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Why the Path to Reopening New York City Will Be So Difficult

Why the Path to Reopening New York City Will Be So Difficult

Nearly 190,000 people were tested for the coronavirus in New York City over the past two weeks, a record number. The increase in testing, crucial for curbing the outbreak, came as Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans to hire a small army of 1,000 disease detectives to track down the contacts of every infected New Yorker.

The city is also paying for hotels to house people who cannot quarantine in their cramped apartments, and it may use the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens for the same purpose.

From the State Capitol, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has established a framework for reopening the state, based on seven concrete, health-related milestones, and he has asked Bill Gates, the restaurateur Danny Meyer, the New York Knicks owner James L. Dolan and dozens of other outside advisers from the upper echelons of New York’s business world to help guide him on how best to restart the economy and, possibly, reimagine public education.

Still, despite all the plans and initiatives, the reopening of New York City remains a long way off.

The factors that made the city the U.S. epicenter of the pandemic — its density, tourism and dependence on mass transit — complicate a return to any semblance of normalcy. The city is still far from meeting the public health metrics necessary to reopen, from available critical-care beds to new hospital admissions for the virus.

While states like Colorado, Georgia and Texas have let the stay-at-home orders lapse and businesses like nail salons and retail stores reopen, New York State is moving cautiously, anticipating a partial reopening later this month, mostly in rural areas.

How long might it take to restart New York City’s economy?

“Nobody can tell you,” Mr. Cuomo said last week.

The virus has killed more than 19,000 people in New York City, a death toll that exceeds those in all but a small number of countries, or in California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan and Texas combined. While the outbreak is receding in the city, more than 1,000 new positive cases were reported on at least three days last week, for a total that now tops 181,000.

The key to reopening is containing the virus, and that will take a vast infrastructure of testing and contact tracing unlike anything the United States has ever seen, public health experts say.

Even when the new public health apparatus is fully staffed and running, it will merely lay a foundation for businesses and residents to feel safe returning to work and play. Many may choose to stay home.

The decision about when to reopen involves a balancing act: The longer New York is shut down, the more the pandemic will abate, reducing the need for testing and contact tracing while allowing officials more time to expand those efforts. But the economic damage to the city and the state will continue to grow.

More than 830,000 people have filed for unemployment in New York City alone since mid-March, when the shutdown began, according to state data.

Mr. Cuomo said his metrics, in line with recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, would guide the state’s reopening, region by region, with the city almost certainly among the last to return.

A true reopening of the city, Mr. de Blasio said this month, remained “a few months away at minimum.”

Plans for how to get there are still being created. A task force convened by the mayor held its first session via conference call late last month and it was a sobering “dose of realism,” according to Jennifer Jones Austin of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, who was on the call.

Exactly two hotels are being used exclusively for isolation so far, though the city has said it could expand to as many as 11,000 beds. The 1,000 new contact tracers that are to be part of the effort will not be hired for weeks, and 1,500 more will be needed to meet Mr. Cuomo’s milestones. Testing capacity will not reach 50,000 a day until August at least, officials said. That number still may not be sufficient.

On Wednesday, when Mr. Cuomo’s panel of outside advisers held its first video meeting, it included no chief executives, little in the way of advice and no talk of how New York City would get back on its feet.

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