As many as 400,000 workers could head back to work when New York City begins the first phase of its reopening in June, as the national epicenter of the crisis looks to begin a long recovery from the coronavirus shutdown.
Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday laid out guidelines for businesses that will be allowed to open their doors in the coming weeks, and estimated that 200,000 to 400,000 more people will be reporting to work in person when the restart begins.
But a litany of unanswered questions remain, chief among them being how those workers can safely get around amid concerns about packed subways and buses being a conduit for the spread of Covid-19.
De Blasio punted when asked about transportation options for a city so reliant on public transportation.
“For the next few months, people are going to make their own choices,” he said. “Some people are going to be comfortable on mass transit, some are not.”
New York City is the only region in the state that remains under a full-fledged shutdown order. Officials estimate that some time in the first two weeks of June, it will hit the public health benchmarks needed to kick off the first phase of a gradual reopening.
When that happens, construction, manufacturing, wholesale and retail pickup will be allowed to reopen — but with a host of restrictions meant to reduce transmission of the disease.
“We’ve come a long way. We’re not going to blow it now,” de Blasio said.
Since March, all nonessential businesses have been ordered closed in the city. The resulting loss of tax revenue has cratered the city budget and put New York on track to adopt 1970’s-era budget fixes to fill what is now an estimated $9 billion hole.
Those industries slated for the first phase of the restart include all construction sites; clothing, electronics, furniture, machinery, printing and textile manufacturing; wholesalers for chemical products, household appliances, apparel and metals; and stores selling office supplies, clothing, electronics, furniture and sporting goods. Regular retail stores will only be allowed to offer curb-side or in-store pickup.
Businesses will be mandated to keep people six feet apart, with only one person allowed in tight areas like elevators and check-out counters. They’ll have to make sure employees wear masks, and check them for symptoms each day.
The city plans to publish a detailed rule book next week, and launch a hotline for business owners with questions, de Blasio said.
Officials will do random inspections of reopening businesses, starting with warnings to correct safety violations that will escalate to fines if they don’t comply. While a handful of businesses have begun to reopen in defiance of shutdown orders, de Blasio called it “idiotic” not to wait for the official go-ahead.
The mayor did not give a specific date for when the restart will begin. “The day it happens is the day the numbers tell us we’re there,” he said.
When that happens, more riders are expected to head for the subway system, where ridership has already begun to rebound from the rock bottom levels it hit at the height of the pandemic.
De Blasio had little advice to offer New Yorkers wary of risking their health with more people on the subways and wondering how they can get around safely.
“You may see people use their cars more in the short term, if they have a car, or use for-hire vehicles for example,” he said “But that’s a short-term reality.”
The mayor said he plans to meet Thursday with MTA chairman Pat Foye and discuss setting limits on how many people the subway system can safely carry. The state-run agency has not given any estimates on passenger limits. Cities like London have said they can only carry 15 percent of their normal passenger load.
“You’re going to see a certain number of people who their only option is to take a subway or bus, and they’ll need to come back to it,” de Blasio said. “There’s some people who are just not going to be comfortable in the short term. And I think to some extent, it will be a little bit of natural sorting out.”
More than half of city households do not own cars. De Blasio did not respond when asked if the city has any plans to use its own streets to provide safe transportation options. With billions in tax revenue lost to the crisis, he has proposed almost $11 million in cuts to existing bus and bike lane programs.
“He’s planning to fail at this moment,” said Danny Pearlstein of the Riders Alliance. “A plan of inaction is a plan for gridlock.”
About the Author: Erin Durkin is a reporter for POLITICO New York and the co-author of New York Playbook. Before joining POLITICO, Erin wrote for The Guardian and was a City Hall reporter for the New York Daily News, where she covered the de Blasio and Bloomberg administrations and the City Council. She also reported on urban development and local politics in Brooklyn.