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Cuomo Bans Indoor Dining In NYC

A chart shows in which type of facilities contact tracers have tracked spread of COVID-19.
NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo

Governor Andrew Cuomo has unveiled details of what he calls the “winter plan” for limiting the spread of COVID-19 in New York. He says it’s aimed at avoiding further economic shutdowns, but he says it’s up to New Yorkers to voluntarily limit in-home gatherings in the coming weeks. The governor also says indoor dining in New York City will be banned, starting Monday. The Democrat says he does not want to repeat a massive shutdown like the state experienced in the spring, when New York was the epicenter of the worldwide pandemic.

He says new data reveals that many places once considered a dangerous source of virus spread, including hair salons and barber shops, gyms and religious services, are now among the lowest sources of spread, according to information collected by contact tracers on a portion of total infections.  

However, the biggest source of spread – 74% – is small, private indoor gatherings, also known as “living room spread.” 

“Compound that by the holiday season,” said Cuomo who said it’s “natural” to want to have a small group of friends and family over. “That is what is driving these numbers.”  

Cuomo says schools have been found not to be super spreaders of the virus, as previously thought, and should remain open if there are no major outbreaks in a school.

The governor says it’s up to local authorities to decide, but he says he disagrees with a decision by the state’s second largest school district, the City of Buffalo schools, to continue all-remote learning until February 1. Western New York has among the highest rate of the virus in the state. 

The latest data also finds that restaurants and bars account for just 1.43% of virus spread. Nevertheless, Cuomo is ordering indoor dining in New York City, to be banned, starting on Monday. It is now operating at 25% of a dining rooms’ capacity. Cuomo says he’s following the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, which recommends that any indoor activity where masks are not worn, should be avoided. Cuomo’s Chief of Staff, Melissa DeRosa, says there’s no way to eat and drink while wearing a face covering.

“By definition of what the activity is, you cannot be wearing a mask,” said DeRosa. 

Cuomo is continuing the micro cluster hot zone strategy to try to keep the rate of infection down. But he says there will be some changes going forward. Gyms, hair salons and barber shops will now be allowed to remain open in orange zones, but at reduced capacity and with more frequent testing of staff. He says limited indoor dining still available in the orange zones outside of New York City will continue for now, but he will reevaluate the rule after the weekend.

The restaurant industry says the further reductions and prohibitions on indoor dining will result in the death knell for thousands more restaurants and bars.

“Shutting down indoor dining in New York City makes little sense based on the state’s own numbers, and to make matters worse, we are offered no plan for survival to get through this shutdown,” said Melissa Fleischut, president of the New York State Restaurant Association, in a statement. “Today’s news will do nothing more than incentivize more unregulated indoor household gatherings, which have accounted for a whopping 73.84% of exposures.”

New York City’s Five Borough Chamber of Commerce Alliance says “the restrictions could not have come at a worse time for restaurants across the five boroughs when many are holding on for survival by a thread and trying in some way to make up for the devastating losses of the past nine months.”

Cuomo is extending a ban on commercial evictions for eateries that have been unable to pay their rent, and he is asking them to hang on for a few more months. The governor has said Congress needs to act to provide financial relief for the restaurant industry.

Meanwhile, owners of gyms and fitness centers are pleased with the changes. Bill Lia, Chair of New York State Fitness Alliance, says, in a statement, that “fitness centers have proven that by following strict protocols, including mask wearing at all times, New Yorkers can work out without contributing significantly to the spread of the virus.”

The governor says he will not order a total shutdown of the state or any of its regions, unless the trends show that the hospitals will become overwhelmed in 21 days. He says so far, while hospitalization rates for COVID-19 patients are on the rise, most hospitals have the ability to expand to take in more patients, or can make more beds available by suspending elective surgery.

“If we see that we’re on a glide path towards overwhelming the hospitals, you have no choice but to close down the economy,” he said. 

The governor says despite all of the concerns, even the regions of the state with the highest rate of the virus are still lower than 44 other states. New York’s overall positivity rate for Thursday was just under 5% at 4.98%. 87 people died of the disease.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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