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An Earlier Restaurant and School Shutdown Could Have Dramatically Saved Lives, Report Says

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One expert told the New York Times that the death toll in the city could have been reduced by up to 80 percent if officials acted sooner

NY Gov. Cuomo And NYC Mayor De Blasio Brief On First Coronavirus Case In NY State
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, at a briefing during the first COVID-19 case in the state on March 2
Photo by David Dee Delgado/Getty Images

COVID-19’s deadly toll on New York City could have been significantly lessened if city and state leaders had listened to health officials and enforced a citywide shutdown sooner — including the closure of schools, bars, and restaurants, a New York Times investigation has revealed.

As early as March 12, NYC’s health commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot predicted in a closed-door meeting that up to 70 percent of the city’s population could eventually get infected, according to the Times. Another expert, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the former commissioner of the city’s health department and the former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the Times that the death toll may have been reduced between 50 to 80 percent if the city had put strict social distancing measures in place even just a week or two earlier.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have both pushed back on these claims, telling the Times that facts about the virus and its spread are ever-evolving. Since the beginning of the outbreak in New York, they’ve said that they’re making real-time decisions as they learned more about the dramatic increase of confirmed cases.

But the Times investigation revealed that de Blasio and Cuomo initially expressed confidence about quickly containing the virus in New York, even as it was spreading at alarming rate.

Discussions around the decision to close NYC’s schools and restaurants were among the most contentious issues. On March 11, the mayor publicly encouraged New Yorkers who felt healthy to go out to eat, although officials elsewhere in the country had already started saying that social distancing was critical to mitigating the spread.

Then, as early as the following day March 12, conversations started around the idea of shutting down restaurants and bars to dine-in customers, according to the Times investigation. At the meeting, Dr. Barbot reportedly raised concerns about the spread of the virus, but De Blasio was worried about the impact a shutdown would have on workers and restaurateurs. Later that same day, the state mandated that venues, including restaurants and bars, limit their capacity to 50 percent.

The tipping point for further business shutdowns, the Times reports, was the closing of the city’s schools.

Health Department officials warned De Blasio on March 15 about an escalation of cases if stricter measures weren’t put in place. After the mayor’s initial reluctance to close schools — he was concerned it would impact low-income New Yorkers the most — he relented that day and informed New Yorkers of the shutdown that evening at a press conference. The full shutdown on dining-in was also announced that night but didn’t go into effect until 8 p.m. on March 16.

The schools shutdown reportedly also pushed de Blasio toward calling for the stay-at-home orders, according to the Times. But that order only went into effect on March 22; Cuomo was reticent to make the call, with concerns about spreading fear and panic, the Times investigation reveals.

Since COVID-19 cases started popping up locally, NYC’s hospital system has been stretched to the limits and beyond, with makeshift hospitals cropping up at the Javits Center, Central Park, and an 1,000-bed ship that’s docked on the west side of Manhattan. As of Wednesday morning, more than 3,600 people had died from the virus in the city and nearly 20,000 people hospitalized. It’s disproportionately impacted service workers, including those working in food, and New Yorkers in lower-income brackets.

While cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles issued stay-at-home orders March 16 and March 19 respectively, NYC’s version of similar guidance didn’t go into effect until March 22. Death tolls in the Bay Area and LA remain under 300 combined, due to both lower population densities and earlier measures.

In California — the first state to mandate the stay-at-home order on March 19 —the overall deaths were at 374 on Tuesday, with a state population of nearly 40 million. New York has had nearly 5,500 deaths, with a state population of close to 20 million.