ALBANY – The novel coronavirus, continuing its march across New York State, led officials to impose a statewide closure order on all schools, restaurants, movie theaters, bars, casinos, gyms and any gathering – from anniversary parties to funerals – that attracts more than 50 people.
The order came in advance of a new recommendation from President Trump: Americans should avoid any gathering with more than 10 people for the next 15 days.
Nonessential businesses, which the Cuomo administration had not clearly defined, also were asked to limit operations; state and local governments sent tens of thousands of workers home to work remotely; and public and private agencies were rushing to add new hospital bed space and relaxing rules to let hospitals squeeze in more patients in existing space.
One thing not stopping: the flow of booze. Governor Andrew M. Cuomo said emergency regulations will be approved to let restaurants, bars, wineries and distilleries to sell beer, wine and spirits to anxious takeout customers. While eating establishments are shuttered, they can still sell and deliver food orders, too.
Residents were being asked to curtail nonessential driving as the number of known cases hit 950 cases in New York State and resulted in seven deaths.
“We are fighting a war against this virus," Cuomo said Monday shortly after announcing a new public gathering order with the governors of New Jersey and Connecticut.
“This is a virus that knows no borders,’’ said Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont during a conference call with Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy.
Federal guidelines on Sunday recommended people not have gatherings of 50 or more people. But officials said Monday that new computer modeling showed a far smaller number – 10 – was now necessary to try to slow the spread of the virus.
For more than a week, Cuomo has dismissed the idea of a mass, statewide school closure order; he said such a shutdown would create havoc for parents who still need to work and hurt low-income students who rely on schools to get free breakfast and lunch.
On Monday, as most of the state’s students have already seen their schools close, Cuomo said all schools must close by Wednesday, for two weeks ending April 1, at which time the state will assess whether closures need to be extended. Cuomo floated the idea of summer school being possibly needed to help students make up the lost classroom time.
The governor said he wants people to avoid travel, unless it’s necessary, between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. each day until further notice.
Casinos, which include full-scale commercial casinos and the racetrack-based casinos, also were ordered shut down. They provide millions of dollars a day in tax revenues for the state, and officials had tried a lesser approach to reduce capacity at the gambling halls; that idea lasted only a couple days until the broader closure order was issued for all facilities, such as the track-based gambling halls in Hamburg and Batavia.
At first, Cuomo said he did not know if the order could be applied to sovereign Indian tribes, such as the Seneca Nation of Indians.
Within hours, though, the Oneida Nation in central New York, and followed later in the day by the Seneca Nation, said their casinos were closing Monday evening. The Senecas employ thousands of people at its casinos in Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Salamanca. Guests at the tribe’s two hotels were being told to vacate by noon Tuesday.
Exempt from the shutdown order are supermarkets, health facilities, pharmacies and gas stations. The Cuomo administration Monday evening would not say how the edict affects everything from big box stores to airline terminals.
"We want people home. We want less density," Cuomo said a request – not yet a mandate – that nonessential businesses close each evening until the morning.
The governor said a regional approach is necessary because the federal government has failed to enact national standards for controlling public gatherings. Cuomo said the federal government “has been behind from day one with this crisis.” Trump later tweeted that Cuomo needs to “do more” to handle the crisis; the tweet was later deleted.
Monday's orders affected a wide swath of businesses where people go to unwind and enjoy recreation. Amy Bueme, co-owner of Catalyst, the largest locally-owned fitness center in the Buffalo Niagara region, with seven locations and more than 300 full- and part-time workers, was getting ready to shut down Monday.
"My parking lots have been full, but I get it," she said. "The government has to do what they have to do to protect the people. That's their job and we have to abide by it."
The new normal in the world includes the closing of all restaurants, except for takeout orders. That's what Mulberry Italian Ristorante owner Joe Jerge decided to do with his Lackawanna institution.
"At the end of the week, I really don't know what to expect," he said. "Nobody does, right? Now it's completely uncharted waters."
“The hardest part is looking my employees in the face, 90 people, and telling them that we don't have a job,” said James Roberts, the owner of Toutant and Dobutsu, who sounded close to tears. “I give them the link to the New York State Department of Labor and Employment website. I'm sorry, I'm heartbroken. I love you guys. We gotta go.”
Several would-be users reported the unemployment application website crashed and unusable Monday afternoon.
The state expanded its mandate for the state workforce, which totals more than 250,000 people; half the state employees must now work from home. An initial response affected only nonessential state workers downstate.
The governor said he was also ordering local governments across the state to reduce their workplace populations by at least 50%, meaning half of local government employees must work remotely. All nonessential local government workers must work at home and they can be assigned different job duties during the period. The state defined “nonessential” as those who do not need to be physically present in the office to do their jobs or aren’t required to meet their agency’s needs to help handle the virus outbreak response.
Cuomo repeated his call over the days that the federal government needs to activate the military to help states build more hospital capacity. He said the state will, on its own, have local government, developers and others help locate available space – from empty college dorms to shuttered nursing homes – to locate hospital beds. He said 9,000 additional beds are needed downstate; he did not provide an upstate number.
Cuomo is issuing some of his edicts through executive orders under a state-announced state of emergency, but also through a major change in state law that the Legislature recently approved that gives him sweeping new authority to act unilaterally – even canceling laws – during this health crisis or any other emergency.
The Senate and Assembly, with many members already in Albany for a regularly scheduled session day, postponed legislative chamber operations until sometime later this week. Two lawmakers, Democrats from Brooklyn, have tested positive for the virus, and some staff were said to be in quarantine on Monday. Some lawmakers questioned the public health sense of bringing 213 members – and their staffs – from all corners of the state so soon after two lawmakers were confirmed with the virus.
The virus is slamming the state’s finances, as revenues tumble as a result of the battered stock market and nosediving consumer spending on goods and services. Now, it is anyone’s guess how much state tax revenues will be affected just as Cuomo and lawmakers are due to enact a new, $175 billion spending plan by March 31.