This story was reported by Matthew Chayes, Candice Ferrette, Joan Gralla, David Olson, David Reich-Hale and Craig Schneider. It was written by Olson.
Five of 10 regions in New York State began reopening their economies Friday, as an initial step in emerging from the coronavirus crisis that has shut down schools and nonessential businesses, though Long Island and New York City remain under a "pause" order that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo extended until May 28.
Nonessential businesses on Long Island and the four other regions that remain fully under the order will remain closed until their regions meet benchmarks set by the state, the governor said.
Long Island improved Friday in the daily tracking of health and preparedness metrics by the state, now meeting five of seven criteria to qualify for reopening. Nassau and Suffolk as a whole had slid backward on those measures Thursday because the availability of hospital beds in case of a virus resurgence had dropped below 30%.
Cuomo also announced Friday that state and local beaches statewide will be able to reopen the Friday before Memorial Day, with a 50% capacity rule and other safety measures in place. Counties and municipalities can opt to keep beaches closed, the governor said.
Cuomo said the state will monitor how well the beach regulations are followed, and if a local government either refuses to enforce the mandates, or a beach gets so overwhelmed that local authorities are unable to enforce them, "We will close the beach the next day.”
The number of New Yorkers who died Thursday of COVID-19 fell again, to 132, “down but still painful,” the governor said.
He displayed a bar chart showing the sharp rise in deaths in late March and early April, and the steady decline since. The number of deaths is now where the state was in late March, "when we really first started this miserable journey," he said.
“New Yorkers stepped up to the plate and have done a great job” in observing social distancing, Cuomo added.
Upstate regions go first
The five upstate regions that qualified for the first of the four phases of reopening are the Finger Lakes area, the Southern Tier, the Mohawk Valley, the North Country, and Central New York.
Cuomo said the decision on where to open first was based on the monitoring of data such as hospitalization and death rates and trends, and the availability of hospital beds to handle a potential surge in cases.
A “dashboard” website shows the progress each region has made in hitting the seven benchmarks they must achieve to begin reopening.
In addition, Friday was the first day that low-risk business and recreational activities like tennis, drive-in movie theaters and landscaping and gardening work were allowed statewide.
Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, speaking from Eisenhower Park with the sound of bouncing tennis balls in the background, said tennis was "coming back with some modifications," such as limiting matches to singles games only and using every other court. Golf is also coming back, she said.
Curran also announced the county will put on a Memorial Day parade — in cars, that is — beginning at NYCB Live's Nassau Coliseum and ending at Eisenhower Park.
Back in business
The return of businesses in regions upstate will serve as a first tentative step toward a return of the New York economy, badly damaged by the coronavirus crisis.
Once Long Island is allowed to enter the first phase of reopening, it would be required to follow the same rules.
An economic advisory council for Curran on Friday issued a report calling on the state to deem certain businesses and activities "low risk" and “essential” — and eligible to restart before Long Island meets all of the state’s metrics for the first phase of reopening.
They include residential construction, medically necessary elective care and surgeries, curbside retail pickups and some outdoor activities.
In the first phase of the reopening upstate, New York is permitting construction, manufacturing and retail curbside pickup to resume, as well as agricultural, forestry and fishing operations. Cuomo said employers will be required to provide face masks to employees.
All retail store employees in those regions must wear employer-provided masks, the governor said. Everyone in a vehicle that is picking up purchases must wear a mask as well. Gloves are recommended but not mandated, and the store must make hand sanitizer available.
At stores for which curbside pickup is not practical, in-store pickup is allowed, but customers must order in advance, and no shopping within the store is permitted, Cuomo said.
Every day, "control centers” in each region will monitor infection, testing and hospitalization rates.
Cuomo said “we expect to see an increase" in COVID-19 cases. "But that increase has to be monitored and has to be controlled."
The rate of transmission has to be kept below outbreak levels or “you’re headed toward a bad place,” he said.
In NY, 'a slow decline'
The number of people newly hospitalized for COVID-19 rose for the third straight day, from 420 on Wednesday to 431 on Thursday, although the number is still far below the more than 3,000 COVID-19 patients who were admitted daily to New York hospitals in early April, Cuomo said.
“These numbers tend to bounce, but it’s been a slow decline," he said.
The number of overall hospitalizations statewide, and in Nassau and Suffolk counties, fell again, state and county officials said.
Statewide, an additional 2,762 people tested positive for the coronavirus on Thursday, bringing the total to nearly 346,000. There were 296 new cases on Long Island, for a total of 76,583.
Twelve additional people died from COVID-19 in Suffolk, County Executive Steve Bellone said, bringing the countywide total to 1,709. “We still look at these numbers and realize they are individuals with families and loved ones grieving for them.”
Northwell Health, the Island's largest hospital system, said on Friday it had 971 COVID-19 patients at its 19 hospitals, a 19% drop from the same period a week ago.
Northwell has shown a drop in daily coronavirus patients every day this month, and each day but one over the last 35 days.
On Long Island, Northwell said it had 665 COVID-19 patients, down 21% from May 8.
Southside Hospital in Bay Shore, with 87 COVID-19 patients, has seen a 30% drop in coronavirus patients. That's the largest weekly percentage drop at its Long Island hospitals.
Distancing at NYC's cooling centers
In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio said sports venues, auditoriums and other large venues would be opened across New York City on hot days as makeshift cooling centers, to allow for social distancing when temperatures are dangerous without access to air conditioning.
De Blasio said the venues would be part of his plan to address how the city would operate in summertime. The plan also would include installing 74,000 air conditioners costing $55 million in the homes of older New Yorkers who are poor.
He said occupancy of Central Park’s Sheep Meadow would be limited, adding to the list of parks where the number of people would be capped.
De Blasio also said the NYPD would stop taking enforcement action against people who, absent a serious danger to the public, are found to be violating the state order to wear a face covering in public.
His announcement comes after a series of viral videos showed rough arrests by the NYPD, including one earlier this week of officers pushing a woman with a child to the ground at a subway station.
He said the focus for NYPD dispersal would be on gatherings of six or more.