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Brooklyn pols say city must go dark to fight coronavirus

March 15, 2020 Alex Williamson
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A growing number of New York City officials are calling for a citywide shutdown of all non-essential services in response to a rising number of confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus.

There are 269 confirmed cases of the virus in the city as of noon on Sunday, an increase of 83 cases since official figures were last released 10 a.m. Saturday.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson came out in support of shuttering bars and restaurants to mitigate the virus’ spread, while allowing pharmacies, grocery stores and bodegas to remain open.

Johnson, who previously proposed closing public schools, called on the government to provide financial assistance for people who would be put out of work by a shutdown.

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“Bar workers, independent contractors, domestic workers, gig economy employees and other types of workers who don’t have solid benefits and who are going to be impacted the most during this time need cash,” Johnson said in a statement.

City Councilmember Justin Brannan, who represents Bay Ridge, released a statement echoing Johnson’s call, and referenced the deteriorating situation in Italy and reports of crowded bars and restaurants before a country-wide shutdown was mandated, despite health officials’ pleas for social distancing.

“I believe we are at a tipping point. If the transmission of the COVID-19 is not slowed down within the next week, our hospital system will be overwhelmed,” Brannan said in a statement. “Most people here are confused about what to do because, unfortunately, there have been a lot of mixed messages and a lack of clear leadership from City Hall … We can’t talk about social distancing but keep schools and libraries open. We can’t talk about social distancing but think crowded bars and restaurants are OK.”

The Brooklyn Public Library has said its branches will remain open, though its programming has been cancelled until further notice. The New York Public Library has closed all of its branches.

In his statement, Brannan referenced the need for a contingency plan to provide child care for vital workers, like doctors and nurses, as well as those who work in pharmacies and along the food supply chain, while allowing for most schools to be shuttered.

Councilmember Stephen Levin took to Twitter to voice his support for shutting down the city.

“I just want to make this clear. We are going to have to #shutdownNYC in the coming days,” the councilmember tweeted. “We have two options — Option 1) we can shut down in an orderly, rational way starting tomorrow morning that accounts for how to take care of our most vulnerable people … Option 2) we wait around and deny the inevitable.

“That means we will shut down amid chaos, overrun hospitals, emergency departments who can’t take anymore.”

Comptroller Scott Stringer also came out in favor of a shutdown Sunday.

“The way out of crisis is to act logically and strategically,” Stringer said on Twitter. “That is why today, out of an abundance of caution, I’m calling for a city shutdown.”

Yes, that means schools

Brooklyn Councilmember Brad Lander has been a vocal proponent of closing the city’s public schools for days, and joined the call for a citywide shutdown of all non-essential services Sunday.

Lander’s district includes Carroll Gardens, where a parent at P.S. 58 has been confirmed to have the coronavirus, as has a parent at PS 107 in Park Slope. The Department of Education is keeping the schools open for now.

City Councilmember Mark Treyger on Thursday began calling for a “summer school” model that would shutter all but a few public schools in each borough, prioritizing child care for the children of the city’s health care workers.

In the past Mayor Bill de Blasio has called closing schools “a last resort,” in part because thousands of New York City children rely on the public school system for meals and social services.

Gov. Cuomo announced Sunday that New York City’s public schools would close “early next week” and would put a plan in place within the next 24 hours to provide child care for essential workers.

Before that announcement, the governor said at a Sunday afternoon press conference that closing down the city’s schools wasn’t so simple.

“If children are home, a large percentage of the workforce may say ‘I have to stay home,’” Cuomo said. “We can’t have essential workers … police, fire workers, health care workers, nurses stay home.”

Gov. Cuomo cited the health care workers’ union 1199SEIU in his decision to keep schools open during the press conference. As he was speaking, George Gresham, president of 1199SEIU, released a statement urging officials to close New York City’s public schools to slow the spread of the virus.

The statement was a reversal from the union’s previous stance, which called for the city to keep public schools open out of concern that health care workers wouldn’t have child care.

At a Sunday press conference, Gov. Cuomo said that the number of coronavirus cases would soon “crash like a wave” on hospitals lacking the capacity to handle them. He called on the Trump administration to throw the full powers of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers into converting SUNY university dorms and government facilities into hospitals with thousands of additional beds.

This story was updated Sunday at 5:22 p.m. to add the Governor’s statement that public schools in the city would close early next week. 

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