All employers in the state with essential workers who interact with the public must provide those employees with cloth or surgical face masks free of charge, under an executive order that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced Sunday.
The new directive, which mimics one that New Jersey already issued, is designed to respond to complaints from many workers across the state, who felt that their jobs put them at risk of exposure to the coronavirus without their employers providing them with any protection.
The mandate includes state government itself.
"I think Gov. [Phil] Murphy was right," Cuomo said, referring to New Jersey's leader.
Cuomo also said he was signing a second executive order to expand the number of workers at labs who can conduct antibody tests to determine who may have immunity from Covid-19.
That's different than the diagnostic tests to see if someone has the novel coronavirus, and would presumably cover those patients who had the disease but recovered, and are unlikely to get it again.
"That would be a prime person who could go back to work, because they have the antibodies, they are immune," the governor said, adding that he wanted to "help ensure as many New Yorkers as possible have access."
That's a critical first step toward re-opening the state, while minimizing the risk of a resurgence of the virus, he said.
Cuomo acknowledged the fervent desire to return to work and business, but cautioned that the plan for doing so must be regional, coordinated and safe.
“We want to reopen as soon as possible. The caveat is we want to be smart in the way we reopen,” he said. "No one wants to pick between a public health strategy and an economic strategy."
That means factoring in businesses, schools, transportation systems and the workforce, he said.
"It will be coordinated to do all those functions all at once," Cuomo said. "You can't open the economy without opening schools."
It also means cooperation among cities, towns and counties downstate – a rebuke to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who called Saturday for the city schools to close through June, while Cuomo rejected that as premature.
"Nobody knows what we will be doing in June," Cuomo said. "If we say schools will be closed through June, you are effectively saying businesses will be closed through June. June is a long way from now."
And it means working together with Connecticut and New Jersey, Cuomo added, while acknowledging that a multi-state plan may not be achievable.
"We’re going to work with our neighboring states, because this is the tri-state area. It’s a regional economy," he said. "Hopefully, we can get on the same page with New Jersey and Connecticut."
In the interim, Cuomo said he would talk to Empire State Development Corp. to see whether drive-in movie theaters could be allowed to operate as long as patrons stayed in their cars.
And he said “it’s a good idea” for the state prison system to report cases of Covid-19 just as the federal prisons do.
Cuomo announced the new executive orders as he reported a continued "flattening" of the number of new deaths from Covid-19. However, he cautioned that the numbers are still very high and alarming, and not yet a good sign.
"You're not seeing a great decline in the numbers, but you're seeing a flattening, and you're also seeing a recurrence," he said. "It's been flattening, but flattening at a terribly high number."
A total of 758 people died statewide on Saturday from Covid-19. That's lower than each of the previous four days – 783 on Friday, 777 on Thursday, 799 on Wednesday, and 779 on Tuesday – but not by much.
"There's a continuity in those numbers," he aid. "That's the one number that I look forward to seeing drop."
In all, 9,385 people have died from the virus in New York State – more than three times the tally from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“Somebody once asked, 'can you ever get numb to these numbers?'” Cuomo said. “No. I speak to many families who are going through this, who have lost loved ones. Every one is a face, a name, a family that is suffering.”
That’s especially true, he said, during this holiday weekend, with both Easter and Passover.
Even so, there was some good news, Cuomo noted, as he highlighted slower growth in hospitalizations, up by just 53 on Saturday, to a total of 18,707. That's the lowest increase in hospital admissions since the state started its reporting, he said.
“This is the number that we have been watching,” he said. “The great fear for us was always overwhelming the raw capacity of the hospital system."
Intensive care admissions rose by 189 to 5,198. But Cuomo called that “dubious” since almost all the beds in a lot of the hospitals have been converted into ICU beds.
And 1,862 people were discharged from hospitals. That fits with the earlier high hospitalization rate, he said, as “people stay for a week, two weeks, they get discharged.”
However, intubations also rose Saturday to 4,449 – an increase of 110 – “which is not good news,” although the three-day average was down.
“If they don't get discharged, they stay in the hospital, they decline, they become intubated,” Cuomo said. “Most people who are intubated will not come off the ventilators.”
As of midnight Sunday, 20,621 additional people had been tested for coronavirus statewide, for a total of 461,601. And 8,236 had tested positive, yielding a tally of 188,694 since the outbreak began in New York.
That included 99 new cases in Erie County, for a total of 1,571, and 16 in Niagara County, for a tally of 183.
Cuomo also confirmed that about 2,000 patients are being treated with hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug that's been touted by President Trump, but those decisions are being made by individual hospitals and doctors.
The tests have been underway for about 10 to 12 days, he said, and anecdotal information suggests some "positive results." But clinical data won't be available until April 20.
"We’re 100% pushing every kind of drug therapy, every kind of research," Cuomo said. "We’re praying for something to work."
Earlier in the day, Cuomo returned 35 ventilators to a nursing home in Niskayuna, outside Schenectady. The Pathways Nursing and Rehabilitation Center had donated the machines for use downstate early in the crisis – unsolicited – but "we're in a position now where we're not going to need the ventilators, unless the situation changes dramatically," Cuomo said.
He called that one of "a couple of moments that will stay with me for all time."
"Out of the blue ... they just called and offered the 35 ventilators," he said. "When I heard that news, with all this bad, with all this negative, something inside me said we’re going to be OK."
Additionally, Cuomo joined with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, chair of the National Governors Association, in a bipartisan call for Congress to provide another $500 billion in aid specifically for state governments facing major fiscal crises – including New York.
He said the federal CARES Act "almost ignores state government," leaving many states with enormous budget holes from revenue gaps, while others received 25 times more per Covid patient than New York.
"I understand politics. That’s not how things should be operating here," Cuomo said. "Not everything has to be an opportunity for pork barrel. New York is vital to the American economy."
And he urged federal lawmakers to repeal what he termed the "SALT tax" that was effectively created when Congress and the Trump Administration eliminated the deduction for state and local taxes that had been in place.