would be directed to Long Island, with more than $1 billion going to New York City, Schumer’s office said. Other allocations would support people who lose work and seniors needing access to meals, if the president signs the deal.

Help from Trump

The federal government's deployment of the USNS Comfort will bring about 1,000 hospital rooms, along with operating rooms, Cuomo said, as a screen flashed a photo of the giant ship. The state has been bracing for increased demand on its hospitals.

“It’s an extraordinary step, obviously,” he said. “The president said he will dispatch that immediately.”

Trump, speaking at the White House, said he “spoke with Governor Cuomo about it, and he’s excited about it,” adding that the ships were in “tip-top shape.”

A second hospital ship, currently in San Diego, will be deployed to the West Coast as part of the coronavirus response, Trump said.

Cuomo said he spoke with Trump on Wednesday morning, as he did Tuesday, and the president also proposed sending “mobile hospitals” with a capacity of between 200 and 250 people to New York. State officials are “talking about a couple of locations now,” the governor said.

Trump "is fully engaged on trying to help New York. He is being very creative and very energetic and I thank him for his partnership,” Cuomo said.

The governor said and he and others in his administration have had multiple conversations with the Army Corps of Engineers, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Defense.

Cuomo had pressed the White House for days to deploy the Corps to aid New York in preparing more makeshift facilities to test and treat the virus.

At the White House briefing, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said he spoke with Cuomo on Tuesday and plans to speak to other governors "to make sure they know what [the Department of Defense] can provide through our system to address their needs."

Cuomo said that "our main scramble now is for ventilators," which are in short supply and are critical for many people with severe cases of the respiratory illness. Other states and countries also are desperately trying to obtain more ventilators.

Even though New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has said city residents should prepare for a possible “shelter-in-place” order, Cuomo reiterated his opposition to it and implied that discussion of it has frightened New Yorkers.

Later Wednesday, Cuomo issued an executive order stating that the state Department of Health must approve "any local emergency order" on COVID-19.

Coronavirus cases top 2,000 in NY

Pennsylvania joined New York, New Jersey and Connecticut in issuing consistent mandates to stop regional spread of the virus and avoid contradictory preventive measures across state lines.

Later Wednesday, the governors of the four states said the indoor common parts of shopping malls, along with amusement parks and bowling alleys, will close as of 8 p.m. Thursday. Cuomo's executive order also includes aquariums, water parks, zoos and children's play centers.

The number of positive cases in New York had surpassed 2,000 by Wednesday morning, with more than 1,000 new cases reported from the previous day, adding up to 2,382 coronavirus cases in New York State so far. 

The totals for confirmed coronavirus cases in the region were 1,871 in New York City, 278 in Nassau County and 152 in Suffolk County, but the numbers do not match the state's daily total because the different jurisdictions report updated figures at different times. There have been 11 deaths in New York City, de Blasio said early Wednesday night on NY1.

On CNN, the mayor said of the looming increases in coronavirus cases: “It’s gonna get a lot worse before it gets better.”

On WCBS radio, de Blasio announced plans in place to free certain inmates, including those particularly vulnerable to the virus and those accused of minor crimes.

“In the next 48 hours, we will identify any inmates who we think need to be brought out either because of their own health conditions, if they have a preexisting conditions … or because the charges were minor and we think it's appropriate to bring them out in this context," the mayor said.

After the State Legislature approved a bill Wednesday night addressing access to sick leave and disability benefits for quarantined individuals, de Blasio tweeted his support.

"If you have to self-quarantine and cannot go to work," the mayor tweeted, "you deserve paid sick leave coverage. This bill will make that a reality for working New Yorkers."

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said the county had seen "the largest jump" in daily confirmed coronavirus cases. Huntington had the most cases at 43, though Bellone said the number probably indicates there was more testing there, rather than signaling a hot spot.

Huntington was followed by Southold, with 33 cases; Islip, with 23, and Brookhaven with 20. There are 17 cases in Babylon; three each in Smithtown and Southampton and two each in East Hampton and Riverhead, with six cases for which the community has not been identified.

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said the increase in numbers there is tied to more widespread testing.

A coronavirus drive-thru testing site opened Wednesday on the grounds of Stony Brook University. Long Island's first coronavirus testing site opened at Jones Beach State Park on Tuesday.

Curran said county mental health, substance abuse and social services agencies remain open. The county is encouraging its providers under contract to offer services remotely. Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are being postponed.

She said the epidemic is causing anxiety across the county, and “for people dealing with depression and addiction, they can go to very dark places.”

Curran urged residents to "be kind to each other" and nurture a healthy dose of optimism as the outbreak continues to unfold.

"We will get through this with strength and shared sacrifice," she said.

Shortage of critical equipment

Bellone said there is a shortage in the supply chain of masks and other protective equipment that Long Island health care workers need to prevent contracting the virus.

“We’re working with the hospital chains,” he said. “They’re working to make sure the supplies they have will last” while it remains uncertain when the new equipment will arrive.

Bellone said Suffolk is working with the state to help fill those needs.

Amid reports of severe shortages of protective equipment in at least one Suffolk hospital, and possible rationing, Bellone said he is working with that hospital, “seeing if there’s anything we can provide.”

He is in mandatory quarantine because his deputy county executive tested positive for the virus. He said the epidemic “will have a devastating impact on the capacity of government to deliver services.”

County government not only is facing the costs related to the illness, but also expects sales tax revenue to drop, he said.

Bellone said the county is assisting in providing meal programs and child care for kids who would have been in school if they hadn’t been closed. Residents can apply and reapply for food stamps online, he said.

Police and other services

Bellone said police precincts will remain open 24/7, but “we’re encouraging people not to visit a precinct unless it’s necessary." 

Suffolk police said in a news release that some less-serious incidents can be reported online or by phone, and that an officer will be sent to the residents' locations for other crimes. Police are not doing fingerprinting.

In New York City, a slightly greater number of NYPD officers than usual have been calling in sick this week, but not enough to cause concern, a department spokesman Wednesday.

Less than 4% of officers have called in sick in a department that generally sees about 3% of the force out sick daily, the spokesman said.

Also Wednesday, the Long Island Rail Road announced it was taking new precautions to help prevent the spread of the virus. Starting Thursday, the LIRR will no longer accept cash payments on trains or at ticket counters. The railroad urged riders to use its mobile “eTix” system for the “most contactless way to pay.”

The LIRR also announced it is closing its lost and found office at Penn Station until further notice.

Meanwhile, Patrick Foye, the chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority — the LIRR’s parent agency — announced the MTA would draw down $1 billion on its existing line of credit to help cover the cost of its response to the coronavirus.

Foye said the funds “are not a comprehensive or permanent solution” and that “this is a national disaster that requires a national response.” Foye has asked the federal government for $4 billion in aid.

In an interview Wednesday night on NY1, Foye discussed what he called a "precipitous decline in ridership" and detailed the many costs facing the MTA because of the virus.

"Clearly ridership is going to be depressed during the duration of the pandemic and for some period thereafter," Foye said.

The MTA has "about $300 million of increased operating expense because we’re disinfecting MTA workplaces including subway stations and yards and bus depots etc.," he said.

The state health department on Wednesday sent an advisory to hospitals statewide urging an immediate suspension of all visitations except when it's medically necessary or for family members or legal representatives of patients in end-of-life situations.

The state said any visitors meeting those exceptions must be screened for COVID-19 symptoms or potential exposure to someone with COVID-19. 

Most Long Island hospitals already have issued strict limitations on visitors.

Courthouses shuttered to most

On Wednesday, Roslynn R. Mauskopf, chief judge at the United States courthouse in Central Islip, said in an administrative order that the building will be closed to all except those with essential business. 

Those allowed in the courthouse include people who have been ordered to appear by a judge or other officials, jurors, family members of defendants and victims and defendants, credentialed members of the press and law enforcement personnel.

People with COVID-19 or those who recently traveled to several countries with high rates of the virus, and those who were in close contact with people in either category, are barred. Mauskopf’s order also applies to the U.S. courthouse in Brooklyn.

FIGHT AGAINST CORONAVIRUS

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s latest executive order in the fight against the COVID-19 virus requires businesses deemed nonessential to limit employees in the workplace to no more than 50% of the staff.

  • Excluded are “essential” services such as grocery stores, pharmacies, and services that deliver food, shipping, news media, warehousing, food production, health care providers, utilities, banks and related financial institutions, and other businesses “critical to the supply chain” of essential products.
  • The measure is a “mandatory requirement,” as opposed to the voluntary request issued last week for businesses.
  • Workers will be able to work from home.
  • The effort is aimed at further “reducing density” of people in an attempt to stem the spread of the virus.
  • Executive orders can be enforced with civil fines, but Cuomo has said the state has so far encountered no resistance to restrictions imposed because of the virus.

SOURCE: Governor’s office

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