New York’s governor has ordered all workers to remain at home except for those at essential businesses, such as hospitals and grocery stores, in a desperate attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus in a state that has become the US epicentre for the pandemic.
Governor Andrew Cuomo acknowledged that the policy — in effect, a lockdown — would cause disruption, job losses and discontent but said it was the only way to confront the virus before it overwhelms the healthcare system.
“You can see that New York is in a dramatically different position, and you can see why we’re taking these actions,” Mr Cuomo told reporters. The measures will go into effect Sunday evening.
Those who do not comply will be subject to civil fines and business closures, he warned, saying: “These are not helpful hints.”
The new measures also include curbs on the use of public transportation and even restrictions on all but solitary outdoor exercise.
Taken together, they will suffocate daily activity in the US business and financial capital for a period that could last months. The city has already seen its restaurants, theatres and museums shuttered in a way that did not happen even during times of war. It comes a day after California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, placed similar restrictions on his state’s 40m residents.
As of Friday morning, New York state had confirmed 7,102 coronavirus cases, including 4,408 in New York City. That far outpaced 1,376 cases in Washington state, the next highest, and 1,044 recorded in California.
So far, 1,255 people have been hospitalised with the virus in New York — 18 per cent of its total cases. Just 16 days ago, no one in the state had been hospitalised with the virus.
The surge in New York cases is partly a result of a ramped-up testing effort that, according to Mr Cuomo, now rivals those of China and South Korea.
Mr Cuomo continued to emphasise the urgent need to slow the spread of the virus, because there was only so much the state could do to expand its hospital capacity in short order.
The state began working this week with the Army Corps of Engineers to try to convert existing facilities for healthcare uses. New York City’s Javits convention centre and various university dormitories are under consideration. Elective surgery will also be prohibited — likely from next week — in order to free up more of the state’s approximately 50,000 hospital beds.
Meanwhile, the governor appealed to businesses to switch their production to make medical equipment, including gloves and masks. He promised the state would pay a premium for their wares and was even willing to provide them with funding to adjust their production.
Most critical of all, according to Mr Cuomo, are ventilators to help stricken patients breath. “The ventilators are to this war what missiles were to World War Two,” the governor said.
The state has about 5,000 to 6,000 of them, but will need as many as 30,000 — a quantity it is unlikely to come by at a time when, as Mr Cuomo noted, every other state was also shopping for them, including in China.
Mr Cuomo and New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, have clashed in recent days about whether to impose more stringent measures on the city, something that would require the governor’s approval.
Mr Cuomo had balked at the “shelter in place” order that Mr de Blasio was seeking, arguing that the term was misused and inciting panic. “Shelter in place,” he said on Friday, was the policy response for active shooter situations and, before that, for nuclear emergencies.
The governor has instead called the new policy “New York pause.” It remains somewhat fluid as authorities seek to define what is an “essential business” in the current circumstance.
To ease the burden, Mr Cuomo said he was also introducing a 90-day moratorium on commercial and residential evictions in the state. “I know we’re going to put people out of work with what we did. I don’t want to put them out of their house, too,” he said.
As the number of coronavirus cases has spiked in New York and the magnitude of the crisis has become more apparent, long-running tensions with the Trump administration have flared.
Mr de Blasio took the extraordinary step on Friday of suggesting Donald Trump was taking “revenge” on New York City, an overwhelmingly Democratic area, by withholding support.
“We’re talking about a New Yorker right now in the White House who’s betraying New York City,” the mayor said. The army, he claimed, had stockpiles of medical supplies in warehouses around the country that could be sent to New York.
While he has been critical of Mr Trump and a slow-footed federal response, Mr Cuomo has shifted his tone in recent days. He thanked the president on Thursday for at last heeding his call to deploy the Army Corps of Engineers and credited him with mobilising the federal government.