The order for nearly 100 percent of New York’s workforce to stay home will be painful and costly, the governor said, but it was deemed the only way to prevent the surge of coronavirus patients requiring intensive hospital care from outstripping New York’s capacity to provide ventilators for the worst cases of the covid-19 disease.
“These actions will cause disruption. They will cause businesses to close. They will cause employees to stay at home. I understand that. They will cause much unhappiness,” Cuomo said. The governor said that he accepts full responsibility for the decision and that if people are unhappy about it, “Blame me.”
Businesses that fail to comply with the order will be fined, although the state is not planning to sanction individuals found in violation, officials said.
The move comes as state and local authorities face the prospect of running out of beds in hospital intensive-care units, and also grapple with urgent demand for masks and protective gear for the health-care workers treating coronavirus patients. To try to keep more hospital beds free, the state is urging all hospitals to cancel elective surgeries.
“I feel terrified,” said Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, a longtime emergency room nurse and the president of the 40,000-member New York State Nurses Association.
Sheridan-Gonzalez, who works at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, said that when her association recently surveyed its members, only 4 percent felt confident in their hospitals’ responses so far to the pandemic.
“We had warned them since 9/11 that we are not prepared for disaster,” she said, calling the lack of equipment and staffing “a crisis.”
Although industrial-quality N95 masks are available at the hospital where she works, nurses are permitted to wear them only when inserting tubes or performing other procedures that risk suspending droplets of bodily fluid in the air, Sheridan-Gonzalez said.
“All the nurses want to be able to do what we can do,” she said, but “it inhibits that desire to help, to be placed in danger.”
A Montefiore spokeswoman said the hospital is “following all CDC guidance and protocol.”
At Mount Sinai Hospital, the first in New York to treat a coronavirus patient, emergency department medical director Jolion McGreevy said things are functioning fairly smoothly. The hospital is seeing about 130 patients a day reporting flu-like symptoms, and those patients are steered to a separate screening area.
“We’re not feeling a crunch of the supplies,” McGreevy said. “That’s not to say that it’s not at the front of our minds.”
As of Friday, 7,102 New Yorkers had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, and 5,151 of those were in New York City. Statewide, 35 people had died, officials said. The figures mean that roughly one-third of all known U.S. cases are in New York City.
“I hate to say this, but it’s true: We are now the epicenter of this crisis, right here in the nation’s largest city,” Mayor Bill DeBlasio said.
Northwell Health, whose two dozen hospitals and 800 outpatient centers make up New York’s largest hospital system, began restocking supplies in mid-January. Still Northwell has been “burning through months’ worth of supplies in weeks, especially masks and lab supplies,” said Northwell spokesman Terry Lynam.
Cuomo said his directive was not a “shelter in place” order, noting that New Yorkers can and should take solo outings for exercise, such as running or hiking, but should keep a distance of at least six feet from others at all times, the governor said.
The term “shelter in place,” Cuomo said, causes unnecessary panic and evokes different kinds of crises, such as an active-shooter event.
But he also chided young Americans for thinking they could not fall ill and therefore putting themselves and others in greater danger.
“I can’t tell you how many young people are out there saying it doesn’t affect young people. You’re just wrong. This is lunacy what they’re doing in some parks, in some areas,” the governor said. “When you’re young, you think you’re invincible. Yeah, you’re wrong.”
Friday’s announcement is another blow to the state’s large and small businesses. In Manhattan, some small businesses had already closed temporarily, but others had remained open, hoping to eke out enough money to stay afloat despite the sudden loss of most customers.
To soften the blow, the governor said he was also ordering a 90-day moratorium on all residential and commercial evictions.
“I know that we’re going to put people out of work with what I did,” Cuomo said. “I want to make sure I don’t put them out of their house.”
A number of industries are exempt from the order, including food, medicine, elder care, medical equipment, telecommunications and paper products.
New York is also taking aggressive steps to try to meet the demands caused by the outbreak, including manufacturing its own hand sanitizer and funding new production of protective gear. But hanging over all of those efforts is a need for more ventilators, which Cuomo said are as important as armaments were during World War II.
“It’s ventilators, ventilators, ventilators. That is the greatest need,” the governor said. “The rate of increase in the number of cases portends a total overwhelming of our hospital system.”
Cuomo said that if New York state had a law like the federal Defense Production Act, which allows the federal government to force private companies to prioritize federal contracts, he would use it.
Without such a law, New York is trying to be creative in spurring more production of medical gear that is in high demand around the world.
“What I’m saying is, I will pay businesses more. I’m trying to make these products. If you are in this line of work, we need masks. If you’re making clothing, figure out if you can make masks. I’ll fund it,” Cuomo said.
New York officials are still debating other steps that might become necessary if the hospital system does run out of beds. One scenario floated by some officials has been using the Javits Center, a large convention hall on Manhattan’s West Side, to handle overflow patients. The Javits Center did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Some experts have expressed doubt about its usefulness, since the cavernous space is not ideal for trying to contain an infection.
Isaac Weisfuse, a former New York City health official, said it would be more prudent to use hotels near hospitals if there was a demand for extra bed space.