People in New York state will be required to wear masks in crowded public places, governor Andrew Cuomo announced on Wednesday as he outlined the immense challenge of reopening the economy.
The decision to require masks in situations where people cannot adhere to social distancing rules is intended to protect the state’s progress in bringing the coronavirus pandemic under control.
As of Wednesday, a further 752 people in New York had died from the virus. However, the state — the US epicentre of the pandemic — continued to show slight declines in net hospitalisations, intubations and other healthcare measures.
“The healthcare system has stabilised,” Mr Cuomo said. “The fears of overwhelming the healthcare system has not happened.”
In one sign of the state’s progress, New York will now send 100 ventilators to Michigan, and another 40 to Maryland to help those states cope with rising caseloads.
As in recent days, the governor shifted focus from the immediate healthcare crisis to the task of restarting an economy whose shuttering has led to devastating job losses.
The crisis would not have a definitive end until a vaccine was readied — possibly not for another 18 months, Mr Cuomo said. In the meantime, he said, the decision to reopen businesses would be guided by public health and safety considerations.
“It’s going to be a phased reopening,” said Mr Cuomo, who has joined with six other north-eastern governors to co-ordinate their policies. “It’s going to be a calibrated reopening based on public health, safety, and reducing the infection rate.”
Businesses seeking to restart their activities would be judged based on two criteria, according to the governor: how essential their products and services are, and what risks they pose to further spread the virus.
Short of a vaccine, the key to reopening the economy will be widescale public testing for the coronavirus — something Mr Cuomo acknowledged was not yet feasible at the scale and volume necessary.
Much of the job would have to be done by private laboratories now fighting for limited supplies of testing materials that have become as sought-after as ventilators were in an earlier phase of the crisis, Mr Cuomo said.
“We can’t do it yet. That is the unvarnished truth,” Mr Cuomo said as he asked for the federal government’s help.
“The state governments are broke. That’s not just me — that’s every governor in the US,” he added.
Mr Cuomo’s plea came a day after an extraordinary back-and-forth between him and President Donald Trump over who had the constitutional authority to dictate the reopening of the economy. Mr Trump at one point derided state governors as mutineers and insisted his authority was “total”.
In response, Mr Cuomo likened Mr Trump to a would-be monarch, called his behaviour “schizophrenic”, and insisted that he would not allow his state to restart business activity if he believed it would risk public health.
As the country’s focus turned to mass testing, the governor called for greater co-operation and insisted he did not want to see a replay of the haphazard scramble for ventilators that pit states against one another and drove up prices for all.
“The answer on testing is not to repeat the mistakes of ventilators, which is 50 states competing against each other to buy testing capacity from private companies, and the federal government . . . also competing,” he said.
California’s governor on Tuesday outlined his criteria for easing lockdown measures in that state, which also emphasised the need for widespread testing as well as “contact tracing” — a system whereby those who have come in contact with a person who has tested positive can be alerted.