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New York's workplace restrictions grow; mortgage relief ordered

ALBANY — Hundreds of thousands of additional New Yorkers were ordered to work from home Thursday as coronavirus cases continue to soar and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said the state is requiring lenders to waive mortgage payments for 90 days if a consumer is facing a financial hardship due to the ongoing crisis.

Foreclosure proceedings will also be stopped for 90 days, the governor said.

The protections will cover people who have seen their companies close, have been laid off or have had their hours reduced.

The new workplace order will require that 75% of workers at a company — with exceptions for various health care, shipping, transportation, food and other sectors — must be sent home to work. A day earlier, Cuomo imposed a 50% rule, but the numbers of cases continue to grow.

There have been 4,152 confirmed positive cases in New York State, up 1,769 from the previous day. Tests have also sharply risen, which helps explain why the positive caseload is growing; 22,284 tests have been conducted, up 7,584 from yesterday.

"This is tremendously disruptive on all sorts of levels,'' Cuomo said.

He said the virus "will change almost everything going forward.''

The new orders come as Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie revealed that a third lawmaker — Assemblywoman Kimberly Jean-Pierre, a Suffolk County Democrat — tested positive. She traveled to Albany this week and attended the Assembly session Wednesday in which efforts to reduce density levels of people in the chamber were enacted; Heastie told his colleagues Thursday morning that the lawmaker did not have "any contact" with legislators or staff. Officials last week said televoting or some kind of other "virtual" way for lawmakers to vote from home during this emergency period was considered; neither house has advanced that idea.

Cuomo said he has been playing the role of calming force. He said he talked Wednesday night with a New York City business executive who was panicked about talk that the city might be shut down.

"It's not going to happen, Cuomo said he told the executive.

Banks will also have to temporarily halt ATM and overdraft fees, as well as fees for credit cards. The order applies to state-chartered banks.

The state has already closed a host of businesses, a move that officials say is necessary to restrict public density levels but that is also contributing to a sharply declining economy that is jamming unemployment agencies.

The state is also scrambling to both add hospital capacity – looking at everything from dorms to hotels – as well as ventilator devices needed for the most serious virus cases. The state has access to about 5,000 ventilators, but the projected need is estimated to be about 30,000 of the devices. “We literally have people in China shopping for ventilators," Cuomo said.

Health insurers are also being affected. The carriers are being told today to permit scheduled surgeries, inpatient care and hospital admissions without the normal pre-approval process. Patients can also be discharged from a hospital to a rehabilitation center or nursing home without insurance pre-approval.

One of the governor’s daughters, Michaela, attended the news conference at the Capitol.

“None of that is going to happen," Cuomo said again of worries that cities, including the nation’s biggest, are going to enact shelter in place orders. He has asked New Yorkers to stay home as much as they can but to continue going out – with now well-known health protections – to shop for food and take a walk or run.

“Words matter," he said.

“Shelter in place is a scary term for people … especially if you’re not doing that," Cuomo said of places outside New York State that have such policies but then have a list of exceptions for why people can leave their homes.

State budget director Robert Mujica said officials are also looking at amending upcoming deadlines for sales tax payments to Albany by businesses. He did not elaborate but said more information is expected later.

The new order to have employers keep 75% of their workers at home has a long list of exceptions: people involved in the coronavirus response and any business deemed essential.

The previous 50% order, issued late last night, defined the exceptions to the mandate as "essential health care operations including research and laboratory services; essential infrastructure including utilities, telecommunication, airports and transportation infrastructure; essential manufacturing, including food processing and pharmaceuticals; essential retail including grocery stores and pharmacies; essential services including trash collection, mail, and shipping services; news media; banks and related financial institutions."

It further said essential businesses are those, profit and nonprofit, that are "providers of basic necessities to economically disadvantaged populations; construction; vendors of essential services necessary to maintain the safety, sanitation and essential operations of residences or other essential businesses; vendors that provide essential services or products, including logistics and technology support, child care and services needed to ensure the continuing operation of government agencies and provide for the health, safety and welfare of the public."

The order also provides a route for businesses not necessarily covered by the exemption list to seek approval today from the state Empire State Development, the main economic development agency for the state.

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