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 Rachelle Blidner, Tom Brune, Alfonso A. Castillo, Matthew Chayes, Candice Ferrette, Bart Jones, David Reich-Hale and Yancey Roy. It was written by Jones.
All New Yorkers must wear face coverings in public to help curb the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced Wednesday, as he reported 752 new deaths, though New York has reached enough of a plateau to send ventilators for coronavirus patients to other hard-hit states.
The executive order to shield mouths and noses, whenever people are "in a situation where they are not maintaining social distancing” of at least 6 feet, goes into effect Friday, Cuomo said.
Its enforcement will not involve fines initially, though they could be imposed later if compliance becomes a problem.
Cuomo cited public transit — including bus and train riding or standing on platforms — as examples where a face mask or cloth covering would be needed, as well as situations when a person expects they will “pass other people on the sidewalk" or on a trail.
“You’re not going to jail for not wearing a mask,” Cuomo said at his daily press briefing in Albany. “I hope New Yorkers will do it because it makes sense.”
He said he also thinks people can help enforce the rule, by simply asking others who are in public places: "Where's your mask, buddy? — in a nice New York kind of way."
The MTA said that starting Friday, the rule will apply to all its transit systems, including the Long Island Rail Road. “All customers will be required to wear a face covering while traveling with us during this pandemic,” the agency said.
Cuomo's order goes beyond a call earlier Wednesday from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio for people to use face coverings when going to grocery stores.
De Blasio later said that when eateries eventually reopen in the city, they might be required to have disposable menus and make waiters wear face coverings, a measure being considered in Los Angeles. Speaking on CNN on Wednesday evening, the mayor said it is too early to say if that will happen, but New Yorkers should be prepared for that possibility — and other measures.
“Restaurants may have to be a lot less crowded to begin. We gotta take it small,” he said, referring to lowered maximum-occupancy limits.
Cuomo, in his hallmark conversational style, told state residents that he understood "your right to go out for a walk in the park … Fine, don’t infect me. You don’t have a right to infect me.”
“You’re walking down the street alone? Great,” he said. “You’re now at an intersection and there are people at the intersection and you’re going to be in proximity to other people? Put the mask on.”
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people wear a cloth covering on the face to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 through droplets when, for instance, an infected person sneezes or coughs.
Health experts estimate that anywhere from 25% to 50% of people infected with the virus may not have any symptoms and therefore would not be aware they have COVID-19. The mask is meant to prevent them from infecting others.
Cuomo said coverings other than masks would do, including "an attractive bandanna" or scarf, and people could lower it to their necks when they aren’t around others.
The CDC stresses that people should continue social distancing practices because wearing most masks does not protect them from getting infected with COVID-19.
While wearing face masks has become common in world regions hit hard by pandemics in the past such as Asia, it will be a new feature of life on Long Island and in New York City. Even before Cuomo's order, many Long Islanders had started wearing masks in public and when going into places such as supermarkets.
In Washington, President Donald Trump, at his daily media briefing, said he would be announcing new social distancing guidelines on Thursday. He did not give details, but also noted that, in terms of the economy, “There is death in having a strongly closed country,” including suicide and drug abuse.
Trump touted his administration's response and said: “These encouraging developments have put us in a very strong position to finalize guidelines on states for reopening the country.”
Key metrics showing progress
As Cuomo took his latest step to combat COVID-19, he said the pandemic continued to show signs of coming under control in the state. As a result, New York will send 100 ventilators to Michigan and 50 to Maryland.
Earlier in the crisis, Cuomo had pleaded for the federal government and states around the country to send New York ventilators since he feared it would fall short. Cuomo's staff and local hospitals searched frantically around the globe to try to buy some from China and other countries.
Hospitalizations for COVID-19 were in negative territory since Tuesday, he said, while intubations were also in negative numbers for four of the last five days.
“We can control the spread. That is great news,” he said. “The health care situation has stabilized. The fears of overwhelming the health care system has not happened, thanks to the phenomenal work of our front-line workers, thanks to the additional capacity that our hospital system created."
He cautioned that “we’re still in the woods,” and that about 2,000 people a day are diagnosed and hospitalized with COVID-19.
Deaths from the virus have been above 700 a day statewide for eight of the last nine days. Long Island accounted for 101 of the fatalities in the last 24-hour period ending Tuesday, according to state figures released Wednesday.
Nassau suffered 56 deaths for a total of 1,057, while Suffolk saw 45 more deaths for a total of 653.
Long Island as a whole has lost 1,710 people to COVID-19, and the state has lost at least 11,571 — nearly as many as the United Kingdom.
In Nassau and Suffolk counties, there were some fragile signs the crisis was easing and the Island has gone through the worst of the onslaught.
Northwell Health said Wednesday that the number of COVID-19 patients in its hospital system — the largest in the state — dropped by 147, for a total of 3,006.
Last week, the system, which has 19 hospitals, including 11 on the Island, was reporting daily averages of between 3,300 and 3,400 coronavirus patients.
"The numbers keep going down, although not dramatically," said Terry Lynam, a Northwell spokesman. "But we are hopeful the trend continues."
Only two of Northwell's Long Island hospitals, LIJ-Valley Stream and North Shore University Hospital, had a ICU occupancy rate above 90%, Lynam said.
And about 70% of Northwell's ventilators were in use, he said. Northwell has about 1,100 ventilators, which include converted bi-level positive airway pressure (BiPAP) machines.
Across Long Island, nearly 50,000 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to state data released Wednesday.
Nassau County had 1,465 new cases, for a total of 26,715. Suffolk added 816 new cases, for a total of 23,278.
Statewide, 11,571 new cases were diagnosed, for a total of 213,779. That is more cases than any country in the world besides the United States as a whole, including hard-hit Spain and Italy.
Eager 'to resume our lives'
In Nassau County, Executive Laura Curran said there were some hopeful signs, though people are anxious to get back to work and school, and the economy is taking a beating.
She said 13 more people were hospitalized with COVID-19 during the last 24-hour period, while 132 were discharged. Some 503 patients were on ventilators, an increase of 22 from the previous day.
Curran said the county is anxious to move beyond the crisis.
“We are ready to come back to work. We are ready to resume our lives. Let’s make sure we do it in a safe, organized manner,” she said.
More than half the business owners in the county have said they wouldn’t make a profit in 2020 and would have to lay off workers, according to a county survey of the business community, Curran said.
“I spoke to a business owner the other day who was literally in tears having to lay people off. I’m talking to people who are living paycheck to paycheck," she said. "They don’t know how they're going to make rent or buy food for their family. This is very serious.”
In Suffolk County, the number of hospitalizations and ICU patients went up slightly, which is “not great,” after a few days of decreasing, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said. But that is an indication Suffolk is reaching a plateau.
“After a couple days of going down, the numbers have come up,” Bellone said, adding the increase was not significantly larger. “It looks like we’re plateauing at a very high level.”
Hospitalizations went up by 22, to 1,630, he said. Some 174 COVID-19 patients were discharged.
Statewide, the number of COVID-19 patients was “a click down,” Cuomo said, still hovering around 18,000 people, “but a click down, good news."
"The terrible news," he added, was the total of 752 people who died Tuesday, with 707 of them succumbing to the disease in hospital settings and 45 dying in nursing homes.
Despite that grim tally, Cuomo laid out more details of how he hopes New York’s economy, schools and society can start to reopen. Critical to that will be massive testing, something he said the state lacks the capacity to do right now and needs the help of the federal government to accomplish.
He called for a major effort to ramp up testing, comparing it to the rescue mission of the damaged Apollo 13 spaceship.
That is “going to be the equivalent of trying to get Apollo 13 back to earth 220,000 miles, 50 years ago. It is a very difficult task.”
The reopening will be based on a system in which businesses are judged on how essential they are, and how high a risk of spreading the COVID-19 virus they have.
Some businesses, for instance, could more easily reopen if workers are separated and don’t have group meetings, he said.
“The more testing, the more open the economy,” he said.
New York can do about 2,000 finger-prick tests for COVID-19 antibodies, he said, but is asking the FDA for approval to increase that to 100,000 a day, or 500,000 a week.
In Washington, as Trump and many state governors begin considering steps to reopen the economy, Senate Democrats on Wednesday proposed a $30 billion plan for a comprehensive national testing strategy and an investment to make tests free for everyone.
“Testing is the best tool we have to fight the virus today to know who’s infected and who is not, and when to open our economy,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said. “It is critically important to the health and well-being of every person in our country.
“We have to ramp up testing so it can be done on a broader scale,” he added. “We need to get the results back quickly. That’s going to take a national major effort.”
On March 6, Trump said that “anybody that needs a test gets a test,” though his administration also said it is seeking to increase testing.
The ultimate solution to the crisis, Cuomo said, is a vaccine, but that is at least 12 to 18 months away,
De Blasio: NYC tax base 'gone'
Earlier Wednesday, de Blasio said New York City's government needs $5 billion to $10 billion in federal stimulus money to sustain basic services such as police, fire and trash pickup.
"Our revenue is gone, our tax base is gone, our economy is gone," de Blasio said.
He said supermarkets and grocery stores should require customers to wear face coverings and refuse to admit anyone who does not.
"Put up a sign at the entrance, around the store, making clear that that's the right thing to do and that's a requirement of your particular store. That is legal and appropriate. The city will back you up," he said. He added: "Any customer who says, 'No, I refuse,' should not be allowed in."
De Blasio said the NYPD would enforce the face-covering rule if asked by a store.
He said he does not expect live spectator sports before large crowds to resume any time soon.
"I think it's gonna be a while. I think we all are missing sports. Everyone who's a fan is missing it deeply," de Blasio said. "But, again, exactly the point, if we move too quick, we put 50,000 people in Yankee Stadium, and that's part of why you see a resurgence of the disease, that would be the worst of all worlds."