This story was reported by Robert Brodsky, Catherine Carrera, Alfonso A. Castillo, Matthew Chayes, Jesse Coburn and Candice Ferrette. It was written by Brodsky.
New York State will begin issuing $50 fines to passengers of the Long Island Rail Road and city subway and bus systems who refuse to wear a mask to prevent spread of the coronavirus, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Metropolitan Transportation Authority leaders said Thursday.
The rule, which goes into effect Monday, is designed to increase compliance with the state's mandatory mask rule on the region's public transportation, while providing a level of assurance to commuters that the transit system is safe.
"We have to be able to say to the riding public, 'Yes, everyone will be wearing masks,' " Cuomo said in a conference call with reporters. "If they don't have a mask, the MTA will give them a mask to wear. If they refuse to wear a mask, they will be evicted from the system."
The governor's office said noncompliant passengers also would be told to leave buses or trains.
Pat Foye, chairman of the MTA, which oversees train and bus service in New York City, Long Island and suburbs north of the city, said compliance with the state's mask order is more than 90% on the LIRR and 96% on city buses.
"Achieving universal mask compliance is our goal. … It's a matter of respect for one's co-commuters and MTA employees," said Foye, adding that the MTA has distributed 4 million masks across its system.
Sarah Feinberg, interim president of New York City Transit, said if commuters forget their masks or one breaks, they will be available for free at subway booths and from conductors and police on buses and the railroad.
Enforcement of the new rule, officials said, will be conducted by the MTA Police, NYPD and Bridge and Tunnel officers, and will not focus on riders wearing a mask incorrectly.
Anthony Simon, general chairman of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers, the LIRR’s largest union, said the fine "may be helpful in ensuring compliance as long as there are ample resources in place to actually enforce it. If the MTA is unable to police and enforce this fine, all it does is put front-line workers on the train at further risk of abuse."
Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), who has raised concerns with MTA officials about some LIRR commuters not complying with the mask policy, said "there’s no excuse not to wear a mask. And if you’re just going to decide that you’re not going to wear one, then you shouldn’t be on a public commuter rail.”
Student tests positive
As schools reopened throughout Long Island, a student who attended in-person classes this week at W.T. Clarke High School in the East Meadow district has tested positive for COVID-19, county and school officials said Thursday. Individuals who had direct contact with the student without following safety protocols are required to quarantine, Superintendent Kenneth Card wrote in a letter to the school community.
Cuomo said the state continues to make steady progress in its battle against COVID-19, with 76,813 tests results reported Wednesday and 757 reported positive — an infection rate of 0.98%. It was the 34th consecutive day the state's new positives were tracked at less than 1%.
Across the state, 482 individuals remain hospitalized with the virus, while seven people died Wednesday from COVID-19, bringing the state's total to 25,377 since the pandemic's start.
Nassau reported 73 new cases, while Suffolk reported 52, according to state figures. Long Island's infection rate is 1.2%, the data shows. In Nassau, 38% of cases over the Labor Day weekend affected people ages 14 to 22, County Executive Laura Curran said.
"The last thing we want is an uptick in cases, which can be possible if people have social gatherings without precautions," Curran said.
Seeking COVID-19 relief
On the eve of the 19th anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks, the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund clarified that the families of first responders with a 9/11-related illness, who died after contracting COVID-19, are still eligible for benefits if the death certificate lists a VCF-eligible condition as an underlying cause of death.
At a Manhattan news conference, Nick Papain, whose law firm represents more than 3,000 people sickened by Ground Zero toxins, suggested that first responders and other WTC victims whose death certificate lists COVID-19 seek additional information from their local health department to preserve death benefit eligibility.
Stephen Sforza, 53, of Staten Island, an environmental protection worker who worked at Ground Zero and was diagnosed with bladder cancer in May, said he is worried about contracting COVID-19.
“I get very nervous when people get too close to me,” Sforza said via Zoom. “I don’t really like to go out” anymore to stores.
Meanwhile, two Long Island Democratic House members Thursday called on Senate Republicans to pass a coronavirus relief package to aid municipalities facing deficits because of the pandemic.
“Now is not the time to cut off the spigot of money," Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City) said at a news conference in Mineola.
Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) warned that counties, towns, villages and school districts would be hit especially hard without federal money. “This is about real people’s lives," he said.
Cuomo warned of dire measures if the state does not receive assistance to close a $30 billion shortfall, including tax increases, borrowing, budget cuts and early retirements will be necessary.
"And all of the above won't fill that hole," Cuomo said.
Universities ramp up testing
With students and faculty back on campuses, Long Island colleges are ramping up coronavirus testing to prevent outbreaks similar to the one at SUNY Oneonta that forced students to take classes from home this semester.
Colleges are requiring mandatory testing before students return to campus, performing regular pooled tests and even examinations of campus wastewater. SUNY now can process 120,000 tests a week and has set up testing sites across its 64-school network.
Stony Brook University, where more than 25,000 students were enrolled last year, is requiring students to get tested before arriving. The school has set up a student testing site that will be open through the semester, according to the university’s website. A SUNY database showed 22 cases at the university as of Thursday.
Hofstra University, where more than 10,000 students were enrolled last school term, has begun testing a random sample of 5% of residential and commuter students every week, spokeswoman Karla Schuster said. The university required residential and commuter students to be tested before arriving on campus. The university had 34 cases of the virus since Aug. 28, as of Tuesday, Schuster said.
Students who live on campus at Molloy College in Rockville Centre had to show a negative COVID-19 test result before moving in, spokesman Ken Young said. While most of the college’s 4,900 students commute to campus, Molloy plans to offer regular testing to its 166 residential students, he said. Two students have tested positive.
In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio Thursday sought to delay the Sept. 30 start date to resume indoor dining and argued that the reopening should be reversed if the citywide infection rate exceeds 2%. The mayor's comments came one day after Cuomo announced a planned reopening of indoor dining in city restaurants at 25% capacity.
“Given so much else that’s coming back right now, concern that we pace things, that we make sure that as we bring back on part of life for the city, that we have time to see the impact of that, and then bring back the next and the next and the next,” de Blasio said at a news conference.
Cuomo, who has the authority to restart dining, rejected de Blasio's requests, arguing that a hard percentage would "handcuff" officials while restaurants across the state have indoor dining at 50% capacity.
Asking diners to report violations
The mayor said that he received word from Cuomo’s office less than two hours before the governor's announcement Wednesday about the resumption of indoor dining.
Cuomo said de Blasio was "sufficiently in the loop. We had these conversations extensively over the past few days." He later added that state officials were consulting restaurateurs and health experts until an announcement was made.
"Everyone argues from their point of view and you make the best decision you can," Cuomo said. "And the best decision is not necessarily the decision that makes everybody happy."
Cuomo renewed his call to restaurant-goers to "be the compliance officials" and report any violations of the rules requiring 25% capacity and mask wearing to the state's task force.
Customers will be able to call 1-833-208-4160 or text "violation" to 855-904-5036 once indoor dining starts. De Blasio did not directly answer a reporter’s question asking whether he would personally dine indoors, though he said, “Of course I’d be comfortable dealing with it.”