Why we can’t reopen NYC yet: The coronavirus pandemic is still upon us
It’s still too early.
When I helped fight Ebola and Zika during my service in President Obama’s cabinet, I saw the importance of a focused, data-driven response to crisis. I also learned another important lesson: In a health emergency, a natural disaster like Sandy, or a man-made disaster like the Great Recession, there is always a dangerous period when the initial push to respond begins to give way to a longer recovery phase.
This is the phase we are entering now with coronavirus. The sense of unity that binds us together as a community can flag. And the political will necessary to make hard decisions can erode as ideological differences reemerge. Even those of us not on the front lines must summon the personal will to remain diligent — in this case by maintaining social distancing even as progress tempts us to let down our guard.
With new cases and deaths from COVID-19 down significantly, some are advocating for easing restrictions and reopening our economy now. That is a mistake. The best way to honor the sacrifice and heroism of so many New Yorkers on the front lines of this fight is to finish the job.
We have made undeniable progress in flattening the curve. New Yorkers should be proud. But there are three key reasons it is too early to ease up now.
First, you can’t fight an enemy you can’t see. “Seeing” the virus requires expanding our testing capacity dramatically as we enter a new phase of low-level transmission. We need community-based testing in every neighborhood, particularly those that are underserved and have been hardest hit by the virus. We’re not there yet; we still don’t have the tests and materials that we need.
Second, in this new phase, every positive test needs to be rapidly traced so positive individuals, as well as their contacts who may have been infected, can take the steps they need to stay well. The city has committed to hiring 1,000 contact tracers by June 1, and needs them on the job before we ease restrictions.
Third, our hospitals are finally becoming less constrained, but we must have the capacity in place to respond effectively to a second surge. And, as we have seen, many New Yorkers can’t safely quarantine at home. The city has begun work to make hotel rooms and wrap-around services available, but we need to scale this effort before reopening.
With these strategies in place, we can begin to reopen New York City safely, focusing on the industries that pose the lowest risk. Life won’t return to normal until we have a vaccine or effective treatment. In the meantime, we need to support our workplaces and our communities with the tools and guidelines they need to stay safe. That will be essential to building back trust in our communities so that New Yorkers can safely return to school and to work.
But if we let this moment get the best of us, we face the worst of both worlds. We will have endured the pain and suffering of the last two months, only to repeat it if we allow the virus to get the best of us again. As health experts have warned, COVID-19 cases will spike again if widespread testing and contact tracing are not in place. This is why pitting the health crisis against the economic crisis is a false choice.
Real leadership in a crisis means knowing that this moment of peril — when early signs of progress tempt us to ease restrictions too soon — is the time to redouble our resolve and see our work through. We must take our progress as a sign we can win this fight, not that the fight is won. When the going gets tough…well, we’re New Yorkers and we know the rest.