New York's governor said Monday the U.S. state will take the next step in its "historic journey" through the coronavirus pandemic, as some nonessential businesses will begin to reopen their doors on Friday with new safety precautions in place.
"It's an exciting new phase. We are all anxious to get back to work," Gov. Andrew Cuomo told reporters at a briefing in the northwestern city of Rochester. "We want to do it smartly, we want to do it intelligently, but we want to do it."
With more than 335,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and nearly 27,000 deaths attributed to the virus, New York has been the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak.
But after eight weeks of restrictions, the new infection and hospitalization rates are now lower than many other states — on average less than 3,000 per day for the last several days — and declining overall. In mid-April, New York was at its peak, with confirmed cases topping 10,000 per day.
The state has published a detailed 51-page plan for reopening, called NY FORWARD. The main guiding criteria are keeping the infection rate below outbreak level; maintaining capacity for COVID-19 patients in the state health care system; and conducting widespread diagnostic testing and robust contact tracing to help isolate and contain the virus's spread.
"We start with businesses that are more essential and pose a lower risk," Cuomo said.
Those in Phase 1 include construction, manufacturing, agriculture, fishing and some retail, with curbside pickup only.
The state of 19.5 million people will also move in a regional way, first reopening less densely populated areas in the northern and central part of the state that have had a much lower infection rate, before New York City and its surrounding suburbs, which account for most of its cases.
All areas must demonstrate declines for 14-day periods in both total and new virus hospitalizations and deaths before they can start to reopen.
Businesses will also need to have measures in place to protect their workforce, including reconfigured workspaces, necessary personal protection equipment such as masks and gloves, and social distancing measures.
"Some regions are ready to go today. They just need to get some logistical pieces in order by the end of the week," Cuomo said.
After two weeks, if all goes well, Phase 2 could come online, with more retail businesses and professional services industries, including finance, insurance and real estate, opening. Restaurants would not be reopened until Phase 3. Entertainment, recreation and schools are in the final phase.
Once an area has reopened, regional "control rooms" will monitor the infection rate. If there is a spike in new infections or deaths suddenly rise, the reopening will be slowed or stopped.
"On this next phase, we have to learn from the mistakes that others have made," Cuomo said. "Other countries reopened too fast. They didn't have controls in place, and they reopened. And then they had to slow down, or they had to stop. We don't want to do that."