ALBANY – The state is banning public gatherings of more than 500 people at time, banning visitors at nursing homes, threatening business with closure if they do not maintain "diligent" cleaning standards and calling on retired doctors and nurses to join a possible reserve health care staffing program – all in response to the rapidly spreading number of novel coronavirus cases across New York State.
The public gathering order by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, which also requires venues with fewer than 500 seats to cut their occupancy levels at events by 50%, is intended to reduce density levels of people as a way to reduce the the spread of the virus.
The public gathering occupancy rules, which go into effect Friday statewide, will affect a host of entertainment and sporting events. It means, for instance, that a restaurant with a seating capacity for 100 people will be banned from permitting admittance to more than 50 people at a time.
The decisions will be a blow to local economies across the state, not to mention the state's own finances at a time when officials are trying to put together a new $175 billion state budget by March 31.
“Science dictates these decisions,” Cuomo said at the Capitol Thursday afternoon.
"We're going to take very dramatic actions" to reduce public density, he added.
Officials said Cuomo's authority for the new restrictions are granted in an executive order he issued under a state of emergency he declared on Saturday.
The new restrictions about public events won't apply to schools, hospitals, nursing homes, mass transit facilities and government buildings, he said. They do apply to Broadway shows starting at 5 p.m. Thursday, another slam on economy in Manhattan, whose industries are major drivers of state tax revenues. Officials are also looking at possibly banning visitors from the state Capitol, which becomes a crowded, melting pot of New Yorkers whenever the Legislature is in town.
The state is also mulling ordering the cancellation of elective surgeries as a way to free up hospital capacity and staff resources; Cuomo said up to 35% of hospital surgeries are elective.
To increase the state's ability to respond to medical needs, Cuomo said the state is reaching out to retired doctors and nurses to "reconnect" with former employers to be on an "on-call basis." Officials are also looking to medical schools to build possible reserve health care staff should the coronavirus spread. Cuomo is also looking to build hospital capacity in parts of the state.
New York now has 328 cases confirmed in the past two weeks, up by 112 in the past 24 hours, Cuomo said.
Counties seeing their first cases in the past 24 hours include Monroe, Orange, Dutchess, Herkimer and Broome.
The numbers are rising so fast mainly because New York State has been increasing its testing capacity with the introduction of county and private labs. Also, tests are especially targeting people who may have traveled to certain countries or have had contact with people who have or had the coronavirus infection. Most of the cases are downstate.
Statewide, 2,314 people have been tested, up from 1,983 yesterday. Erie County has tested 19.
The governor said the nursing home visitation ban, which will be in place for an undetermined amount of time, is necessary to protect elderly people who are especially vulnerable to the effects of the coronavirus. It was not sitting well with some nursing home residents.
"If they are sick, they should stay at home. But if they are not, then they should be allowed to come," said Gail Logan, 72, who has lived for six years at Safire Rehabilitation of Northtowns in the Town of Tonawanda. Her brother is her only visitor and she said visitors to nursing homes are important to residents.
"It's healthier to have visitors," she said Thursday after Cuomo's order.
The Democratic governor said the impact from the spreading coronavirus is “incalculable” on the state’s finances, which were already facing a $6.1 billion deficit in the upcoming fiscal year beginning April 1. He said states will not be able to accommodate the economic and fiscal hit without help from Washington. State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli has been asked to provide a fresh review of revenue projections that Cuomo and legislative leaders agreed to only a couple weeks ago.
Sources closed to the fiscal negotiations said Thursday that officials are considering the possibility of a “bare-bones” budget, which could include a scaled-down plan in which controversial items are jettisoned and an understanding is reached by Cuomo and lawmakers that the budget could be reassessed later in the session or even later this year when the economic impact of the coronavirus situation is more clear. "Nobody wants to fight,'' one government source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Thursday of budget talks.
The state is not now looking at any mass closing order of public schools.
Mass transit systems are also not covered by the public gathering order because, officials said, there has already been a drop-off in ridership since the coronavirus spread in New York.
The actions Thursday came a day after the State University of New York and the City University of New York said they were ending most on-campus classes for hundreds of thousands of students. It also came as National Guard troops were sent in Thursday morning to part of New Rochelle, a city in Westchester County hit hardest by the virus.
Officials are growing increasingly worried about a host of financial problems for the state, such as an expected sharp rise in unemployment insurance costs to provide benefits to workers laid off by an array of businesses affected by the expanding number of coronavirus cases and the actions by the government to contain it. New York is especially vulnerable to downturns in the financial industry; Wall Street activities provide one-fifth of the state’s tax receipts.
“This is going to get much worse before it gets better,’’ Cuomo said.
Earlier in the day, casino operators across New York State -- whose gambling machines are in confined spaces and whose patrons are generally older in age -- said they had no plans to temporarily close or limit hours or availability to their slot machines and table games. The casinos, such as the three Seneca Nation of Indian halls in Western New York, are major employers; the casinos also bring the state millions of dollars a day in tax revenues.
A Seneca casino spokeswoman said the tribe "will continue to closely monitor guidance from local and national health officials during this time to provide the highest level of health and safety to our guests and team members."
"At this time we are in contact with local health officials, New York State and the State Gaming Commission. If we are directed to take action we will follow it expeditiously,'' said Ryan Hasenauer, the marketing director at Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp., which runs a casino in Batavia.
Restaurant owners, already facing declining business in some areas, were bracing for the impact of the new Cuomo order. "I was just sending an email out to my managers saying we have to be proactive and things are moving so quickly that we have to look forward to maybe having every other seat full,'' said Pizza Plant owner Bob Syracuse. He added: "I have a little reserve, but that's going to be used up if I have to stay open with no business.''
News Staff Reporter Lou Michel contributed to this report.