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Virus spread low, but Cuomo says 'a lot of questions' remain on schools reopening

School safety officers wearing masks to prevent coronavirus

School safety officers wearing masks to prevent coronavirus spread stood by the entrance to New Bridges Elementary School in Brooklyn on Wednesday. The teachers' union is skeptical about the system's readiness to reopen Sept. 10. Credit: AP/John Minchillo

This story was reported by Alfonso A. Castillo, Matthew Chayes, David Olson, David Reich-Hale and John Valenti. It was written by Olson.

Fewer than 500 New Yorkers were hospitalized with COVID-19 on Thursday, the lowest number since March 16 and a fraction of the mid-April peak, but amid the positive news Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said sending children into New York City public schools next month "is a risky proposition."

Cuomo said during a morning interview on NBC's "Today" show that he "would have a lot of questions" if he had to decide whether to send his children to city schools when they are scheduled to reopen Sept. 10.

Later Friday morning, Cuomo announced in a news release the 14th straight day of fewer than 1% of coronavirus tests coming back positive, out of a record 98,880 tests performed.

“This is proof positive that when you have the virus under control, more testing does not equal more positives,” Cuomo said in a statement.

The comment alluded to President Donald Trump's repeated assertions that the United States has far more COVID-19 cases than any other country because of widespread testing.

The reopening of schools is tied to infection levels staying low, and the percentage of new positives Thursday was 0.72% statewide.

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The number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care dropped to its lowest level since March 15 to 119, as hospitalizations fell to 490 patients statewide. In mid-April, there were nearly 19,000 people with COVID-19 in New York hospitals on some days.

On Long Island, there were 72 people hospitalized with COVID-19 on Thursday, down from 82 on Wednesday and the peak of 4,108 on April 10, state figures show. 

Cuomo repeated what has become a daily warning to New Yorkers to not relent on protecting themselves and others from the virus with masks and social distancing.

Three New Yorkers died of COVID-19 on Thursday, none downstate.

Cuomo said the State Liquor Authority and State Police Task Force found 11 businesses in New York City that were violating state COVID-19 mandates, out of the 1,618 that were visited in the city and on Long Island.

Cautious on schools reopening

In his "Today" appearance, the governor was cautious in his optimism when asked about his confidence in the plan to reopen New York City schools.

Noting the state's low infection rate, he said, "If there's any state that can reopen schools, it's us. … It then becomes a question of school district by school district. It's how you do it."

When asked if he would send his children to New York City public schools, if they were of school age, he said, "Well, they're still working out what the plan would be. I would have a lot of questions. … This is a risky proposition no matter how you do it."

He continued, "You're bringing a lot of people into a congregant setting. Do you have the testing, do you have the tracing, do you have the social distance requirements?"

The governor said that "if the parents aren't happy and confident and if the teachers aren't confident, then you don't have a school district reopening."

Cuomo noted that schools and colleges elsewhere have opened and quickly run into problems.

"If it's not a smart plan, then it shouldn't happen and we have 700 school districts. I'm sure we're going to have 700 different answers in New York," Cuomo said.

On Twitter later Friday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed to “keep our schools safe and healthy this year. That’s our pledge to you.”

De Blasio spokeswoman Avery Cohen said in a statement that his administration will be cautious.

"We have a strict 3% reopening threshold" for virus cases "and have had a Citywide infection rate below that for months," Cohen wrote. "We'll continue to work with parents to offer the safest option for them and their families."

In New York City, a mix of in-person and remote learning is planned. Families can opt for all-remote learning and change their minds during the year.

But the city’s largest teachers union said this week that it wants public schools to stay shuttered, absent adherence to union-set standards and mandatory coronavirus testing for anyone allowed into campus buildings. The union urged parents to exercise the remote-only option until its demands for testing and bench marks are met.

MTA ends service for essential workers

Also Friday, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, struggling to address the safety, and financial, ramifications of the pandemic, announced it was ending a program to subsidize Uber, Lyft and other for-hire vehicle rides for essential workers during overnight hours, when New York City's subway system remains closed for cleaning.

In May, the MTA began subsidizing rides for essential workers who were shut out of the subway system from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. — when stations and trains are deep-cleaned and disinfected to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The MTA said the agency spent $6 million on the program, used by about 1,500 customers, and that it was cut because of its “high costs amid a historic fiscal crisis" expected to lead to more than $10 billion in losses through 2021.

Officials said displaced overnight subway riders can instead use round-the-clock bus service, which now includes three new routes aimed at mirroring some of the most popular trips made by program participants.

Danny Pearlstein, spokesman for the Riders Alliance, a subway commuter advocacy group, suggested that the end of the program should add urgency to calls for the subways to return to 24/7 service.

“Nighttime riders from health care to hospitality have some of the longest, hardest commutes,” Pearlstein said. “To truly come back, New York needs a subway that never sleeps.”

Fewer COVID-19 patients on LI

There were 50 new COVID-19 cases in Nassau County on Thursday, bringing the total since the beginning of the pandemic to 44,162. Suffolk had 47 new cases, for a total of 44,400. Statewide, there have now been 428,512 cases.

Northwell Health, the largest health system in the state, and Catholic Health Services of Long Island, which operates six hospitals in the region, reported more positive developments Friday.

Northwell said it had only 69 COVID-19 patients at the 19 hospitals it owns and operates.

"Our admissions have been consistently under 10 per day at all of our hospitals," said Dr. David Battinelli, chief medical officer at Northwell Health.

Catholic Health Services of Long Island said it was caring for 29 COVID-19 patients. The Rockville Centre-based health system had nearly 900 coronavirus patients in April.

"We are seeing a very low level of infection right now," said Dr. Patrick O'Shaughnessy, executive vice president and chief clinical officer at CHS. "It's like a little smolder, and the key is to keep it from becoming something worse."

Separately, Cuomo announced grants for the purchase and installation of equipment for "telepractice" addiction services, which have expanded during the pandemic to limit in-person contact. Six grants were for work on Long Island.

The three grants for Nassau County programs are: Tempo Group, $14,730; Charles Evans Center, $14,490, and Family and Children’s Association, $4,627. The three grants for programs in Suffolk County are: The Kenneth Peters Center for Recovery, $14,873; Long Island Community Hospital, $14,160, and Stony Brook Eastern Long Island Hospital, $7,920.

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