NYC Region Confronts Patchwork of Virus Rules as Delta Spikes
(Bloomberg) -- New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, resigning office later this month, hasn’t presided over a coronavirus update since Aug. 2. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who finishes his term in January, has been vacationing in Massachusetts. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy is with his family at their mansion in Italy before he revs up his re-election campaign.
The three Democrats were among the first U.S. elected officials to institute mask rules, shutdowns and other pandemic safety steps in one of the earliest and hardest-hit parts of the country. But as cases and hospitalizations climb again due to the contagious delta variant, residents this time are confronting a puzzle of Covid precautions just as school is set to reopen and offices are trying to coax back workers.
“We’ve had almost no state leadership on Covid throughout the entire delta surge,” Mark Levine, New York City council member and health committee chair, told WNYC this week. “It has cost us, and we desperately need action.”
Levine has been pushing for indoor mask mandates, a vaccine requirement for nursing homes, and a statewide booster shot strategy.
In New York City, de Blasio said restaurants, gyms and bars will no longer allow patrons in without vaccination proof starting on Aug. 16. No such rules exist statewide, where Cuomo on Aug. 2 said “it is in your best interest” for private businesses to make such a requirement.
Cuomo said public employees must be vaccinated by Sept. 6 or submit to weekly testing, but hasn’t issued further guidance on how he would implement or enforce such a mandate. City employees, including teachers, will start getting weekly Covid tests on Sept. 13 if they are not vaccinated.
Health-care and correctional workers will submit to similar rules in New Jersey, but Murphy hasn’t set statewide vaccine requirements. He has said “all options are on the table.”
New York and New Jersey didn’t follow suit, although masks are required in New York City and New Jersey schools. On Thursday, New York Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul said she would seek a statewide school mask mandate when she replaces Cuomo, who is resigning amid a sexual-harassment scandal.
The patchwork frustrates George Latimer, the county executive for New York’s Westchester, who says he fears that his own area will experience “what is happening in the South right now, which is an overload of the medical system.”
“We have to think in a regional basis,” said Latimer, a Democrat whose county had more than 2,000 active Covid cases as of Aug. 11. “I need all of us to be in the same place.”
New York and New Jersey’s seven-day case rates per capita are still less than a quarter of the rates in hot spots including Louisiana, Florida and Mississippi, according to CDC data. Their population-adjusted rates of hospitalization range from one-fifth to one-tenth those in the most alarming states, Department of Health and Human Services data show.
Early data show that New York City’s vaccine mandates have been effective at boosting uptake: On Thursday, de Blasio said 50,000 people got $100 gift cards the city began doling out last month for getting shots.
But Covid infections and hospitalizations remain elevated. New York City’s seven-day average of daily cases rose to 1,780 on Aug. 9, up from under 200 in June. Daily hospitalizations, which were in the thousands during the initial wave in March 2020 and in the hundreds last winter, dropped to roughly two dozen a day in June. The seven-day average inched up to 64 on Aug. 9.
De Blasio, 60, on Thursday paused his vacation to address a heat wave and told reporters he’d resume coronavirus briefings on Aug. 16. He said mandates and incentives are working to increase inoculations in the city, which still hasn’t hit its June goal of fully vaccinating 5 million New Yorkers.
“We are still very much in a situation that we can handle,” he said.
Spokesman Mitch Schwartz said de Blasio was receiving regular Covid briefings from staff members and that “mayor of New York City is a full-time job.”
First Extended Vacation
Murphy, 63, is taking his first extended break since the pandemic started, according to his office. Prior to leaving for Italy on Tuesday, he said he would be in regular contact with New Jersey health and other officials. Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver is overseeing the state in his absence.
Murphy early in the pandemic cut a month-long recuperation from cancer surgery to one week. He went on to open hundreds of Covid testing sites, and, when shots became available, beat his June 30 target to have 70% of adults vaccinated.
New Jersey cases have soared 542% over 30 days, to 1,697 new positive tests reported Thursday. Hospitalizations have more than doubled, to 763, although that figure is a fraction of the 8,000-plus at the pandemic’s peak, before vaccinations were available. Murphy has said almost all New Jersey hospitalizations this year are from people with no or partial immunizations.
Murphy, who is running for a second term in November, shied from a statewide mask mandate and instead called on people to use their personal judgment. But his decision to require masks in schools has prompted rallies by parents and anti-vaccination activists, as well as criticism from political foes.
“Governor Murphy is apparently so concerned about Covid-19 that he will mask your 3rd-grader at the behest of the NJEA, but not so concerned that he is jetting to his Italian villa for 10 days,” the Republican State Committee, referring to the New Jersey Education Association teachers union, wrote in a fundraising email.
In a letter to the Murphy administration this week, Wall Township public school trustees said the mask matter “challenged the local decision-making process and took the power away from the people directly involved in this community.” Alyana Alfaro, a Murphy spokeswoman, declined to comment on the letter.
Murphy’s hands-off approach has left vaccine and mask decisions in the hands of individual businesses.
At Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen, in Morristown, New Jersey, a survey by owner Chris Cannon showed 80% of patrons agree with his support for vaccine passes.
“I’m hoping that the governor takes it seriously and requires vaccination proof this fall, because from our experience, people are afraid to go into an indoor space if it’s not really made safe,” Cannon said.
Kevin McHugh, an executive with the New Jersey Health and Fitness Alliance, which represents about 220 gyms, said the owners don’t back vaccine mandates. “Murphy has done a good job with us in not jumping the gun,” McHugh said.
The New Jersey Business & Industry Association, a Trenton-based lobbying group that criticized Murphy’s earlier mandates as unnecessarily broad, favors his measured approach, according to Michele Siekerka, the group’s president and chief executive officer.
Small businesses have learned to accommodate patrons safely, she said, and bigger companies’ new flexible working arrangements may preclude the need for mandatory vaccinations.
“Let businesses continue to do what is best for their workforce, for their customers,” Siekerka said.
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