With the number of COVID-19 patients down more than 80% at many hospitals, and some facilities reporting few to no new cases for days, health systems have turned their attention to the next pandemic challenge — the reopening of retail shops throughout Long Island.
Long Island is slated to enter Phase 2, which includes opening retail to foot traffic, Wednesday. But if rules aren't followed vigorously, it could lead to an acceleration of COVID-19 cases, health care experts warn.
"We cannot underestimate how important it is to limit how many people are in a store, and that they're wearing masks," said Dr. Bettina Fries, chief of infectious diseases at Stony Brook Medicine. "We aren't at zero cases. So if there are mass gatherings without social distancing, we will see cases go up, and, in turn, the infection rate goes up, too."
There will be limitations in Phase 2. For example, store operators and their customers must wear masks in interactions and when they can’t remain at least 6 feet apart. The use of bins of clothes and other goods and fitting rooms will be suspended.
Stores must operate at only 50% capacity. Outdoor restaurant services also are expected to start up this week, and tables must be at least 6 feet apart.
Stony Brook University Hospital said this week it had 68 COVID-19 positive patients. That’s a decrease of 23.6% from the same period a week ago and down 81% from the peak of 359 on April 14.
The numbers were equally encouraging at Catholic Health Services, as well as Northwell Health, the largest health care provider in the state. Northwell said it had about 500 COVID-19 patients at the 19 hospitals it owns and operates, where it was averaging about 15 admissions daily. At its peak, Northwell had about 3,400 COVID-19 patients.
Dr. David Battinelli, chief medical officer at Northwell, said he was optimistic the downward trend would continue through Phase 2, because of the rules that were being put in place.
Although cases will continue to show up in the region, he said, "it will be like a whack-a-mole. They'll pop up, but we now have the ability to test and trace, which makes all the difference. Back in March, we had the enormous problem of having an outbreak, and no ability to test. We were flying blind."
He added that many essential, large stores are already open, including supermarkets and home improvement businesses.
"The real risk will come when people start to travel," Battinelli said. "That's how we saw it come here in the first place."
Catholic Heath Services had 139 COVID-19 patients late last week, down from nearly 900 at its high point on April 10, said Dr. Patrick O'Shaugnessy, executive vice president and chief clinical officer at CHS.
When it comes to shopping, eating out and reporting to an office, he said, "wearing a mask, socially distancing and using disinfectant wipes are the new normal."
"The virus isn't going away, but we have to restart our economy," O'Shaughnessy said. "To do this safely, everyone is going to have to do their part and be responsible."
Phase 2 also will open professional services, administrative support, information technology, real estate services, building and property management, leasing, rental and sales services, in-store shopping, barbershops and most hair salons, and auto leasing and sales.
Retail business owners said they were implementing social distancing plans because customers wouldn't go into their stores if they were not perceived to be safe.
"I've been preparing for this for several weeks," said Julie Marchesella, owner of Queen of Hearts in Merrick, a formal wear store that caters to plus-sized women. "My customers can't just buy a gown off a rack."
She said that along with masks, she had installed plexiglass at the counter. She also installed ultraviolet light sanitizers for the clothes.
"We will control who comes in," she said. "We will need to go to extremes to make people comfortable."
Karen Marvin, who owns South Shore Paddleboards in Babylon Village, says she is willing to meet customers outside if they're not willing to come in.
"We have enough room in the parking lot to socially distance, and we can bring the paddleboard outside if that makes someone feel better," Marvin said. "But we can also keep everyone safe indoors and follow all the guidelines inside, too.
"I just can't wait to get started. It's been a long time coming," she said.