Gotham Gazette Sat, 04 Apr 2020 08:45:40 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) How 2021 Mayoral Candidates Have Responded to Coronavirus Crisis One Will Inherit how mayoral

Three of the leading 2021 mayoral candidates (photo: Gotham Gazette)

It took merely three weeks from the first case of the coronavirus being confirmed in the city to thousands of New Yorkers testing positive for the virus. The scale of the outbreak has presented an emergency of a scope that the city has perhaps never before faced. The aftermath of the crisis will be felt well into the future and in 2022, the effects it will have on the city’s people, its economy, and its politics will be inherited by whoever takes the helm at City Hall.

Next year, Mayor Bill de Blasio will in all likelihood be finishing his second and final term, attempting to heal the city and seal his legacy as a field of candidates runs to replace him. Among many other issues, it now appears that the coronavirus outbreak and its aftermath will be central to the race to be the next mayor, shifting the dynamics of a race already in its early stages.

Those considered the top contenders are already enmeshed in city government – City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Comptroller Scott Stringer, and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. The three have played different roles as the coronavirus outbreak has gripped the city, and while none has the awesome responsibilities of mayor, in their responses they may be giving some indication of how they would approach such a seismic event if elected the city’s leader.

Other exploring or declared candidates include Loree Sutton, a retired Army Brigadier General and former commissioner of the city’s Department of Veterans’ Services; Dianne Morales, a nonprofit executive in the Bronx; and Shaun Donovan, a former high-level aide to President Barack Obama and Mayor Michael Bloomberg. All three shared thoughts about the coronavirus crisis with Gotham Gazette.

As coronavirus was confirmed to have landed in New York City and as the fallout unfolded, there’s been some early criticism, or at least difference of opinion, between Mayor de Blasio and those who seek to replace him on how the city should have reacted and how it continues to operate in the face of the deadly pandemic.

Some of the candidates have proposed their own plans to save the city and its people from the outbreak’s devastation, which may not be political maneuvers but may serve that purpose when the campaigns relaunch after the crisis has subsided.   

Understandably, the candidates -- all of whom are Democrats like de Blasio -- have been reluctant to critique the mayor amid a public health, social, and economic crisis of this scale. But that doesn’t mean they all agree with everything he has done or don’t have their own ideas for other actions to take. 

Corey Johnson
Before the city at large grasped how acute the spread of coronavirus had become, elected officials at all levels were urging calm. Johnson was with Mayor de Blasio at early news conferences on the coronavirus, such as on March 2, after the administration held its second “tabletop exercise” to prepare for what may come.

“I want the public to continue to practice common sense and base decisions on science and public health information, not fear,” Johnson said, while maintaining that people who were not sick did not need to stay at home, echoing messages from the mayor and top city health officials. “We should be taking basic precautions...that means doing the things we know but not avoiding public places,” he said.  

At another briefing on March 5, Johnson continued with his sanguine message. “As the mayor has done consistently, I think it is important that we urge the public to be guided by fact and not by misinformation, not by fiction. You can still ride the can still go to can still go to work...and you can still go and enjoy a concert or a basketball game,” he said, noting that he’d ridden the subway earlier. The mayor, to drive the message home, took a rare subway ride himself that day.

Things would soon escalate quickly, and everything changed.

As the outbreak progressed, however, and the mayor hesitated to close the school system amid increasing public pressure, Johnson was among those who pressed him to take the major step (Stringer quickly followed suit, while then calling for a near-shutdown of the city shortly before de Blasio or Johnson did). The speaker’s plan to enforce social distancing is also more restrictive than what the mayor has pursued so far. 

[Read: Mayor and Council Speaker Differ on Creating Open Space, Enforcing Social Distancing Amid Coronavirus Shutdown]

On March 5, days after the first positive case of coronavirus was confirmed in Manhattan, the Council quickly convened an oversight hearing to examine the administration’s preparedness for a larger outbreak. As the crisis escalated, Johnson chose to indefinitely postpone his State of the City speech scheduled for March 11.

On that day, March 11, days before the mayor, under pressure from Governor Andrew Cuomo, announced the closure of schools, and restrictions on bars and restaurants to takeout/delivery only, Johnson called for “limits on non-essential large gatherings.”

“I am not calling for New York City to be shut down. This is a balancing act. Children should continue going to school. The subways should remain in operation. Healthy New Yorkers should continue working, shopping at local businesses and taking part in city life,” he said at the time. Large gatherings were restricted by the mayor the next day.

On March 13, Johnson changed his tune and said schools should close. After resistance, deliberation, and pressure from Johnson, Cuomo, and others, the mayor announced on March 15 that schools would be shuttered starting the next day.

Just like de Blasio, Johnson has also been making regular appearances on TV and radio news shows. And he’s continued to advocate for policy decisions that will matter both during and after the crisis. He called on the NYPD to stop making arrests for low-level offenses, pushed the state  Department of Corrections and Community Supervision to stop jailing individuals for technical parole violations, and urged district attorneys to ask for bail or remand only when absolutely necessary, among other criminal justice-related proposals. 

Most notably, on March 19 Johnson released a $12 billion plan to provide relief to businesses and workers affected by the coronavirus. Though he said the federal government should pay for it, he also noted that the city could fund it through bonds if its request is refused. His plan would include one-time city payments of $550 for each adult and $275 for each child, on top of any relief funds given by the federal government. It also called for expanding unemployment insurance to freelance and gig workers, and for increasing benefits by 30%.

The speaker proposed deferring sales and use taxes, and the commercial rent tax and business taxes, called for deferring collection of city fees without penalties, and expanding the city’s small business loan programs with no-interest loans and possible loan forgiveness. “This is a crisis unlike any we’ve ever seen. However, the tools that have helped us in the past can be utilized again,” he said in a statement. “The difficult steps we’ve taken to protect ourselves and others are necessary, including social distancing and mandatory closures, but they are devastating our businesses and workers in every corner of the city...This plan will provide relief not just for our economy, but also for the small businesses and workers that are the heart and soul of New York City.”

This week, Johnson also joined with other elected officials and advocacy organizations to call for an immediate plan to house the city’s 80,000 homeless people, along with several proposals to provide them with sanitation equipment, food, and clothing, and to end sweeps of homeless people by the police.

On Friday, as part of budget negotiations with the de Blasio administration, Johnson and the Council called for $50 million for emergency food assistance programs.

In the last two weeks, Johnson has been making remote media appearances as he shelters indoors, at times using his active social media accounts to discuss the experience, and has not been appearing as he was earlier with the mayor at his regular briefings on the outbreak.

Scott Stringer
Comptroller Stringer was also pushing for a “city shutdown” of all except essential services prior to the mayor’s announcement, including schools. Prior to that, on March 12, he announced that all employees in his office, numbering several hundred, would begin working from home the next day. 

After Johnson, following the lead of the Council’s education committee chair, Mark Treyger, had said schools should close on March 13, Stringer said similarly. “Many difficult decisions have to be made that have serious implications for our city, including the closure of schools. At this time I think the question is not if, but how, public schools should close,” Stringer said that day. He made his plea for a full shutdown on the morning of March 15 – later that day, the mayor announced closures of schools, bars and restaurants. 

Prior to that, the comptroller issued new guidance that allowed schools to purchase tablets with capital funds in order to facilitate remote learning. 

As would be expected, his office quickly examined how the outbreak would hurt the city’s economy, putting initial estimates at $3.2 billion in lost revenue over six months (which even he acknowledged is a conservative figure at best). In his analysis, he pushed the mayor to find savings in city agency operations (except at social service and health agencies) to prevent disruption of services for the most vulnerable New Yorkers. The mayor has since instituted a Program to Eliminate the Gap to cut about $1.3 billion in spending by agencies, and has said there’s more that will be needed as he prepares his executive budget plan for next fiscal year, which begins July 1.  

“This is an unprecedented public health emergency, and we need all hands on deck at every level of government to tackle this crisis,” Stringer said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “My office is doing everything in our power to support workers, help small businesses, secure the fiscal health of our city, and above all, protect the health and safety of New Yorkers. When we look back at this time, I want to be able to say that our city government stood up for our city, marshaled all resources at our disposal, and did everything we could to save lives. I am fully committed to assisting and supporting the pandemic response in every way I can.”

Stringer’s office has been busy approving hundreds of emergency contracts and monitoring how the tumult in the financial markets is affecting the city’s pension system.  

He also had several policy prescriptions to offer. Like Johnson, he called for deferring sales tax collections and for expanded services and assistance for small businesses. Instead of deferring fines and fees, he suggested they be waived entirely. He also pushed for the city to give contractual relief to those city-contracted nonprofits that provide human services but cannot meet their obligations under the current situation, which it did. 

Stringer also urged the federal government and private sector to take steps to mitigate the fallout of the coronavirus. He pushed for extending the in-person counting phase of the decennial census. He called on credit bureaus to put a moratorium on negative credit reporting and for the federal government to pass legislation to protect people’s credit scores. He also urged third-party food delivery companies to cap commissions at 10%.

Eric Adams
Though lacking the citywide purview that Johnson and Stringer hold, Brooklyn Borough President Adams has nonetheless been busy with his own borough-based response to the virus, including his typical focus on personal wellness.

Following the first case of coronavirus being confirmed in Brooklyn, Adams held an emergency briefing at Brooklyn Borough Hall on March 9, with Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Deputy Commissioner Daniel Stephens, and clergy and union leaders. He held a news conference right after to talk about best practices to deal with the outbreak, dispelling misinformation and urging against xenophobic reactions against the Chinese community. 

Adams did come under some criticism for continuing to require Borough Hall employees to commute to work through at least March 18. 

Adams wasn’t as ready as others to call for school closures and released a statement that hedged on the issue. “Our citywide leaders must be speaking in one voice at this time. I would support a call for citywide school closure that is unified, a unified plan of action for our healthcare and education professionals alongside our local and state leaders,” he said in a statement on March 15. “I would support a similar call for broader citywide closures in unison with our business community.”

Adams has called for a three-month universal moratorium on rent and utility payments, noting that the governor had already suspended mortgage payments for those affected by the outbreak. The borough president is a landlord himself and he acknowledged how a rent moratorium would affect him personally. “Though I have no illusions that this adjustment will be easy, I am confident it is the right thing to do given the current circumstances. No New Yorker should be at risk of losing their home while we contend with a public health emergency,” he said.

He also pushed for the mortgage payment freeze to apply universally to all rental properties – it was only given to single and two-family homes. He also called on the mayor to extend the city’s quarterly property tax deadline from April 1 to June 1. “It would be a cruel April Fool’s Day joke to ask struggling New Yorkers to meet this looming deadline in the face of such uncertainty,” he said. The mayor did not heed that call.

He was also among the proponents of a plan to help New Yorkers cover their rent in April. He joined with Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, City Council Members Robert Cornegy and Keith Powers, and CEO of Kairos, Ankur Jain, in releasing the $8 billion Renter’s Choice plan, which would require landlords to allow renters to use security deposits for their rent.

On March 22, Adams joined a number of local businesses and nonprofits to host a “Feed First Responders” initiative, personally distributing food to hospital workers at Maimonides Medical Center, and NYPD and FDNY members. Adams, who touts the benefits of healthy eating and living, even sought to allay people’s mental anxiety by inviting them to join him in remote guided meditation routines on Youtube. He’s also been posting videos making healthy meals at home and working out, doing jumping jacks, push ups, and pull ups. 

After Dez-Ann Romain, a principal at Brooklyn Democracy Academy, passed away from the coronavirus, Adams hosted a videoconference candlelight vigil on Zoom on March 26. 

On Wednesday, April 1, taking note of the increasing numbers of NYPD officers becoming ill with the coronavirus, Adams called on the mayor to unify all the city’s law enforcement agencies under the central command of Police Commissioner Dermot Shea.

Loree Sutton
As a retired Army Brigadier General who was the Army’s highest-ranking psychiatrist, Loree Sutton looked at the current outbreak and the official response to it, and likened it to nothing less than a war, language that has also been used by her former boss, Mayor de Blasio, among others.

“These are the times that test each of us as leaders, test our character, test our competence, test our ability to communicate and to even console and collaborate,” she said in a phone interview. “So it's also not the time during a situation like this to look backwards or to critique what's been done in the moment.”

In a March 20 op-ed in the New York Daily News, Sutton wrote on a suppression strategy to flatten the rising curve of coronavirus infections, utilizing the resources of the United States military. At the time, the U.S. Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort had been dispatched to the city by President Trump – the ship arrived on Monday.

“While President Trump is now embracing an ‘all of country’ approach by mobilizing military and other essential resources, this effort alone will be insufficient. We also need to mobilize an ‘all of community’ campaign,” Sutton wrote. She called for the creation of Health Safety Hubs in underutilized community facilities to test and monitor those who cannot safely quarantine at home and ease the burden on the hospital system. “Additional benefit would be derived from mobilizing medically screened community resources, including transportation assets, restaurant delivery, hospitality and entertainment services, volunteer opportunities and faith-based community support,” she wrote. 

Sutton said in the phone interview that she’s advanced her idea to the governor’s team through General Patrick Murphy, who previously led the New York National Guard and who was a “battle buddy” of Sutton’s.

Sutton insisted that she was not second-guessing the decisions made by the city’s and state’s leadership, though she did say that the crisis has highlighted the “fractious” relationship that Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo have had for years. (In the early months of her campaign, Sutton has repeatedly criticized de Blasio’s leadership of the city, regularly citing the feud with Cuomo.)

“In the military, when we're in the midst of combat, in the midst of action, there's a saying. We don't take the time to critique at that moment we ‘save it for the hot wash,’” she said. “So that's what I'll say...There has to be a hot wash and the next mayor of New York City will be in a position to lead that hot wash and to just fearlessly and clear-mindedly and with open eyes, view all that has gone well, all that needs to be repaired and all that needs to be planned for so that we will never ever be in this position again.”

But Sutton did say the city should take “extreme measures” to enforce social distancing, which the de Blasio administration has slowly come to embrace. While took pains not to criticize the mayor, she did mention his trip to the gym prior to when city-imposed restrictions were set to go into effect. “I would assume that if the mayor were reviewing that set of actions, I think he was trying to evoke in his own way, a sense of calm and routine and sort of ‘life goes on.’ But that's not what the situation is. That's not what it calls for. And we know that now,” she said.

Dianne Morales
Of all the candidates, Dianne Morales was particularly critical of the city’s slow movement towards stricter social distancing and the delay in closing schools and establishments where large crowds could gather. “I think that we should have actually had a much more aggressive response sooner,” she said. “I think we had the heads up in terms of what happened in China and in Europe. And I think that there was more that we could have done to prepare, including closing the schools sooner.”

“The leadership of the city and the state and definitely the country, we're walking this fine line between trying to maintain public calm and conveying the appropriate level of urgency around the situation,” she added. “And I think that they erred too much on the side of downplaying the imminent threat.”

She specifically criticized the fact that parks and playgrounds remain open, and that the city has chosen to close even a few streets to vehicular traffic in order to give people more space. “I think that there's a tension and a contradiction between opening streets for pedestrians and also telling people to shelter in place. I think those two things are not in alignment with each other. I understand that people need to be able to access fresh air but I think also right now we need to prioritize the safety of the city,” she said. 

In terms of her own campaign, as a (recently-departed to campaign full-time) nonprofit executive involved in providing human services at the community level, Morales quickly pivoted her campaign infrastructure to work on direct assistance efforts, she said. 

Shaun Donovan
Shaun Donovan has yet to launch his campaign and has not yet put out any public statements or materials. Asked for comment, Rick Fromberg, senior advisor to Donovan’s campaign, said in an email, “Shaun Donovan was a key member of President Obama's Ebola and Zika response teams and fully believes in following the direction of public health officials. He also played leading roles in guiding recovery from Sandy, Katrina, and the mortgage crisis. During the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, he has worked extensively to share his experience and expertise with leaders in New York and across the nation. He remains inspired by the bravery of our healthcare and other frontline workers fighting to keep us safe in the midst of this crisis."

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

How 2021 Mayoral Candidates Have Responded to Coronavirus Crisis One Will Inherit Thu, 02 Apr 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza on the City's Shift to Remote Learning 2 mxm mdbcovid600

Chancellor Carranza and Mayor de Blasio (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

April 1, 2020 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza on the City's Shift to Remote Learning

wbai robert carranzaNew York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza joined the show to discuss the city's shift to remote learning amid the coronavirus crisis.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Max & Murphy Podcast: Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza on the City's Shift to Remote Learning Wed, 01 Apr 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Mayor and Council Speaker Differ on Creating Open Space, Enforcing Social Distancing Amid Coronavirus Shutdown speaker co jo covid update

Mayor & Speaker at a coronavirus briefing (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

Governor Andrew Cuomo on Sunday gave New York City officials a 24-hour deadline to provide plans for enforcing social distancing in public spaces as the coronavirus continues to rage through the city and the governor said there was too much group activity in the five boroughs under his “pause” orders. Mayor Bill de Blasio has since announced some of the measures his administration is taking but his approach differs from what the New York City Council under Speaker Corey Johnson has proposed. 

Despite repeated requests, neither the mayor’s office nor the governor’s office provided the de Blasio administration’s enforcement plan to Gotham Gazette. The City Council did make its own plan available and it goes much further than what de Blasio announced during his near-daily coronavirus briefings earlier this week.

Cuomo had expressed disappointment with the early days under his tighter stay-at-home and social distancing orders, and repeatedly stated that he had demanded a plan from de Blasio and Johnson for greater enforcement, especially in parks, while also suggesting that the city should open more streespace to pedestrian use.

De Blasio said Tuesday that the city’s enforcement efforts had begun, with NYPD patrols across the five boroughs attempting to ensure that people stay at least six feet apart to avoid exposure to the coronavirus, unless they are members of the same immediate family. Though people can still go to parks and playgrounds, the mayor has warned that he will close them if people do not follow the city’s guidance.

“[W]hat we are seeing is broad adherence to the rules and we're going to make clear through NYPD enforcement and enforcement by many other city agencies that we must have a real respect for these rules,” he said at a Tuesday news conference. “And anyone who is not following the rules will be quickly corrected. They'll be warned, they'll be educated, and NYPD will be out making very clear to people, using our patrol officers and with messages that'll be electronically transmitted all over parks as well as all the person to person contact that we need people to deal with this new reality of social distancing.”

The mayor said he had agreed with the state and City Council to wait till Saturday (March 28) to decide whether playgrounds would remain open. “We will be doing all the enforcement, but if by the end of Saturday, it is not sufficiently clear that New Yorkers are following these new rules, at that point we'll be prepared to shut down playgrounds for the foreseeable future,” he said. The city has already begun removing basketball hoops at 80 courts where people had refused to abide by social distancing guidelines, the mayor announced Wednesday, out of 1,700 across the city. 

He also announced a pilot program to close a small number of streets to vehicular traffic to provide pedestrians more space for social distancing while getting needed fresh air and movement. From Friday through Monday, from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., traffic will be barred on Park Avenue between 28th and 34th Streets in Manhattan; On Bushwick Avenue from Johnson to Flushing in Brooklyn; on 34th Avenue from 73rd Street to 80th Street in Queens; and on the Grand Concourse between East Burnside and 184th Street in the Bronx. That pilot will be closely monitored by the NYPD and reevaluated, de Blasio said, while some worried he was just creating new opportunity for people to too-closely congregate and others said his initiative was so miniscule to be not even worth bothering.

Council Speaker Johnson said in an interview on PIX11 on Thursday that he would have liked to have seen the street closures be more expansive. “I want it to be a bigger area, more streets, but one of the issues that we’ve run into is the lack of personnel that we have to make sure that those areas remain safe, that you’re not seeing crowding there and that you are protecting folks when you are closing streets,” he said, apparently referencing, in part, the fact that the NYPD is starting to see a significant chunk of its workforce out sick or quarantined. “But I wanted wider swathes, longer avenues to actually accommodate folks that may be crowding into parks,” he said. 

The Council’s social distancing plan, a two-page document, also opts for more restrictive measures. It calls for closing and locking all children’s playgrounds, athletic fields and courts; and for the removal of all tennis nets, basketball hoops and any other equipment that is not being cleaned for the entire duration. The plan also suggests removing barbecues in parks. 

The plan acknowledges what Johnson raised in the PIX11 interview, that staffing may be the biggest hurdle. It calls for increased enforcement “using creative models that do not lead to over-policing or profiling,” including increasing the number of park enforcement police, redeploying 1,000-1,500 parks personnel from maintenance work and recreation centers to bolster enforcement, reassigning school crossing guards to parks, and speeding up the launch of the NYPD’s Youth Coordination Officer program to recruit more people to help educate the public about new social distance rules. 

In a statement to Gotham Gazette, Johnson said, “Opening a couple of streets per borough to pedestrians is a good first step, but we need to provide more open public spaces for New Yorkers. Social distancing is a key component in the fight to mitigate the effects of this unprecedented public health crisis. As we battle this pandemic, this initiative once it is expanded could provide some relief to the city's parks as individuals look for places where to walk, exercise and get some fresh air while at the same time taking precautions to protect themselves and fellow New Yorkers."

It’s not the first time since the coronavirus outbreak in New York City that Johnson and de Blasio have disagreed. The speaker called for both closing the city’s public schools and more restrictive stay-at-home orders days before the mayor adopted those positions.

The Council plan also outlines various ways to create new open spaces, particularly in dense parts of the city that lack existing open and green space. Besides restricting vehicles on streets, it suggests expanding pedestrian plazas based off the city’s Summer Streets and Play Streets initiatives and looking at the streets under those initiatives for traffic closures. That push lines up with Johnson’s running focus on creating more space for pedestrians and bike-riders, a key piece of the “streets master plan” legislation he passed last year.

Besides public areas, the Council also recommended that the city look at the possibility of utilizing private spaces such as college campuses with outdoor space, botanical gardens, and finding recreation space in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Brooklyn Army Terminal, or Bush Terminal. 

The plan envisions a mass-media campaign to inform New Yorkers of the new rules, with signage at all parks, playgrounds, and athletic fields, and a multilingual citywide PSA campaign.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Mayor and Council Speaker Differ on Creating Open Space, Enforcing Social Distancing Amid Coronavirus Shutdown Fri, 27 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
City Reconfigures 2020 Census Efforts in Response to Coronavirus — and Reports Good Initial News 2 covid census

Census organizing efforts before coronavirus (photo: @JulieMenin)

Officials at the city, state, and federal levels had for years planned varying efforts to conduct a robust outreach campaign this year for the 2020 Census, to ensure an accurate count of New York’s population that will determine the level of federal funding the state receives and its representation in Congress. But the coronavirus outbreak has upended those plans, which relied heavily on person-to-person contact, especially in the hardest-to-count communities, and officials are beginning to course correct as they worry that an accurate count may be more necessary now than ever before. 

With as many as 17,856 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the city as of Wednesday afternoon, out of a total of 30,811 cases statewide, New York City has quickly become the country’s epicenter of the pandemic. The very density in the city that has contributed to the rapid spread of the virus is also partly what makes it a city where there are numerous challenges to conducting a precise population count.

“We're in unprecedented times, we’re in a crisis of epic proportions,” said New York City 2020 Census Director Julie Menin, in a phone interview, noting that city has had to shift its census strategy, which had been months in the making and was originally intended to press a large ground operation into service. “Post-COVID, we've made a number of very quick shifts,” she added.

The two main phases of the Census are the initial self-response phase, where individuals are encouraged to fill out the census themselves, and the enumeration phase, which involves enumerators hired by the U.S. Census Bureau going door-to-door to count those people who did not respond. 

In a letter sent last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio called on U.S. Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham to extend the current timelines for the Census, including by delaying the self-response deadline from July 31 to September 30; the Bureau has already extended it to August 14. De Blasio also said the Bureau should postpone its early non-response follow-up efforts to the end of summer, otherwise it would miss the many students of colleges and universities that have left the city amid the outbreak and could return later. The Bureau has already postponed that operation from April 9 to April 23, while also changing its protocols for counting people in group quarters. On the same day as the mayor’s letter, the Bureau also suspended all its field operations till April 1.

“Maintaining the current timeframe for census operations in New York City would not only risk severely damaging the accuracy and credibility of the population count, it would also likely exacerbate an already severe public health crisis,” the mayor wrote. 

In New York City’s dense population are concentrations of those who tend to have lower self-response rates such as seniors, homeless people, residents of public housing, people with limited English-proficiency, non-English speakers, African-American communities of varying income bands, Native Americans, undocumented immigrants, people living in group quarters, and more. 

Self responses yield the most accurate data. But the city’s self-response rate of 62% in 2010 was far below the national and state averages of 76%. That’s why city officials were hell-bent on making sure to invest early in efforts to make sure people proactively fill out the census questionnaire. New York City’s $40 million allocation towards census outreach, including $19 million in direct grants to 157 community-based organizations, was the largest investment in such an effort. 

The city’s focus on the first phase seems to have already paid some dividends. Early self-response rates are up from 2010, though this might also owe to the fact that the Census Bureau is mostly asking people to fill out the Census online for the first time. The city’s self-response rate was 16.8% as of March 24 – 16.3% in the Bronx, 15.1%, in Brooklyn, 19.5% in Manhattan, 15.9% in Queens, and 19% in Staten Island. By March 23 in 2010, the self-response rate was only 6% citywide.

But the city had hoped to conduct a broad field operation, particularly through the community-based organizations that were granted funding that would help them reach communities that they interact with each day, that can often go overlooked by the government or may not trust the government for various reasons.

Menin’s office had created Neighborhood Organizing Census Committees that had trained thousands of volunteers, who in turn were training others, to conduct in-person census outreach. There were meant to be 300 pop-up centers where people could fill out the Census. There was an $8 million advertising campaign, with $3 million of it pegged for community and ethnic media. And there were partnerships with private sector businesses and city agencies (110 public library branches were to provide census assistance).

As the actual scope of the COVID-19 pandemic became evident, the city census office quickly shifted tack. They suspended all the door-to-door and street canvassing operations that its partner CBOs were carrying out. Organizations shifted to phone- and text-banking. The office reconfigured its advertising approach, clawing back all its ad contracts with the MTA as ads on the subway, with its plummeting ridership, will no longer have the reach they originally envisioned. Instead, they’re doubling down on digital, social media, television, and radio ads.

“Now it’s more vital than ever, in light of COVID-19,” Menin said, to get an accurate count. “Because funding for hospitals, funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program is directly linked to the Census. We want to make sure that New Yorkers know in this time of crisis for our cities, it becomes more important than ever to feel the sense of that.”

She noted one particularly germane instance of census data being used for a public health response. During the recent measles outbreak in the city, the city Department of Health used census data to determine how many vaccines it would need.    

On Sunday and Monday, the city conducted a “Text Out the Count” campaign – 1,157 people, mostly volunteers, texted 978,195 New Yorkers and received 116,159 responses. Of those, 35,116 said they had already filled out the census while another 4,925 promised to do so, according to the city census office.

“One of the ways in which we've pivoted is that we now know we need to double down on that strategy,” said Amit Bagga, deputy director of NYC Census 2020, noting that the infrastructure was already in place. “We've built it in such a way that it is allowing us to be nimble quickly and pivot very, very quickly.”

While the city had the benefit of laying months of groundwork, including 500 events around the city before the Census even began, the state has repeatedly dragged its feet. When Gotham Gazette inquired, the state had little to offer about how its own efforts have undoubtedly been hobbled by the pandemic.

Governor Cuomo had pledged a $60 million overall effort, including $20 million in grant funding that has not been sent out to nonprofits, many of which are already working on census outreach. The rest of the spending was meant to reflect state agency operations shifted toward census work, while the governor was seeking another $10 million in the upcoming state budget. 

Much of the state’s plans prior to the outbreak, which were provided by the Division of Budget, involved using the public-facing aspects of state entities to get out the census message. For example, the MTA would have used its ad space to tell people to fill out the Census. The Metro-North Railroad could have informed people at its monthly customer forums and “Station Talk” initiatives, where station managers meet and greet commuters. 

The State Athletic Commission would have provided census materials at its events. Various departments such as the Divisions of Licensing, the Division of Consumer Protection, and the Department of Motor Vehicles would have posted signage at their offices, visited by millions each year. 

But virtually all those proposed efforts fall apart when the public is told to remain at home to avoid exposure to the COVID-19 outbreak. There are no long lines at the DMV. Subways are running with far fewer passengers. The Athletic Commission is suspending events.  

Asked specifically about how the state was revamping its efforts, spokespeople for the governor did not provide any details or make anyone available for comment. Freeman Klopott, a state Division of Budget spokesperson, said in a statement, “State agencies continue to advance outreach plans and deploy resources as applicable in the current environment as part of the statewide campaign to ensure every New Yorker is counted. As soon as is possible, direct outreach efforts will move forward.”

But with the governor himself predicting that the crisis could last up to nine months, it’s hard to imagine how soon direct outreach will be possible. State Senator Zellnor Myrie, a Brooklyn Democrat who has focused on the Census, said he’s hoping the state will recalibrate its efforts but hasn’t heard anything about how.

“For those of us who have been talking about the Census for the past six months, this is the worst case scenario,” Myrie said. “This is exactly what we did not want to happen. We did not want the count to begin and for us to be behind the ball. It's why we were so persistent in our calls for the release of the money.” 

He also noted that the federal government’s lackluster response to New York’s pleas for more resources to fight the outbreak are the very debate central to the Census. “Part of the fight with this crisis is not getting what we deserve from the federal government,” he said. “New York is at the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis, yet we are not receiving the requisite resources. That's the exact argument that we have made for why the Census should be the most important thing, because we don't get the federal money that we deserve on a consistent basis. So I'm hoping that we can invest to avoid that catastrophe.”

[You can fill out the census online here. A digital code is not required though one might have been/be sent to you in the mail. You can also fill it out by phone by calling 844-330-2020. The Bureau also offers assistance and different phone lines for various languages. You can find those here.]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

City Reconfigures 2020 Census Efforts in Response to Coronavirus — and Reports Good Initial News Wed, 25 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Remote Learning Begins for the City's 1 Million Students internet access

Students at laptops (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

March 25, 2020 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Remote Learning Begins for the City's 1 Million Students

The coronavirus outbreak led Mayor Bill de Blasio to close the city's schools and direct the Department of Education to shift to "remote learning" for its 1 million-plus students. Alex Zimmerman, an education reporter from from Chalkbeat NY, joined the show to discuss the shift to remote learning, how it's gone in its first days, and the larger picture for the city's massive school system.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Max & Murphy Podcast: Remote Learning Begins for the City's 1 Million Students Wed, 25 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Poll: New Yorkers Financially Strained by Coronavirus, Approve Governor's Response More Than Mayor’s briefing novel covid

(photo: Don Pollard/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)

As New Yorkers find themselves at the country’s epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, a majority of them are worried that they do not have the financial resources to survive if the current situation lasts more than a few months, according to a new poll. And in this time of uncertainty and anxiety, the poll found that more New Yorkers are looking to Governor Andrew Cuomo to shepherd them out of the crisis than Mayor Bill de Blasio. 

The poll, of 807 registered New York City voters, was conducted online between March 20-22 by Change Research and was commissioned by Arena, a national progressive organization formed by former campaign staffers to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, which trains Democratic candidates and campaign staff. 

After a somewhat slow start, Governor Cuomo’s leadership during the outbreak has been broadly praised. His daily briefings are now being carried by cable and broadcast networks, and he has been commended for providing a semblance of calm and stability during a particularly unpredictable time, while also pushing for what New York needs to combat the crisis. In the new poll, Cuomo received an overwhelming 73% approval rating from those surveyed. And 47% of those polled said the governor is doing an “excellent” job of handling the coronavirus outbreak; another 30% said he is doing a “good’ job, and 15% said he is doing a “fair” job. Only 7% of voters polled said he is doing a “poor” job. 

De Blasio fared far worse, with a 40% approval rating. More than a third of voters, 31%, said he is doing a poor job of handling the crisis; while 14% gave him an excellent rating; 28% said he is doing a good job; and 26% said he is doing a fair job of it. 

The ratings aren’t all that surprising for the mayor, who has seen his favorability on the slide in his second term, well before the coronavirus outbreak. For the governor, however, the numbers reflected a significant bounce from other recent polling. As recently as February, Cuomo saw his favorability rating fall to 44 in a Siena College Research Institute poll, compared to 50% of respondents who gave him an unfavorable rating. As the poll noted at the time, the governor’s ratings have “been on a seesaw” for the last year. 

But political leadership aside, what worries New Yorkers more is how they will be able to weather the financial impact of the coronavirus, which has already led to many layoffs across several major industries and the suspension of non-essential businesses. 

“New Yorkers have lost faith in the Mayor and are increasingly looking towards the Governor to lead us out of this nightmare,” said Ravi Gupta, co-founder and managing partner of Arena, in a statement. “Most importantly, New Yorkers are financially strained and feeling the walls closing in. If relief doesn’t come fast, we’ll see suffering throughout the city at levels we haven’t seen in decades.”

The poll found that just over half, 51%, feel secure in their current jobs; 24% worry they may lose employment, while 14% said they had already lost their jobs because of the coronavirus. The rest had been unemployed before the outbreak began.

Only 42% said they would have enough money to meet their basic needs if the shutdown situation across the city lasts through the end of April; 36% were sure they wouldn’t have enough, while 22% just remained uncertain. 

If the shutdown lasts through July, the numbers look worse. Only 30% of New Yorkers surveyed said they were confident they could meet their needs over that timeline, while 47% were not. Governor Cuomo has warned that the pandemic could very well last for months beyond that, perhaps even through the end of the year, while New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot has often pegged September as a hopeful return to normal city business.

Part of people’s relative confidence may stem from the fact that a large number of voters surveyed, 42%, believed that social isolations and business closings would end within two months while another 28% thought it would take three to four months. Only 16% believe it could take longer. 

Despite the widespread anxiety, however, New Yorkers were broadly supportive of the measures that officials have taken to stem the tide: 93% agreed with the decision to close the city’s public schools and only 5% disagreed. In total, 80% also strongly support or somewhat support a “shelter-in-place” order, while 17% strongly or somewhat opposed it.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Poll: New Yorkers Financially Strained by Coronavirus, Approve Governor's Response More Than Mayor’s Wed, 25 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Coronavirus and Cycling: Bike-Riding Surge Leads to Calls for Better Infrastructure, More Open Space cycling covid

Coronavirus has created a new cycling world (photo: NYC Department of Transportation)

New York City has seen a spike in cycling since the beginning of the confirmed coronavirus outbreak here. With most New Yorkers staying off the subway to avoid the spread of the virus, some have sought new ways of getting around, whether to their jobs (before and, for fewer commuters, since the near-shutdown order from the governor) or to make essential trips for groceries or exercise. And there are, of course, those who use bikes for their work, with food delivery expected to spike given restaurants are indefinitely closed to dine-in business.

The New York City Department of Transportation tweeted on March 11, saying, “We’ve seen a surge in cycling since the beginning of March, with warmer temperatures and after recommendations from @NYCMayor and @nycHealthy regarding COVID-19. This week we’ve seen a 50+% increase in cycling on all East River Bridges (vs. 2019).”

According to data provided by the NYCDOT, Citi Bike, a bike-share network, saw 802,299 rides from March 1-March 17 of this year, up from 649,451 in 2019 and 508,411 in 2018 for the same March dates.

With an increase in demand, there were been quick and loud calls for the city to improve residents’ access to cycling infrastructure, and the protections that come with it. Jon Orcutt, the director of communications at Bike New York, believes the city should implement a “system of pop up bike lanes or even streets for bike priority and extend the bike network” to help accommodate and encourage demand.

The city has begun some measures to expand access and safety for New Yorkers.

“To ensure cycling in the city is safer and easier, the City will install temporary protected bike lanes along 2nd Avenue from 42nd to 34th street in Manhattan, and on Smith Street in Brooklyn, from Atlantic Avenue to Fulton Street, connecting to existing lanes on Jay Street. These temporary protected bike lanes will plug two key gaps on two of the busiest bike corridors in the city,” a March 20 announcement from the mayor’s office says.

As restrictions on time in public and socializing have grown, there have been calls, including from advocates, Governor Andrew Cuomo, and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, for the city to close some streets to cars, opening them up for pedestrians and bike-riders. On Tuesday de Blasio said he will initially be closing two streets per borough to cars, starting Thursday, but said specifics were not yet available. Bike repair shops have been deemed “essential” businesses.

“I think we all have to be understanding that city agencies are affected like the rest of us in terms of working from home, disconnected from computer networks, having kids and mothers to care for,” said Orcutt. “So the city is going to do pop-up bike lanes this week on 2nd Avenue at the Midtown Tunnel and the street leading to the Brooklyn Bridge. And so what we're hoping is that it goes well and the city can see doing more. If we're going to put cones and barrels on streets, there's got to be some degree of monitoring and management of that. And I think that's what they're trying to figure out -- what is their capacity to do that while keeping their staff safe.”

On Monday Cuomo called for New York City to present him with a plan within 24 hours for how the city would better enforce and encourage social distancing requirements, breaking up any congregations that Cuomo said have been prevalent in city parks, especially.

“There are many options,” Cuomo said. “You have much less traffic in New York City because non-essential workers aren't going to work. Get creative. Open streets to reduce the density. You want to go for a walk? God bless you. You want to go for a run? God bless you. But let's open streets, let's open space - that's where people should be, in open spaces areas, not in dense locations.”

De Blasio then said on Tuesday that he’s in the process of choosing the two streets in each borough to initially close to cars, and said the governor was on board with that part of the plan, while the mayor had indicated previously and reiterated that the NYPD would increase social distancing enforcement in parks and around the city.

Asked at his Tuesday coronavirus briefing why he was closing so few streets, de Blasio said, in part, “Enforcement, enforcement, enforcement – if you open up a bunch of streets and you cannot enforce because you're spreading out our resources too much into places we haven't normally had to enforce, you're going to have a problem of gatherings starting to happen and people not observing social distancing because there's no enforcement mechanism. So, what I – right now, we have a huge system of parks and playgrounds people are used to going to and we know where they are and we know how to enforce them and that's what we're doing. But we're going to work to set up a select number of other locations, but with enforcement attached.”

If the city can enforce what it does do now on this front, the mayor continued, then an expansion of the approach is possible. “If you cannot get regular presence from city agencies that are being stretched all over the place right now,” de Blasio said, “if you cannot get regular eyes on and regular enforcement, you run the risk of exacerbating social distancing rather than reducing social distancing.”

Transportation Alternatives, a nonprofit advocacy group, and Bike New York released a statement Monday calling for a sweeping approach by the city to convert streets to improve cycling and pedestrian access while improving social distancing opportunities. They suggest opening certain streets “exclusively to pedestrians, cyclists and emergency and essential vehicles,” including zones around hospitals, the New York City marathon route, streets routinely closed for Summer Streets, city fair routes, and streets with robust block associations. In each of these circumstances, the city has a history of closing the streets, they noted, increasing the feasibility of doing so now.

The advocates also offered a dozen recommended other streets that they say make sense to close to cars, including Shore Boulevard within Astoria Park, Crotona Avenue and Claremont Avenue within Crotona Park, the Jackie Robinson Parkway, and East Fordham Road between the New York Botanical Garden and the Bronx Zoo.

“There is a wealth of street space in the five boroughs that could be converted into social distancing-friendly places for people,” the statement reads. “Should the City require more hands to turn these proposals into a reality, Transportation Alternatives, Bike New York and our partners stand ready to enlist a corps of volunteers to help construct and maintain these car-free corridors. New York City bicyclists stepped up in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, and we know they will rise to the occasion again.”

On Tuesday de Blasio also announced that Citi Bike, which is owned by Lyft, is offering a month’s free membership to “essential” workers, a category that includes many city government workers, as well as health care personnel and others. Citi Bike offers over 13,000 bikes at 850 stations across four boroughs, according to its website (there are no Citi Bikes on Staten Island and the service is limited in its reach into the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn).

Citi Bike’s website currently has coronavirus-related reminders to “Please take care of yourself, wash your hands before and after riding, and only travel for essential purposes.” The company has also said it is “increasing our cleaning protocols.”

“We recognize that Citi Bike may be a preferred transportation option for many in our community during this time,” a Citi Bike representative said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “We’re making sure riders have access to official Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidance on how to keep themselves healthy, and we are implementing increased sanitation measures. We’re also actively working with NYCDOT to increase capacity in the network to provide more access. We’ll continue to monitor the situation closely, and are ready to take action based on guidance from the CDC.”

Before the virus emerged here, New York City was in the process of implementing different biking-related plans, including pieces of the mayor’s larger Vision Zero street safety plan and the Green Wave plan to increase cycling opportunities and safety.

Amid the coronavirus crisis the city announced a few changes to continue to push the Green Wave plan forward, including signal progressions, which allow cyclists to hit fewer red lights as they travel, on 43rd Avenue in Queens, Clinton Street in Brooklyn, and Prince Street in Manhattan.

The safety of bike-riders continues to be a major concern for advocates and many officials, especially as new riders emerge. Twenty-eight people were killed while riding a bike in New York City last year, an almost 21% increase in such fatalities from 2018, according to city data from the Vision Zero portal.

As part of the current public health crisis and accompanying government orders for peope to stay home, car traffic has declined significantly in the city, making the streets increasingly bikeable, but Orcutt explains this as something of a catch-22.

“There’s two things going on,” Orcutt said. “The streets have much less traffic than usual, which is great, but also people are driving faster.”

The mayor and NYPD commissioner have said they will address the apparent issue of more speeding on the more open roads, and the DOT has pushed out a few tweets seeking to raise awareness of safety in the city.

“If you are driving, always watch out for” pedestrians and cyclists, it tweeted March 11, using symbolic emojis, especially given major cycling increases. “IF you are new to #bikenyc, remember to stay seen, safe and street legal with these tips,” it continued, along with a safety infographic for bike-riders.

by Katie Kirker, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Coronavirus and Cycling: Bike-Riding Surge Leads to Calls for Better Infrastructure, More Open Space Tue, 24 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
De Blasio Names 'Food Czar' to Combat Impending Hunger Crisis with 'Mobilization We've Never Seen Before' action network mayor

Mayor de Blasio serves food (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)

As the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, has spread in New York, people have begun buying food off the shelves of local supermarkets to prepare for prolonged periods of isolation in the face of the virus. Public schools and senior centers are closing, many of which provide vulnerable New York City residents with food and meals, and tens of thousands of people appear to have already been laid off from their jobs, all leaving New Yorkers increasingly worried about food access.

While food is still coming into stores, some nonprofit emergency food providers report added premiums as demand has risen and struggles to afford the quantity of food they need during this crisis, leaving many poor New Yorkers increasingly vulnerable to food shortages. A huge surge in unemployment and lost work-hours could quickly push many New Yorkers to the brink of not knowing where their next meals will come from or how they’ll feed their children.

Mayor Bill de Blasio is taking a number of steps to ensure access to food for the city’s most vulnerable -- roughly 20% of New York City residents live in poverty, and just over 14% of New York City residents are food insecure, and rely on services such as food pantries and soup kitchens for meals, according to Food Bank For New York City, -- including meal handouts at shuttered schools and new measures announced this weekend.

As part of larger efforts to combat the spread of coronavirus and its impacts, de Blasio on Saturday announced a restructuring of some of his senior leadership, including naming Kathryn Garcia, currently the city’s sanitation commissioner, as “COVID-19 Food Czar,” responsible for creating, operationalizing, and overseeing “a structure for working New Yorkers to get the food they need during this pandemic. Garcia will also work with City and State agencies, including the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy, as well as food distributors to take any action necessary to ensure the city’s food supply continues without disruption.”

Meanwhile, Food Bank and other nonprofit emergency food providers and their allies are also attempting to combat the impacts of the pandemic’s reach throughout society.

“1.5 million New Yorkers rely on the Food Bank For New York City every year,” the Food Bank posted on Instagram March 16. “As the #COVID19 health crisis continues to unfold, that number will grow. Our warehouse remains open and our trucks are on the road to ensure food is delivered to our network of over 1,000 soup kitchens and food pantries across the city."

On March 17, Food Bank For New York City issued a call to New Yorkers for help.

“Amid mounting concerns around the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) public health crisis, Food Bank For New York City is calling on New Yorkers to support those struggling with food insecurity during this critical time. Food Bank anticipates an extreme rise in need for food and resources in the coming weeks, particularly among vulnerable New Yorkers such as seniors with chronic medical conditions, families with children who may lose up to two free school meals each day as NYC’s public schools remain closed for at least the next five weeks, and low-income and hourly workers,” it wrote in a press release.

“I'm desperately concerned that a lot of New Yorkers are running out of money and that's the money they use to buy food, among other crucial necessities,” de Blasio said at a Sunday press conference.”

Calling Garcia “one of our most extraordinary public servants,” de Blasio said that as Food Czar she will be working with many entities to “create a citywide network to ensure that food is available to those who cannot afford it.”

“It's going to take a mobilization such as we've never seen before,” de Blasio said, saying Garcia will “work with all of those agencies that currently do food relief, the Human Resources Administration, the Mayor's Office of Food Policy, obviously state agencies, Food Bank, soup kitchens, so many amazing nonprofit organizations. She'll work with all of them, but she's going to build something bigger and more comprehensive than we've ever seen in New York City.”

De Blasio said the work begins with “the assumption that food will become much more of an issue going forward and that many people will have a strain that they have not experienced previously because of huge disruptions in their own income.”

In a Sunday statement to Gotham Gazette, Garcia said:

“Ensuring that New Yorkers have a steady supply of food, whether that is a home-delivered meal or provisions from a grocery store, is a top priority. To ensure this, we have had to create brand new models to get food directly to those who need it. New York City is focused on ensuring that the COVID vulnerable population has food. That is the immediate need that we are solving for. We have the full food landscape on our radar, including the tremendous newly food insecure population as a result of job loss. Additionally, we have our eyes on the larger food supply so that we have constant awareness of any vulnerabilities and intervene. We are working with private food vendors, delivery services, and the robust emergency food feeding network to make all of this happen. We will have more to say about these efforts soon.”

The United Way of New York City has already developed a fund to help ensure all New Yorkers have access to food. “We have launched the UWNYC COVID-19 Community Fund to raise the critical funds needed for food and supplies,” Sheena Wright, president and CEO of United Way of New York City, said in an email to Gotham Gazette. “With support from New Yorkers across the City, this fund will allow us to assist in closing the gap. We want to help people who rely on pantries and kitchens to be well-resourced and prepared for this situation.”

David Greenfield, CEO of Met Council, said his organization has been preparing an emergency plan since the first case of coronavirus was identified in New York. Met Council provides food to 40 kosher food pantries in New York, serving, on average, 56,000 people per month, according to Greenfield.

“We’ve seen an explosion, really a shocking explosion and need and the people are coming to us from across the spectrum, from assessment, from anything, from housing, to social services, to seniors who are shuttered in their homes, to quite frankly, tens of thousands of people who have lost their jobs for the first time,” Greenfield said in an interview.

“I don’t think people appreciate the strain that not-for-profits are under,” Greenfield said. “Unlike government and private corporations that have deep benches of reserves, we don’t. We’re living generally month to month. And what's happened now is that because of this huge extra new need, we’re actually purchasing more food so that we can meet needs. For our organization alone, we have projected that this month, just in the next two weeks, we are spending an additional $1.1 million in our food department just on coronavirus response.”

Even before naming Garcia to the Food Czar role, Mayor de Blasio promised major pieces of a response to a potentially drastic deepening of the city’s food insecurity crisis.

New York City public schools were closed as of Monday, March 16. Given that many students rely on school for two free daily meals, officials are trying to ensure students still have access to food as the city shifts to remote learning for an indefinite period. During the first week of school closure, the city handed out meals outside of schools, from the morning through lunchtime, and, according to the mayor’s office, gave away roughly 560,000 meals.

Beginning Monday, March 23, de Blasio tweeted on Friday, “435 sites will be open for Grab-and-Go breakfast, lunch AND dinner for children. Any child under 18 is eligible. None will be turned away.”

The mayor followed that up by saying “We’re also partnering with @DoorDash to get food to the homes of medically fragile students. No child will go hungry. Not on our watch.”

According to a Friday evening press release from the mayor’s office, it’s actually going to be “439 hub sites citywide” where young people can get food, “100 of the sites were high participation sites in Summer, 2019, and the remaining sites are schools where more than 50 percent of the students are eligible for free and reduced meals.”

The release also mentioned the developing partnership with Door Dash to deliver meals “to students whose medical needs are so significant that they should not be leaving the home even to get meals.”

It continues to say that “food delivery will also be made available to children who reside in City shelters.” Families can “search “Free Meals” on or call 311 to find a site near them. Starting Monday, families can also text FOOD or COMIDA to 877-877 to find a meal near them. A complete list of meal hubs is available here.”

The Food Education Fund, a nonprofit in the city, has created a webpage, the COVID-19 Food Hub NYC, to “share resources on available food sources for families and share general resources created by our partner organizations.” The website includes a map of food service providers donating to families of public school students in the city, how to volunteer, to donate, or to add resources to the website itself.

Senior centers in New York City were also closed as of March 16, suspending all activities but also still providing to-go meals to seniors who need access, and will make deliveries to those who cannot come to the centers themselves, according to de Blasio.  

As the city continues to see long lines at some grocers and runs on things like toilet paper, bread, and more, food continues to fly off the shelves and be replenished. De Blasio and others have stressed that the supply chains for food and basic household goods is sound. On March 16 he noted “a very intensive resupply in recent days,” but added that while this is good news, the bad news is everything is being snapped up quickly.

“But if there's someone in your life, someone older, someone with one of those preexisting conditions, someone who has a disability that keeps them from getting out and getting supplies they need, either help them by getting what they need for them or share your supply enough to help them out,” de Blasio said. But that was before much more restrictive orders were issued by Governor Andrew Cuomo, urged by de Blasio, to insist that people stay home as much as possible, forbid commuting for all those not deemed part of “essential services,” and stress the importance of not exposing the most vulnerable, especially older people, to infection with coronavirus.

These new restrictions, announced by Cuomo on Friday, make food access even more complicated for many. The governor did say that food delivery is an essential service.

And the supply chain remains a key aspect of the equation and nationally it is working well and increasing the amount of food distributed to meet demand, The New York Times reported on March 16. There will still be bare shelves at times as individuals nationwide continue to scoop up products and retailers figure out how to respond to demand quickly.

Greenfield argues that even though food supply is strong, it still disadvantages nonprofits. As grocery stores need more product to sell to meet need, they are willing to pay a higher premium, which forces nonprofit organizations, like food banks, to dish out more money to meet the demand they feel.

“We can’t compete with what they’re paying. They’ll pay anything. If you’re a grocery store, they will pay anything because their customers will pay anything. We budgeted a certain amount that we’ve always budgeted for the last 20 years,” Greenfield said. “We can’t afford to pay three times as much. We are, because we have no choice. What am I going to say, you can’t have eggs? So I’m buying it, but at the end of the day that’s costing me hundreds of thousands of dollars more.”

National advocates are pushing for food assistance as well. Hunger Free America wanted to see the federal government pass the “Families First Coronavirus Response Act,” a relief bill that would provide funds to make it easier for schools, senior programs, and food charities to provide alternative meals, and also create a “federally funded program to give extra food purchasing dollars to all families with children in closed schools,” according to a press release from Hunger Free. The bill was signed by President Donald Trump on March 18.

“This massive increase in the pre-existing hunger crisis demands a massive, highly-coordinated response by federal, state, and city government agencies, as well as corporations, nonprofit groups, and philanthropies,” Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, said in a statement. Once the Families First Coronavirus Response Act becomes law, he said, “one top priority for such joint efforts should be helping eligible families enroll in the new government food benefits available. The other key priority should be dramatically ramping-up the home delivery of meals to older Americans, children, and families who lost income.”

On a hyperlocal level, groups are taking action. The Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce is helping to lead the launch of an emergency food distribution center in Flushing. “The Flushing community is proactively organizing volunteers to contact local residents, including homebound individuals, who may need emergency food assistance ahead of a possible City lockdown this week,” a press release from the group said before Cuomo gave his orders that are not a “lockdown” per se, but amount to significant limits on what New Yorkers should be doing outside their homes and who they should be interacting with.

And some individual New Yorkers appear to be quickly responding on their own. A GoFundMe fundraiser page appeared late last week to raise money for the Food Bank For New York City. The page is called “Helping New York City During COVID-19” and was started by Frederick Joseph. It quickly surpassed its $20,000 goal, with the post noting that every $1 to the Food Bank provides five meals for those in need.

“Cancellations of large events, fewer people at restaurants, and school closings means that wage workers who live on hourly pay + tips are going to be having a harder time than usual making ends meet,” Joseph’s explanation of the fundraiser reads. “It also means that some adults and children who rely on meals from these places may struggle with hunger. We need to make sure that the non-profits who serve our communities have the resources both to keep their volunteers and staff healthy and to provide food to meet rising demand.”

As the situation develops, it is unclear how demand for food will change, especially since some are predicting this will be a six-to-nine month crisis, if not longer. “With schools closed and the overall uncertainty, we need a comprehensive approach to replacing these missing meals,” said Wright of United Way. “We will have to consider new food distribution strategies, maybe even going door to door to make sure people have the food they need. This is an unprecedented event, and I am not surprised that our food pantry and soup kitchen operators, who can, continue to serve their communities. I am so inspired by their dedication. They have modified their operations to adapt to this crisis, and we are so thankful for their fast response and commitment to meeting on-the-ground need right now.”

by Katie Kirker, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

De Blasio Names 'Food Czar' to Combat Impending Hunger Crisis with 'Mobilization We've Never Seen Before' Sun, 22 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
As They Issue Dire Shortage Warnings, Neither State Nor City Has Plan for Ventilator Triage gov cuomoo 3way

Gov. Cuomo gives dire warnings about hospital capacity (photo: Darren McGee/Governor's Office)

City and state officials have been saying for over a week that as the spread of coronavirus continues New York's hospitals will not be able to provide life-saving treatment for everyone who needs it. One of the most immediate needs is ventilators, which are required to save the most critical COVID-19 patients and are already in short supply in New York City hospitals. With the note of alarm reaching a fever pitch in recent days, public health officials have not made available an official policy regarding ventilator triage, and have not said that any exist.

The pace of urgent developments and the overwhelming set of challenges posed by the unprecedented coronavirus crisis have left the state's highest officials themselves triaging the most pressing life-or-death matters. Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio have been calling on the federal government to provide more medical supplies -- most importantly ventilators -- while also pursuing them themselves.

Saying on Sunday that he had actually been able to secure an additional 6,000 ventilators, Cuomo said, "Ventilators are the most important piece of equipment and the piece of equipment that is most scarce.”

De Blasio is now saying New York City will need more ventilators very soon to avoid additional loss of life. The mayor said on CNN Monday morning that on Sunday evening he told President Trump and Vice President Pence, “if we don't get a supply of ventilators quickly, our public hospital system, literally after about a week or so, we will not have enough ventilators to keep people alive who could live through this crisis and could be saved.”

As of Monday afternoon, 1,500 of the city's 3,500 ventilators were in use, according to the mayor's office, and the administration is seeking 15,000 from the federal government by April. In the afternoon, the mayor announced the federal government was sending the city an initial 400 ventilators to help.

Calling ventilators “the number one precious commodity” during a Monday briefing from Albany, Cuomo said that there are 3,000 ICU beds across the state, but that “we may need between 18,000 to 37,000. That's my greatest concern because that's where we need ventilators to turn those ICU beds into beds for people suffering from the virus."

But as they predict dire situations and scramble to secure more ventilators, New York government and public health officials do not yet appear to be creating any ventilator allocation policies. 

And the likely shortfall and short timeline are worrisome for medical ethicists who say any government policy that may ultimately dictate who lives and who dies should be thoroughly communicated and publicly vetted.

Asked about ventilator triage guidelines and policy-making, a spokesperson for the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene told Gotham Gazette that such guidelines fall into the state Department of Health’s jurisdiction.

In response to a Gotham Gazette inquiry about how difficult decisions will be made by doctors when there are not enough ventilators to save every patient, a spokesperson for the state Department of Health (DOH) wrote: "Under Governor Cuomo’s direction, hospitals in New York State continue to rapidly modify their current operating function to accommodate increasing support for patients with COVID-19 as well as the rest of the hospital population. Specific tactics include stopping elective procedures, reducing current inpatient population and expanding bed capacity. Commissioner of Health Dr. Howard Zucker has discussed this with senior hospital leadership from throughout New York State, and this is being enacted throughout the state."

A council led by Ken Raske, president of the Greater New York Hospital Association, and Michael Dowling, president of Northwell Health, has been tasked by the governor with developing hospital surge capacity. That body would be responsible for making decisions about ventilator allocation, according to another DOH spokesperson.

At this point in the state's response, the council is discussing every aspect of managing hospital surge, that spokesperson said, with the focus now on ensuring that the required equipment and processes are in place. Cuomo has already made several announcements about how the state is increasing hospital capacity, including with federal help.

In 2015, the DOH's New York State Task Force on Life and the Law developed guidelines for ventilators in a influenza pandemic, which Zucker described as "a foreseeable threat" in the report's introduction. While the task force's guidelines were designed with a "severe pandemic" in mind, the DOH spokesperson said that it is not a binding policy document steering the state's response, though it has been well circulated and read recently within the Department.

Notably, an FAQ accompanying the report specifically mentioned that the state would not be able to stockpile enough ventilators for such a scenario. The stated question was, "Can the State stockpile as many ventilators as would be needed in a severe pandemic?" The answer reads, "Even if New York State purchases additional ventilators, the demand would quickly outpace supply in a severe pandemic. No matter how many ventilators are available, in a severe pandemic there will be shortages because so many people will be sick at the same time. In addition, even with enough ventilators, a sufficient number of trained staff may not be available to operate them, particularly because health care workers will be among the ill."      

The guidelines are broken into three different categories for triaging ventilators (adult, pediatric, and neonatal guidelines) and consider a set of exclusion criteria and mortality risk with treatment. Exclusion criteria include medical conditions connected with "immediate or near-immediate mortality even with aggressive therapy," according to a fact sheet accompanying the document.

Advanced age, disability, “social worth,” are not exclusion criteria under the guidelines. Healthcare providers assessing adult mortality risk use a scoring system called SOFA (Sequential Organ Failure Assessment). For pediatric and neonatal, determinations should be made through "physician clinical judgment, a structured decision-making process that carefully considers only specific clinical factors based on available medical evidence," the sheet said.

Ethicists have been thinking about this at least since the SARS outbreak in 2003, according to Dr. Alison Bateman-House, assistant professor in the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU School of Medicine attached to NYU Langone Health. "When we saw the SARS epidemic and there were more people critically ill than we had the machines to provide for, people actually did the hard work of sitting down and saying, 'Well, if we're going to have to make difficult choices, how do we make them?'"

"Obviously no one was planning per se for COVID-19, because it is new and novel, but the basic principles were there of, there is some sort of respiratory disease that is widely infectious and we don't have enough equipment, how do we prioritize?" she said of the 2015 task force guidelines.

The task force estimated that in a severe pandemic the state could see a shortfall of as many as 15,783 ventilators. President Trump, citing claims made in an op-ed published by former New York State Lieutenant Governor Betsy McCaughey, said Tuesday that New York's current projected shortfall is Cuomo's failure for not purchasing more ventilators in 2015.

The report briefly addresses the idea of stockpiling ventilators and illuminates the state's thinking in 2015. "The State’s current approach to stockpiling a limited number of ventilators balances the need to prepare for a potential pandemic against the need to maintain adequate funding for current and ongoing health care expenses," the report reads. At the time, the state had 1,750 ventilators in reserve.

A footnote later states: "There are significant financial burdens associated with obtaining, storing, and maintaining equipment and supplies. In addition, stockpiling results in significant opportunity costs when choosing stockpiling over another priority."

In terms of hospital capacity, Governor Cuomo has been focused on three things: reducing the rate of the outbreak's spread to help distribute the burden on hospitals over a longer period of time; building new hospital space with the help of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and local stakeholders; and securing necessary medical equipment, from masks to gowns to ventilators. The state DOH says there are also plans to redistribute resources from hospitals in areas that have not been hit hardest.

With more than 60% of the confirmed coronavirus cases statewide, New York City's hospitals may experience the most imminent shortages. As of 6 p.m. Sunday, the Mayor’s Office reported 10,764 positive cases of COVID-19 and 99 related fatalities, with at least 1,800 people hospitalized due to the virus, and of those individuals, at least 450 in the ICU, where ventilators are typically used.

“I made clear to them what I need right now is action, not words, and every day counts because we're literally in that very tight window now that if we don't get the ventilators in particular we will actually start to lose lives who could have been saved,” de Blasio said on CNN Monday of his conversation with Trump and Pence.

The mayor is imploring the federal government to deliver ventilators, surgical masks, gloves and gowns using its emergency production powers, which have in previous times of crisis been used to mandate factories produce necessary supplies. Even as he also asks Trump to produce more ventilators and other essential supplies and deliver them to New York, Cuomo has been purchasing and otherwise securing such equipment. The governor made the Sunday announcement that the state has purchased an additional 6,000 ventilators and is redistributing existing ones to the areas with the highest needs throughout the state, he said.

As with the state, the city's public health officials have not formalized a plan for ventilator allocation and in some ways appear to be ignoring the issue.

A spokesperson for New York City Health + Hospitals, the city's system of 16 public hospitals and other health care facilities, told Gotham Gazette by email Friday that there were no plans to implement ventilator triage and that every patient who needs a ventilator would receive one. The spokesperson noted that Health + Hospitals is a single health system that could shift resources from one facility to another as needed, and that it is coordinating closely with city, state, and federal agencies to ensure the most clinically appropriate care is provided.

In response to an inquiry Friday seeking clarity on the apparently contradictory information coming from the Mayor and Health + Hospitals, a spokesperson wrote, "We expect to meet our patient’s [sic] needs."

In terms of the city's private hospitals and coordination with City Hall and the public system, mayoral spokesperson Freddi Goldstein said that "There is a daily call” among Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Dr. Raul Perea-Henze, Health + Hospitals CEO Dr. Mitchell Katz, and Ken Raske, the president and CEO of the Greater New York Hospital Association, which represents 250 not-for-profit hospitals in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.

During an appearance this past week on the New York Times podcast The Daily, host Michael Barbaro asked Governor Cuomo about how the apparently imminent choices of which critical patients get ventilators and which do not will be made. "Well, I pray we don’t get there,” Cuomo said. “But if we get there, it should be a medical decision. Unless God intervenes and God makes the determination first."

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: This article has been updated with the latest ventilator information from the mayor's office on Monday afternoon and Cuomo's Monday comments about ventilators and ICU beds, as well as additional information on ventilator stockpiles from the 2015 DOH Task Force report. 

As They Issue Dire Shortage Warnings, Neither State Nor City Has Plan for Ventilator Triage Mon, 23 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
City Closes Hundreds of Senior Centers, But Will Provide Meals to Aging Population Especially Vulnerable to Coronavirus protect launch project

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Sunday that all senior centers in the city will be closing in an effort to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, to vulnerable populations.

“We will be closing our senior centers, ending all programming there with the exception of activities related to food. We will turn them into feeding centers, again, focused on grab-and-go, meaning pickup of meals for those seniors for whom that works,” de Blasio said during a press conference Sunday, when he also announced the closure of city schools for at least five weeks, among other drastic measures to help contain the virus and its impacts.

“They'll all primarily be locations for preparing and delivering meals to seniors’ homes,” the mayor continued. “So instead of being a place for seniors to go to eat meals in the senior center, they'll become a dispensary to get quality meals out to seniors, whether it's by delivery or by pickup, but we will no longer have any programming in our senior centers.”

The city’s Department for the Aging (DFTA) oversees “230 neighborhood senior centers, 16 innovative senior centers, and 39 sites affiliated with senior centers” across the city and has 1,393 contracts with agency providers to deliver services, many of which provide meals, according to budget documents.

DFTA’s senior centers serve nearly 30,000 individuals each day, and provide meals, recreational, health promotion and cultural activities, according to the department’s 2019 Annual Plan Summary.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has identified individuals over 50, and those with illnesses such as cancer, lung disease, heart disease, diabetes or a weakened immune system at high risk of contracting the disease. Early data also suggests that “older people are twice as likely to have serious COVID-19 illness.”

New York City continues to see increases in the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19, the function of both more testing and community spread of the disease. There are more than 900 confirmed cases and more than ten deaths, through Tuesday afternoon, with many of those infected and the majority killed over 50 years old.

The United States, New York State, and New York City have all declared states of emergency in an effort to increase resources available to slow the spread of the coronavirus and prevent our hospital system from becoming overwhelmed. With this state of emergency has come a worldwide call to action wherein individuals are being asked to practice “social distancing,” and several official measures taken to encourage it, like the shutdown of restaurants to takeout/delivery-only, closure of movie theaters, and so on.

Even those who are asymptomatic or don’t have the virus are being told to stay home as much as possible and keep a safe distance from others to prevent coronavirus from spreading, and especially to prevent the spread to vulnerable populations, such as seniors. Other measures include the school closures and major limits if not bans on visits to nursing homes populated by seniors, many of them with health problems that make them even more susceptible to the impact of the virus.

The state announced that starting March 13, “only medically necessary visits will be allowed in nursing homes,” and has asked nursing homes to set up online communication capacity for families to be able to interact with their loved ones. Staff have regular interaction with vulnerable New Yorkers, and in order to protect seniors all workers in nursing homes are required to undergo health screening each day and wear surgical masks.

“That's the reason why we're closing the schools,” said New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Commissioner Oxiris Barbot at a press availability March 15. “That's the reason why we're telling people not to go to work if they can telecommute, because we want people to have more distance from each other...we want to reduce the number of New Yorkers that get infected, and as importantly, if not more importantly, we want to reduce the number of New Yorkers who are at risk for bad health outcomes such as needing to end up in the hospital, in the ICU, or God forbid dying because of this. And it's a real reality.”

On March 6, the City Council held a budget hearing on the city’s Department for the Aging (DFTA) scheduled to discuss the agency’s overall work and the mayor’s proposed budget for the 2021 fiscal year, which begins July 1, but the discussion was dominated by questions about COVID-19.

During the hearing, DFTA Commissioner Lorraine Cortés-Vázquez responded to questions about DFTA’s response to the virus saying, “I have the utmost confidence that the mayor is going to do all he can and has made it very clear that this is a priority and that resources will be made available to combat this disease.”

Last week, the Mayor's Office of Engagement along with DFTA were planning to go to over 600 congregate sites to ensure information about the virus was being disseminated and city guidelines adhered to. As of Monday, however, all senior centers are closed, except for meal delivery purposes.

“To ensure that older New Yorkers who rely on daily congregate meals are not faced with food insecurity, senior centers will operate strictly to provide take-home meals to older adults,” Suzanne Myklebust, Deputy Director of Public Affairs for DFTA said in an email to Gotham Gazette. “For older adults who are unable to pick-up their daily congregate meal, they can ask their senior center to have their meal delivered instead.”

“We are working closely with our network of providers to allow them to determine arrangements for meal pick-up and if they require any additional support,” Mykleburst said. “In an effort to provide additional support, we have continued a partnership with Citymeals on Wheels to further assist senior centers in the provision of meals to their clients during this closure. This week, 96,000 shelf-stable meals will be provided to the senior centers for distribution to their members.”

by Katie Kirker, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

This story has been updated with additional info on nursing home regulations.

City Closes Hundreds of Senior Centers, But Will Provide Meals to Aging Population Especially Vulnerable to Coronavirus Tue, 17 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000