Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics



A Peak Opportunity to Turn the Corner and Invest in Our Green New York Future

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Pushing for a climate plan (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

From Superstorm Sandy to Tropical Storm Isaías, climate change threatens all New Yorkers. That policymakers have largely not acted on this threat in a meaningful way is a profound failure. Now is the time to rectify that lack of action.

In New York at least, our new Democratic State Senate majority took power in 2019 and answered the call. Our Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) is a nation-leading effort to fight back, putting our state on track for net zero greenhouse gas emissions and directing the benefits to communities that the fossil fuel industry left behind.

CLCPA commits New York to an equitable clean energy future – with 70% of electricity being renewable by 2030, 100% carbon-free by 2040, and an 85% emissions reduction overall by 2050. Crucially, at least 40% of investment is reserved for climate justice areas. These ambitious goals are critical, and they are the law. We must do what it takes to win this clean-energy future, secure a livable climate, and fully-fund a just transition for frontline communities.

The Queens waterfront is on the front lines of this battle, simultaneously home to numerous fossil fuel burning plants and NYCHA residents who suffer their effects. These streets are known as “Asthma Alley” due to the high rates of respiratory disease caused by pollution permeating the neighborhood. When everything works as intended at a fossil fuel plant, residents still get hurt. Pollution is no accident—it is a choice we make every time we expand fossil fuel infrastructure.

Neighborhoods nearest to these power plants are also among those hardest hit by COVID-19, the result of several factors including the cumulative impact of pollution, environmental racism, and income inequality driving incidence of respiratory illness. We must take special care to center public health as we consider the energy transition.

Corridors like Asthma Alley are most deserving of protection from the impact of burning fossil fuels, yet some energy companies seem determined to expand their carbon footprints, doubling down on burning fossil fuels that poison the community and heat our planet. With new technology and the CLCPA at the center of a new policy paradigm enabling us to transition away from environmentally hazardous power plants, why would we rubber-stamp new fossil fuel development?

There was a time when incremental progress could be deemed a success—when use of a less dirty but still damaging fuel may have been considered a step in the right direction. Insofar as using natural gas as a bridge to a renewable energy future was ever good policy, surely it has been spanned. The future is now. The work to meet the requirements of CLCPA and imbue New York energy policy with environmental justice has begun.

We know that once fossil fuel plants are built, they are difficult to decommission. In 2001, the New York Power Authority (NYPA) managed to eschew standard land-use protocols by claiming that emergency power plants were needed temporarily. NYPA pledged these plants would fire for only three years. Some of us sued to stop these “temporary” plants - and we won - but the plants remain operational nearly 20 years later.

Now there is a proposal to construct a natural gas ‘peaker plant’ in Astoria. Peaker plants feed the city additional power in times of high demand, running a relatively small number of days per year but requiring substantial fuel stores. And while natural gas is cleaner than kerosene, it is still a fossil fuel that does not move us quickly enough toward meeting the Earth-saving requirements of CLCPA.

Climate justice demands bold action now. CLCPA has raised the bar and we must meet it. This peaker plant proposal must be opposed. Despite game-changing laws like CLCPA, if this plant is built, like the wave of peakers constructed at the beginning of this century, we can expect it to remain in operation for decades. Even if we add renewable capacity after it is built, there will be pressure to keep it firing—and polluting—in order to make good on the investment required to build it and others.

In other words, new fossil fuel projects diminish our tenuous carbon budget and may be fiscally irresponsible on timelines that count: not financial quarters but over the lifetime of a capital investment and the lifetimes of people breathing polluted air.

The so-called “Astoria Replacement Project” needs replacing. Scrapping the proposal and focusing instead on clean power, innovative battery storage, and community empowerment will help meet the need to supercharge our energy policy in a just fashion. Let us muster the political courage necessary to force utilities to harness a clean alternative using an equitable process as quickly as they aspire to slip into our neighborhoods one of the last polluting power plants the law is likely to permit. Let us take this opportunity to refocus our energy economy towards public good and away from big corporations whose primary concern is the short-term profits of their executives and shareholders.

Think of the possibilities – for communities to reclaim open space, secure truly affordable housing, and win career-long green jobs – if solar fields, wind turbines, innovative battery storage, and community-owned renewables supplant dirty electricity. Let us think big and explore the possibility of placing the growing numbers of unemployed into workforce training that directly leads to well-paying jobs that stand the test of time. Let us build out a clean, electrified power sector so we can decarbonize the economy while advancing public health and frontline empowerment at every turn, ensuring that, for example, New Yorkers who drive can exchange their polluting tailpipe vehicles for electric cars.

We need to treat the energy industry as an integrated part of our overall economy and empower communities to harness it to provide sustainable job opportunities and environmental justice to their resilient neighborhoods. We need to seize the present opportunity to deliver on our commitment to clean energy and climate justice by stopping this misguided proposal for another peaker plant in Astoria.

Michael Gianaris serves as Deputy Majority Leader and represents western Queens in the state Senate. Harry Manin is a Sunrise NYC activist and climate policy advisor. On Twitter @SenGianaris and @sunrisemvmtnyc.

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We Must Avoid a Repeat of the Battle Between Upper West Siders and Homeless New Yorkers

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The mayor carrying out the HOPE count (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

It’s a shame that the city’s well-intentioned efforts to stop COVID-19 from spreading throughout homeless shelters turned negative so quickly. After relocating thousands of shelter residents into hotels on the Upper West Side and Midtown, Mayor Bill de Blasio is now reversing course in response to community uproar.

The mayor’s reversal is a stopgap measure, because the reality is that with a second wave of covid expected this fall, a similar drama will likely rear its head. So, how can we avoid repeating history?

The supportive housing model is the answer. While it currently exists in New York City, it must be greatly expanded.

First, it’s helpful for New Yorkers to understand the history of supportive housing as a model and how effective it can be in reducing homelessness and helping people—when it’s done right. The concept of supportive housing arose in the 1980s, following the deinstitutionalization of psychiatric care facilities and the turn to a more progressive policy model. After an era of warehousing homeless individuals facing mental health challenges, the supportive housing model offered an integrated mix of group transitional housing, greater independence, and access to health services. Importantly, the model linked shelter residents to dedicated community-based health facilities.

For example, one supportive housing organization, where I was general counsel, operated a community-based health clinic and a school-based health center that served our populations—including vulnerable kids and families and adults struggling with addiction and other mental health challenges. Without these dedicated providers, our residents would have fallen through the cracks of the mainstream health care system. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed by how supportive housing allows for independence and the transition out of homelessness while providing a vital safety net along the way. And during a pandemic, linking homeless residents to health services is even more valuable to New Yorkers’ collective well-being.

When this model is successfully executed, it improves residential stability, reduces burdens on the most expensive public services, and offers a more cost-effective solution for the city—providing critical relief for our strained city finances. For example, homeless people with disabilities who move into supportive housing experience marked reductions in shelter use, hospitalizations, length of stay per hospitalization, and time incarcerated, resulting in a significant reduction in the cost of public services.

Second, for supportive housing to work, the communities home to these residents must feel that the model is safe and effective. When it comes to the Upper West Side and parts of Midtown, this has all been missing because homeless individuals have not been provided supportive housing, they've been placed in shelters without robust social services.

More supportive housing units must be brought online immediately.

Also important, the city must standardize its procedures for effectively dealing with the most troublesome residents who engage in criminal behavior or detract from the needs of other, more engaged residents, whether in typical shelters or supportive housing, which is permanent housing that includes social services targeted to residents' needs.

Those who don’t follow their program guidelines or engage in illegal behavior do more than simply disrupt the neighborhood’s enjoyment and safety—their behavior can create a cascading effect on other residents. And as we’ve seen in recent news coverage, a few bad apples can deeply damage the effectiveness of creating community-based solutions all over the city. In this case, bad press could have a lasting impact on shelter residents and others, putting them at increased risk of spreading COVID-19 beyond their immediate living quarters.

I’ve seen the many benefits that supportive housing has had in local neighborhoods and in the lives of the formerly homeless residents. One of the things that makes New York such an economic and cultural center is the fact that people of all backgrounds are able to live in the same communities. And stable housing for everyone makes our communities stronger, safer and more just.

As the homelessness crisis persists and the threat of a second covid wave looms, this is an issue in which every New Yorker has a stake, even if they do not yet know it. New York City has the infrastructure and expertise to be a national leader in this area. With more supportive housing options, thoughtful changes to the city’s policies, stronger leadership, and a more dedicated focus on neighborhood partnership, we can get this right. Our neighbors—all of them—deserve that.

Adam S. Herbst, Esq., is a health care administrator and an adjunct assistant professor at New York Law School, Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, and New York Medical College.

Note: this article has been corrected and updated to reflect that residents who have been living in shelters on the Upper West Side and Midtown that have garnered recent attention were not moved from supportive housing to those shelters.

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Racialized Austerity: The Case of CUNY


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Bronx Community College students (photo: @CUNY)

In the aftermath of the covid outbreak and in a moment of Black Lives Matter national organizing in response to police brutality the issue of racial justice has lit up cities and towns across the country. Racist policing practices have had a huge impact on public opinion, with polling data showing that even more white suburban voters favor policy reforms. The shift has been public, sudden, and potentially electorally-decisive during this political season.

What remains less visible are racialized and racist choices to deepen state disinvestment in institutions critical to the health and welfare of Black and brown communities, what we term racialized austerity. 

Austerity policy-making over the past 50 years has been racialized, withering services in public agencies ranging from K-12 schooling to hospitals to higher education. Matters of race must be made more visible and placed at the very center of both past and present austerity decisions and policy-making.

Disinvestment in and privatization of public services incorrectly assumes three things: 1) the state can no longer afford earlier levels of public investment in public services; 2) increased progressive taxation is not a solution to austerity because the wealthy can and will migrate themselves and their money elsewhere; and 3) the reduced quality of services matters little because basic access to public services rather than the content and quality of those services is the most important factor in assessing the worth of public goods in a democracy. 

Reliance on public services by Black and brown communities grew at exactly the moment austerity policies produced one wave after another of public disinvestment. The conjunction, for example, between shifts in the composition of the student body at CUNY from largely white to Black and brown, which began in the 1970s, and deepening public disinvestment in CUNY cannot simply be explained solely as a specific byproduct of fiscal austerity. The roots of racialized austerity policy-making also grew out of choices about the degree to which specific groups are deserving of public investment. 

Over the past 50 years there have been periods of economic expansion in the United States that have produced sharply-growing wealth and income inequality. Despite growth in wealth and income in the top tier of earners, redistributive tax policies have been deemed all but off the table. These political decisions have not been driven alone by austerity policy making to cut public budgets but also by the concerted political opposition of dominant economic interests to any kind of new taxation. Politicians of both major parties have made and continue to make real choices, deferring to the needs and desires of powerful economic interest groups, rather than embrace policies for the common good. 

The issue of race, although not the only factor driving austerity, is central to these fiscal decisions. What has been created over the past half-century is the latest iteration of “separate but (un)equal” policy-making. Basic access to public services is consistently privileged over higher public investment to assure the quality of those public services. The policies of “separate but (un)equal” as seen through the prism of the defunding of the City University of New York reveals a regime of racialized austerity. 

CUNY: Race and Austerity
Despite the city’s commitment in 1847 to provide free tuition for all New York City residents, a commitment it maintained for nearly 130 years, the student body in the municipal colleges remained overwhelmingly white and increasingly middle class until the 1970s. Even in the decade after CUNY was formally created in 1961, the city’s policy of providing free tuition proscribed its ability to respond to the vocal demands of the city’s growing Black and Puerto Rican population for increased access to CUNY’s senior and community colleges.

The Brooklyn College student body in the tumultuous year of 1968 was still 96 percent white and middle class. CUNY as a whole remained overwhelmingly white and middle class until the spring of 1969, when student-led struggles for “Open Admissions” erupted across the system. Over the next half-dozen years CUNY became the model of how a major public university system could rapidly diversify its student population.

By 1971, CUNY’s Black and Puerto Rican overall student population had already more than doubled to 24 percent. Half-a-dozen years after open admissions, however, the state forced the city, in the midst of a fiscal “crisis,” to impose tuition for the first time on CUNY students in exchange for enhanced state support of the system. While the student population of CUNY continued to be radically recomposed racially over the next three decades, students of color, unlike the largely white student body that had preceded them, had to pay tuition for the privilege of attending the city’s public colleges.

On the basis of data collected by CUNY about 70 percent of CUNY’s student body is students of color and almost 60 percent of all CUNY students’ family annual incomes are below $30,000. Current tuition at CUNY’s senior colleges is almost $7,000 annually while at its community colleges it is nearly $5,000, exclusive of student fees.

The changes in the composition of CUNY’s student body and rising tuition have been accompanied for decades by the steady erosion of public funding support from New York state government (which has provided the lion’s share of CUNY funding since 1976) and New York City government (which supports the system’s seven community colleges). Between 2008 and 2020 there has been a 21 percent reduction in the full-time student equivalent (FTE) investment by the state adjusted for inflation in CUNY senior colleges, according to the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) of the City University of New York (the faculty and staff union of CUNY) .

The state’s level of disinvestment in CUNY has resulted in larger class sizes, a growing number of courses taught by underpaid and overworked part-time faculty, the decay of much of the physical plant, labs that cannot meet even the most basic needs of science students, and ever greater reliance on too-large online classes. As a point of comparison, California’s three-tier public university system, which is similarly racially stratified from top tier (the UC system) to the bottom tier (the state’s community colleges) as CUNY’s senior and community colleges are, has experienced a striking differential level of public investment based on race.

In our book, Austerity Blues: Fighting for the Soul of Public Higher Educations, we showed that California’s community colleges, which have the highest concentration of Black and brown students (nearly 45 percent), state aid per FTE student in 2011-12 was less than $4,000 while in the UC schools (where only 21 percent of students are Black and brown) FTE student aid is more than $7,200. This associative relationship between race and disinvestment is highly suggestive and compelling in both New York’s and California’s public university systems. Yet race has essentially been ignored by policy makers in California and New York as even a partial explanation for declining investment in public higher education.

Unsurprisingly, economic explanations, absent race, have dominated the discourse about CUNY.

What has remained consistently positive in the public discussion and perception about CUNY is its role in raising its students out of poverty and into the middle class. According to Raj Chetty’s 2017 national study of higher education CUNY moved more students out of poverty than every Ivy League school, MIT, and the California Institute of Technology combined. The ability of CUNY to fulfill this part of its historic mission is in jeopardy, however, as deepening state and city budget cuts undermine the quality of instruction and support services like counseling and advising. 

COVID and CUNY: The Intensified Fallout of Budget Cuts on Black and Brown Students
In the midst of the intensifying economic and health crisis triggered by COVID-19, CUNY management announced it was laying off 2,800 part-time faculty members. The budget cut was not a consequence of revenue loss but rather the anticipation of that loss.

Institutional Stimulus 3 (the federal CARES Act) money totaling $132 million publicly allocated to CUNY has been reserved, according to CUNY management, as a revenue buffer despite its stated purpose to sustain employment for university faculty and staff. As estimated by the CUNY Professional Staff Congress the cost of retaining the 2,800 faculty members is estimated to be $30 million annually, or a fraction of the $132 million in CARES Act funds allocated to the university system. Equally important for CUNY’s future, additional money may be dedicated to CUNY as part Stimulus 4, currently before Congress. 

The implication of this decision is significant, both economically for the CUNY part-time faculty who have been “non reappointed” and lost their health insurance in the middle of a pandemic, and educationally for the largely Black and brown student body of CUNY. Laying off 2,800 part-time faculty represents a loss of about 25 percent of the adjunct faculty workforce at CUNY, which already comprises nearly 60 percent of the overall teaching workforce in its senior colleges.

CUNY courses will almost certainly be fully online during the upcoming fall semester and perhaps even through the spring semester in 2021. The cuts ensure that the size of online classes will grow substantially. During the Spring 2020 semester, a survey of campuses by faculty chairs of the PSC estimated that many of CUNY’s online classes will average about 29 students. The standard for online course sizes nationally is 12 students per class because of the greater pedagogical and other teaching and learning demands of virtual classrooms as compared to in-classroom learning. in-classroom learning. The course enrollment ceilings for online classes at CUNY are likely to rise as high as 35 students per class or almost three times the national suggested ceiling. 

For every CUNY student this is part of a continuing, historic degradation of their learning environment at CUNY. The opportunities to build working relationships with faculty, empirically validated as a key indicator of students’ academic development, will become even less available. Equally important, larger online classes are less able to meet students’ basic needs to develop competency in areas ranging from basic writing to scientific exploration and experimentation.  

To enact policies that dramatically reduce CUNY’s instructional workforce is at best short-sighted and at worst underscores a lack of will by CUNY management and state and city leaders to protect instructors’ jobs and students’ quality of education. Other courses of action including, but not limited to, reallocating institutional dollars to protect the instructional workforce, utilizing Stimulus 3 money to close the budget gap, or short-term borrowing against Stimulus 4 monies as a hedge against workforce disruption might have been taken while awaiting both state and federal budget decisions.  

Shortly after New York City became the epicenter of COVID-19 infection and while Governor Cuomo was delivering politically-popular daily national briefings on the spread of the infection, the governor simultaneously announced there would be deep budget cuts (as high as 20 percent) to state-supported public services in the absence of federal aid. The game of “Who blinks first?” between Cuomo and the Feds continues.

For three months New York State public agencies have been faced with both huge prospective cuts and the governor’s decision to delay state distribution of public revenues to localities. At the same time, many groups have pressed state leaders to tax the very wealthy to close the state budget gap of $15 billion. Cuomo has repeatedly indicated his opposition to imposing additional taxes on the very wealthy despite mounting pressure from a cross-section of unions, non-profit agencies, and more than 100 state legislators, among others.

This is only the most recent example of state and institutional policy-makers choosing to compromise the quality of Black and brown students’ higher education rather than commit additional public funds. It is important to reiterate that these decisions have occurred historically in both good and bad economic times. They occur despite CUNY’s stellar record of moving students out of poverty and into the middle class. They occur as the proportion of Black and brown students in CUNY’s student body has grown to nearly 70 percent. Policy-makers laud the greater access of students of color to CUNY at the same moment that they choose to unravel the basic fiscal underpinnings of what is needed to provide the kind of quality education students need and deserve. These contradictions are profound and race is a critical, if not the critical, factor in these decisions.  

It is time to name these policies and choices and their relationship to race. The disinvestment in CUNY is influenced by many factors. But we should not allow complexity to cloud the fundamental relationship of the past 50 years between race and public disinvestment. These trends are not specific to CUNY. Across the country, spikes in Black and brown college attendance have been accompanied by similar levels of public disinvestment. To call these policies anything other than racialized austerity is at best a misnomer and at worst a calculated evasion of the forces driving such public policy and fiscal choices.  

A New Deal for CUNY
What might an alternative approach to racialized austerity at CUNY look like? A New Deal for CUNY, with significant new investment of state and city tax funds over a five-year period, would help to bring CUNY back from two decades of systematic erosion of public funding. This New Deal for CUNY would be justified as part of New York City’s, New York State’s, and the nation’s long overdue response to the fundamental need of all students attending public universities for a quality, fully-funded public good.

A New Deal for CUNY would have an immediate and positive impact on all of our 275,000 students, especially the 70 percent who are students of color, and 60 percent who have annual family incomes below $30,000. Despite the state’s Tuition Assistance Program, many CUNY students presently pay full or partial tuition. Expanded investments in CUNY would also require:

-Increasing the ratio of full-time faculty to students; dedicating a substantial number of new full-time positions and making them available to adjunct faculty; and incentivizing the hiring of a new generation of faculty of color across the system; creating new labor standards for part-time faculty that ensure a livable wage.

-Expanding the number of academic advisors and mental health counselors to support all CUNY students.

-Eliminating all student tuition and fees, returning CUNY to its tuition-free roots.

-Providing a significant increase in capital renewal and investment across the 25-campus system to allow CUNY to modernize its facilities and make them fully safe and accessible.

Spread over five years we believe a New Deal for CUNY will help to overcome decades of racialized austerity, fundamentally returning CUNY to its 1847 founding ideal of creating a public institution of higher learning that is by and for “the children of the whole people.”

Michael Fabricant is a professor at the Hunter College School of Social Work. Stephen Brier is a professor in the Urban Education Ph.D. program at the CUNY Graduate Center.

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Stop Living in Fear of the ‘80s Crime Wave — It was an Aberration and It’s Not Coming Back

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Mayor de Blasio and police officials (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

Stephen Sigmund recently wrote an op-ed published by Gotham Gazette calling on New York’s young progressive activists to tread carefully in their pursuit of radical transformation or abolition of the NYPD, lest these reforms bring forth a repeat of the era of mass violent crime and urban decay that they are a bit too young to remember. I was glad to read this piece, because while I vehemently disagree with its entire premise and its specific proposals to activists (stop the protests; work with elected officials on reforms; “partner with police”), it provided just the necessary window into the mindset of the city’s senior leaders, especially the Mayor, Police Commissioner, and Council Speaker, to understand why they’ve been so reluctant to allow any real reductions in the NYPD’s size, power, or budget.

What that window revealed to me is the degree to which gut instincts — and especially that most powerful of instincts, fear — are guiding policy-making in our city. In particular, a potent mix of fear of the 1980s and mythology of the 1990s has a firm grip on the worldview of the people leading New York City today, as well as some number of others, like Mr. Sigmund, warning about the ‘bad old days.’

In order for police reformers and abolitionists like me to achieve the radical transformations we seek, perhaps we need to take a moment first to destroy once and for all these fears and myths of the recent past.

Mr. Sigmund, as it happens, is an essentially perfect spokesperson for this prevailing mindset of the powerful; not only has he been professionally connected to key New York City leaders in both the public and private sectors, he is a demographic fit for the cohort those leaders are most concerned about: 30-, 40-, and 50-something white professionals who moved to New York City in the ‘90s, once it felt safe for them to do so. 

I’m uncomfortably close to this cohort myself (I’m a white 30-something professional, though I was born and raised in New York City during those supposedly dark days of the ‘80s), so much so that I can still feel some of their instincts in my gut and see some of their worldview in my own memory. The narrative history of New York that these leaders have ingested and continue to reproduce goes something like this:

Crime almost destroyed New York City in the 1970s and ‘80s. It drove (white) professionals out of the city, and devastated our economy, tax base, city services, etc. New York City was saved by Rudy Giuliani and Bill Bratton, who hired more cops and got tough on (even minor) crime in the ‘90s, thus breaking the vicious cycle and drawing more investment (and people) back to New York, fueling a quarter century of economic boom. 

The central flaw of that prevailing worldview is that it assumes the city’s natural state to be one of lawlessness and violence, when in fact the opposite is the case. Historical crime data shows New York City was actually a very safe place to live in the 1950s and ‘60s, just as it’s been for the last three decades. In fact, as has been documented by historian Steven Pinker, across the globe lawlessness and violence have been trending down for centuries. The crime wave of the ‘70s and ‘80s was an aberration, not an equilibrium. Fueled by a toxic mix of de-industrialization, suburban white flight, leaded gasoline, crack cocaine, and a myriad of social and economic factors unique to the time and place, New York City experienced a traumatizing two-decade reversal from its long-term trend. But once the wave crashed, there was no reason to fear it would rise again.

Misremembered details of this history are also essential contributors to the fear of it.

In truth, violent crime in the ‘80s, much like the far-less-common violence today, was clustered in its lowest-income neighborhoods and primarily occurred between victims and perpetrators known to one another (spouses have always been the leading cause of homicides). The threat of random violence is always the go-to justification for heavy-handed policing, but it’s just never been that common. Unless you were (or are) in a violent domestic relationship or are engaged in some level of organized criminal activity, you’re highly unlikely to be a victim of violence.

And it is a cruel irony that some of the factors that did contribute to the 1980s crime wave are misremembered as having been caused by it, and that much of the return to normalcy in the 1990s is attributed to extraordinary measures. In fact the decline in New York City’s economy, fiscal status, and quality of city services actually came in the mid-1970s, before the crime wave hit, and suburban white flight was a leading indicator, not a trailing one, of the city’s tough times.

Rudy Giuliani didn’t take office until 1994, which was already year three of the great three-decade decline in crime. A 2015 Brennan Center for Justice analysis of what caused that great decline attributed only 5-10% of the 1990s drop to increased policing, and none of the post-2000 continuing drop in crime to policing. Police theories and tactics, from “broken windows policing” to “stop and frisk,” have never had a clear statistical link to increases or decreases in crime across the United States.     

Even when crime was more common, the portrayal of it in media (both news and drama) served to make it seem far more present than it was. For white men like Stephen Sigmund and myself, both living in Murray Hill in the 1990s (me as a teenager, him having moved to the city for work), the notion that we lived in constant danger is frankly a farce — one that too many of us hold on to, perhaps because it makes us feel braver than we were. Our internal perceptions of personal danger should take a back seat to the demands of those actually affected by policy. Perhaps the fact that the present tide of protest has been led by young people of color — the group that would be most likely affected by an increase or decrease in crime — should tell us all we need to know about the supposed need to maintain the criminal justice status quo. 

So here’s a new narrative for our city’s leaders, residents, commuters, champions, skeptics, and others to internalize:

The 1980s crime wave isn’t coming back. In truth, the danger then was never as widespread as our memories of local newscasts would imply. The last 30 years of reductions in crime aren’t wholly or even largely attributable to police activity. And billions of dollars of currently-planned private development attest to the fact that even an uptick in the crime rate isn’t likely to stop (or likely even slow) the growth of this global city. If we, as a democratic society, want to transform or even abolish our police department to build a more equitable city, we can and should without fear of revisionist history somehow repeating itself. 

Jesse Laymon is the Democratic District Leader for the neighborhoods of Long Island City, Dutch Kills, Queensbridge, Ravenswood and Sunnyside. He is also the co-chair of the New York City chapter of Citizen Action of New York, and a member of the Working Families Party Advisory Council. On Twitter @jesselaymon.

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Black Mothers Matter: Bringing Justice to Maternity — Now

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Deep and deadly health care disparities persist (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)

In December of 2019, Sha-Asia Washington joyfully announced her pregnancy to her mother. In December of 2018 I had done the same. Throughout the Spring of 2020, she and her boyfriend counted down the days until her June due date. I had done the same in 2019. As she neared her due date, she went into the hospital with high blood pressure. Diagnosed with preeclampsia, I had done the same. 

A year later, I’m sitting with my son on the floor. I playfully comb my fingers through his hair as he leans into my chest. But Sha-Asia can’t do the same -- she tragically died in the hospital during an emergency c-section. 


Maternal mortality, the death of a mother from pregnancy-related complications, is a crisis in the United States. While the global maternal mortality rate dropped by 44 percent between 1990 and 2015, the U.S. was one of only 13 countries, including North Korea and Zimbabwe, that saw its rate increase.

In New York it’s even worse. In 2016, New York was ranked 30th in the nation for its maternal mortality rate. Maternal deaths increased from 15.4 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2001-2003 to 19.6 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2014-2016.

Maternal mortality is highly racialized; in New York City, from 2006 to 2010, Black women were 12 times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy-related causes.

Yet over 60 percent of these deaths are preventable, according to the CDC Foundation. In recent years, both New York City and State have announced plans to address these disturbing trends; officials have held press conferences and established committees. And yet mothers like Sha-Asia Washington, Amber Rose Isaacs, and Cordielle Street have all died in New York City this year alone. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has only magnified the inequities in our health-care system, made worse by inequities in housing and education, revealing just how dangerous it is to be a pregnant Black woman in our city. We can’t expect to eliminate or even reduce maternal mortality when we don’t guarantee Black and brown mothers the right to clean and safe housing. 

Creating a more just and equitable city demands the active dismantling of systemic racism that is ingrained within other social structures that govern our lives, including law enforcement, health care, housing, and education. It also requires the commitment of decision-makers at every level to value the lives of women of color, particularly when they are most vulnerable: pregnancy and childbirth. 

Addressing maternal mortality begins with valuing women’s health and increasing access to health care and family planning. It involves ensuring that expectant mothers have access to comprehensive reproductive health care, counseling, and housing. We need more community health centers, assistance for working women to keep their prenatal visits, and to ensure expectant mothers have access to health advocates, such as doulas or social workers, throughout every phase of pregnancy.

Finally, this essential work involves holding our hospitals, government agencies, and elected officials accountable, ensuring implicit bias trainings for all hospital staff and demanding transparency in reporting on frequency, cause, location, and racial breakdown of maternal deaths and major complications that arise in our maternity wards or in the following postpartum months. 

Ending this crisis involves all of this and more. It’s also going to take all of us to come together and say no more mothers lost. Black lives matter. Black mothers matter. It’s time we prove it by demanding justice in maternity. 

Tricia Shimamura is a candidate for New York City Council District 5. On Twitter at @ShimamuraTricia.

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Wasted Opportunities: New York City’s Misplaced Budget Priorities Fail Marginalized Communities and Us All

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Garbage time (photo: Michael Anton/Department of Sanitation)

Unequal impacts of COVID-19 on low-income Black and brown communities have magnified the consequences of our unsustainable working and living processes and accumulated environmental injustices.

The highest rates of pandemic-related deaths are in the same communities that have long breathed more polluted air and who deal day-to-day with heightened police violence. The accelerating climate crisis will amplify both of these forms of violence as the stagnant quality of hot air concentrates local pollution and local governments are predicted to continue responding to climate stressors and survival economics with increased policing. Yet in the face of hundreds of thousands of people mobilizing in the streets following Black leadership to demand New York City’s budget divest from policing and invest in communities, the City Council and Mayor have shown their true colors.

New York City’s new fiscal year 2021 (FY21) budget fails the calls to restructure our society away from carceral systems and toward systems that nourish community safety and wellbeing. 

As Black femme and Brown nonbinary organizers fighting for environmental and climate justice in our personal and professional lives, we understand the roots of the climate crisis to be the same as those that have led to COVID-19’s emergence and disproportionate impacts. White supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism are harmful ideologies that allowed the brutal enslavement and torture of Africans and violent colonization of Indigenous communities globally. Abolition did not dissolve slavery, but transitioned anti-Blackness into the foundation of our current systems.

Today, systems of violence and oppression are rooted in these ideologies and consequently engender the highest burdens and harms to Black, Indigenous femme, transgender, queer, and disabled people. These systems continue to proliferate through racist and classist legislation and budgetary processes that are enabled by military and carceral forces.

In the wake of the pandemic, breaking climate records, and mass calls for systems that affirm the value of Black life, both of our organizations have continued to embody frontline solutions.

Since 1991, New York City Environmental Justice Alliance has worked to rectify the negative impacts of disparate siting of noxious infrastructure in Black and brown communities through research, education, and advocacy, while also working to gird against the intersecting, harmful effects of climate change.

BK ROT is New York City’s first food-waste bike collection and composting service in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Powered by local youth, BK ROT reflects the intimate ties between environmental and social injustices, and the need to center local youth leadership in advancing solutions. During the city’s closing of residential composting options, BK ROT continued to employ youth essential workers to safely collect and process food waste, which reduces local air pollution, improves our lead-burdened soils, and feeds our communities. Furthermore, BK ROT and some NYC-EJA members have joined mutual aid work, including by servicing and supporting food distribution hubs with bike-based deliveries.

The de Blasio administration has acknowledged that the city is far from achieving its waste equity and zero waste goals, but upon strong coercion by Mayor de Blasio the City Council approved a budget for FY21 that eliminates several services essential to community health, while leaving NYPD’s $6 billion budget nearly completely intact. Our communities need resources to thrive and build resilience in the face of worsening crises. It is time we stop investing in harmful systems rooted in white supremacy and invest in regenerative, life-giving systems that nourish and heal our communities and this sacred earth we live upon.

A budget that truly recognized our current crises would have defunded the NYPD and expanded a variety of social and environmental services, including restoring and expanding organics drop-off sites, mandating curbside organics collection, and promoting green jobs and youth employment opportunities that further climate resilience and model regenerative economies (see recommendations for climate and environmental justice investments in our waste system here).

As for legislative and budgetary solutions in the short-term, the proposed CORE Act in the City Council could restore and increase equity in access to organics and textile drop off sites while we continue pushing for more comprehensive organic waste collection citywide. As we await to see how the $2.86 million funding for composting in the FY21 budget is allocated, we will promote resources for composting locally where you can.

When the administration has failed communities, we have seen mutual aid groups rising up to meet the gaps. Until city government aligns its priorities with communities, we must work to create alternatives that model and advance environmental and climate justice. We are inspired by mutual aid food distribution hubs, like University Settlement and Mayday Space, community free fridges, and the rise of grassroots food scraps drop-off sites.

From the individual to the community level we must shape change, while movements put pressure on systems of governance for them to catch up. It is critical that we take decisive action towards a better future and divest from the root causes of current crises that replicate harms in our communities. 

Ceci Pineda is Executive Director of BK ROT and Tok Michelle Oyewole, Ph.D., is Policy & Communications Organizer at the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. On Twitter @iamceci & @_DrTok.

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Telehealth is Helping New York Tackle Our Mental Health Crisis, But It Must Be Funded

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Health care by video has increased in importance (photo: Jeff Reed/City Council)

When we first met Alice two years ago, she suffered from schizophrenia, depression, uncontrolled diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol. Even though we set up pill boxes for her and arranged home health aides, she chose to seek treatment only in emergency rooms. Her health continued to deteriorate. 

Last year, Alice finally began to engage in treatment for her diabetes by phone, but her nurse practitioner provided this treatment on her own time, without government funding. Alice’s serious health problems put her squarely in the high-need, high-cost category of patients who demand innovative treatment approaches. But our 20th century regulatory system held her back. 

Ironically, the COVID-19 epidemic changed things. By necessity, Alice was offered more care by telephone and videoconference. She was able to accept these offers, and began following up with her appointments. This only became possible because emergency orders issued by Governor Cuomo allowed the state to reimburse health-care providers for telehealth services as if they were in-office visits, while suspending bureaucratic rules that made it hard for providers to offer telehealth services in the first place.  

The pandemic will end someday. But treating our clients with serious mental illness — many of whom, like Alice, also have debilitating physical issues — by telephone and video conference has proven to be an unexpected success. We need to take advantage of this crisis and bring our laws into the 21st century.   

At the Institute for Community Living, which provides care to people living with a range of mental health issues, a survey of almost 1,500 clients showed high satisfaction with telehealth. Many of them prefer it to visiting a clinic, and 80% said they wanted to continue remote appointments after the pandemic ends. 

Telehealth is convenient for people with multiple health problems, and it’s helping clients get better. From March to May, the percentage of clients who failed to keep medical appointments dropped from 33% to just 15%. Using telehealth has allowed us to triage health issues in our residences immediately, rather than requiring clients – accompanied by two staff – to travel to their appointments. This has helped to reduce costly emergency room visits. 

None of this would have been possible in February. Prior to the pandemic, we could only bill for telehealth at a fraction of the rate for in-person services. And outdated rules, such as a requirement that both the patient and the physician be physically located in a licensed facility, meant that only a fraction of patients could actually benefit from telehealth services.  

COVID-19 has put tremendous stress on our health and mental health systems. The pandemic itself and the subsequent economic fallout are causing widespread and profound distress that could lead to a lasting mental health crisis. It has also put New Yorkers who were already struggling with severe mental health conditions at even higher risk.

The emergency orders have been extended short-term by the governor and the Legislature should act to make them permanent. State Senator Peter Harckham and Assembly Members Linda Rosenthal and Aileen Gunther have introduced legislation that would allow telehealth sessions to be reimbursed at the same rate as in-person visits, and Harckham and Rosenthal introduced separate bills that would expand eligibility for telehealth. When the Legislature next reconvenes, we hope these bills can be passed quickly and signed into law, enabling organizations to better serve New Yorkers living with mental health issues and meet the mental health challenges caused COVID-19. 

This pandemic has shown us that technology can be used to connect people remotely in ways we didn’t think were possible. Millions of Americans are now working from home just as productively as they were at a desk in an office prior to COVID-19, with companies like Twitter changing their policies to allow employees to work remotely full-time. There is no reason our regulations can’t allow us to use this technology to better provide life-saving health-care services to New Yorkers like Alice. 

David Woodlock is the president and CEO of the Institute for Community Living. He is a former deputy commissioner at the New York State Office of Mental Health.

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A Wall Street Investor and an Unemployed Immigrant Cook Agree: Tax Billionaires, Support Excluded Workers

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Gov. Cuomo at the New York Stock Exchange (photo: Don Pollard/governor's office)

Income inequality in our state was a crisis before anyone had even heard of COVID-19, but five months into the pandemic, it is now a question of life or death for millions of New Yorkers.

As two individuals sitting on opposite sides of that inequality divide, we are united in our demand to the State of New York: we must tax the rich, and we must do it right now.

One of us, Morris Pearl, is a millionaire. I built my fortune on Wall Street, but I retired from that job after deciding that I wanted to concentrate on making the world a better place.

Now, I make most of my money off passive investments. In the middle of an unprecedented economic crisis those investments are doing better than ever. Investing doesn’t use much of my labor and it barely takes up my time, and yet it’s made me wealthier than millions of other New Yorkers who actually need to work for a living. And thanks to our state lawmakers’ unwillingness to tax folks like me fairly, I pay significantly lower tax rates on what I earn from my investments than most New Yorkers do for what they earn from their hard work.  

On the other side of things I, Ajay Puran, lost my job at a roti shop in Richmond Hill back in March as the economy shut down. I’m 16 years old and go to high school. But I’m also the oldest child in a family of six, so I used to work 8-10 hour shifts on weekends to help pay the rent and support my younger brothers and sister. Because of the pandemic, my mom and I both lost our jobs. We became dependent on my dad’s income alone - even though his work wasn’t regular and his job didn’t bring in anywhere near what we need to survive. I recently found another job occasionally cleaning and sanitizing the apartments of rich people in Manhattan who left the city. But our income is still a tiny fraction of what we used to live on. 

My family and I are undocumented. No one in my family is eligible for a single dollar in unemployment or any emergency income. When we can find work, my dad and I are working what everyone calls “essential” jobs and we’re getting a lot of thank yous. But no amount of thank yous will put food on our table or help us to pay the rent. As undocumented people we are somehow keeping this country running through our essential work, but then when there is no paid work available, we are excluded from all unemployment assistance and other income to help us survive.

Many families like us have to make a choice between working while sick or becoming homeless. And in a pandemic, everyone else in New York is only as safe and healthy as my family, and all the other undocumented people who live here.

We both agree that this sorry state of affairs is not inevitable.

Millions of New Yorkers are suffering, and the state government can offer more assistance to the people who need it most, including undocumented immigrants. There’s plenty of money available to spend, it’s just in the bank accounts of New York’s wealthy. All we need is for the state Legislature and Governor Cuomo to step up and understand that protecting the lifestyles of the rich in the long-term means to protect the most vulnerable New Yorkers now, not keeping the wealthy’s taxes low in the short-term.

A bill introduced in the New York Legislature would address this problem by changing the way our state’s billionaires are taxed to provide direct relief to families excluded from unemployment benefits. The proposed billionaires tax would raise an estimated $5.5 billion per year and could provide direct aid to the most vulnerable New Yorkers in a flat amount that matches what other low wage workers receive in unemployment insurance.

While the rest of the state struggles to stay afloat in this crisis, New York’s 119 billionaires have increased their net worth by leaps and bounds since the start of the pandemic, with some estimates reaching $600 billion.

We have more billionaires than anywhere else in the world, and yet they pay lower state and local tax rates than New York’s teachers and truck drivers. This should be an easy call. Our state could finally, after all these years of ignoring the growing problem, start to bridge the gap between the two of us if we just tax those billionaires to fund excluded workers.

Morris Pearl is the Chair of the Patriotic Millionaires. Ajay Puranis a member of Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM). On Twitter: @Morris_Pearl & @DesisRisingUp.

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How Development Should Be Decided in New York City

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City Council (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)

We are at a critical turning point in New York City’s history. Large-scale development projects, pushed by big real estate interests and the business class after September 11, 2001, did not give New Yorkers the promised security to avoid the Great Recession, or the next crisis, COVID-19. Meanwhile, a lack of investments in social programs shredded the social safety net New Yorkers were told would save them if they lost their jobs or homes.

If there is any time to insist on accountability before approving massive developments, it is now. That is why we oppose Industry City and YourLIC in our respective City Council districts.

We cannot allow for more displacement and suffering to befall our most vulnerable constituents based on empty promises alone. Yet the real estate lobby (REBNY) and the business class are trotting out the same failed talking points and pushing our City Council colleagues to overrule us.

This is unsurprising. The business class loves “member deference” when it aligns with their interests, and rail against it when it does not. But what is remarkable is how some of our colleagues who should know better agree with them. They say the stakes are too high for us to decide alone, despite us having won the confidence of our constituents at the ballot box and knowing our communities intimately.

Our colleagues are right about one thing – the stakes are too high. According to some estimates, 1.4 million New Yorkers are at risk of eviction because of COVID-19. Around 100,000 are already homeless. Half of all immigrant New Yorkers are unemployed, even though they represent half of all essential workers. And while our most vulnerable neighbors lost their lives and livelihoods, billionaires profited off their misery and are doing better than ever.

The dangerous precedent we must undo is not the Council’s tradition of member deference but our deference to developers. Insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly while expecting different results. If we give developers a blank check in Brooklyn and Queens, despite lacking any accountability to their neighbors to deliver on their promises, we will re-create the very conditions that put New Yorkers in harm’s way to begin with.

Many things must change about how we make land use decisions. The city’s process - ULURP - is flawed and Council members are not always right. But member deference creates accountability at the ballot box, where it belongs. Eliminating member deference would disconnect the votes of our constituents from the decision-making process and give power to whoever can lobby and organize the Council best, regardless of the merits of any proposal.

In other words, member deference prevents the rich and powerful from pushing through projects over the objections of local communities. Ending member deference, during the worst economic crisis in a century when New Yorkers are calling for change, would make our city into a playground for the wealthy again and further displace working class New Yorkers, especially our Black, Latino, and immigrant neighbors.

Every year, developers promise New Yorkers jobs in exchange for our support. But proof matters more than promises, especially now. If we are to prevent the next economic crisis, we must insist on accountability, and resist the siren calls of economic collapse from the ones most responsible for it.

City Council Members Carlos Menchaca and Jimmy Van Bramer represent parts of Brooklyn and Queens, respectively. On Twitter @CMenchaca & @JimmyVanBramer.

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When the School Segregationist Dog Whistle Becomes a Bullhorn

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Students at school (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Dog-whistle politics refers to the use of racially-coded language as a strategy to rally perceived allies while providing plausible deniability against charges of racism. Donald Trump and the Republican Party regularly use racist dog whistles in the context of immigration, policing, public benefits, and school integration by rallying around the idea of an external racial threat of people of color to ‘white America.’ However, there is no one political party or region of the United States with a monopoly on dog-whistle politics. Even in “liberal” New York City, the debate around school integration continues to escalate and bubble over as the racist dog whistle becomes a booming bullhorn.

New York City remains one of the most segregated school districts in the country. For the past few years, educational equity advocates have proposed a number of educational reforms to address this problem. The most controversial reforms involve school integration, which have engendered controversy and backlash from conservatives and self-described liberals alike. 

In 2018, Upper West Side parents vehemently opposed integration plans that would set aside a percentage of middle-school seats in their district for students with lower exam scores. As one white parent said at a meeting: “You’re telling them that 'You’re not going to go to a school that’s going to educate them the same way you’ve been educated.' Life sucks! Is that what the DOE [Department of Education] wants to say?” Many white liberals and moderates deploy dog whistles to defend their position that racial integration will destroy the “good” schools, or take opportunities away from allegedly more deserving, gifted, and hardworking white and Asian-American students

These school integration debates have raged on, perhaps most fervently, concerning efforts to reform admissions standards at New York City’s specialized high schools. Currently, admissions to these elite schools is based on a single, high-stakes, standardized test called the SHSAT. Black and Latino students in New York’s eight so-called specialized high schools stand at an abysmal rate of around 11 percent, despite constituting 70 percent of New York City’s public school system.

Reporting by Nikole Hannah-Jones, Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times journalist and director of the 1619 Project, brought national attention to the school integration debate in New York City. Her interview with Maud Maron, who currently serves as president of the Community Education Council for District 2 in Manhattan, drew outrage precisely for Maron’s use of dog whistles to oppose school integration.

As a follow-up to Maron’s remarks opposing the Department of Education’s school integration proposals, Hannah-Jones asked: “What desegregation efforts then would you support?” Maron replied that it depends: “you have to have community buy-in,” and continued, "when people say I'm nervous that this is going to result in my kid getting a less good education, you have to take that concern as a valid concern—even if you think it's racist, and it may be."

We must heed Martin Luther King Jr.’s criticism of the white moderate, "who constantly says: 'I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action'; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom." Maron is a textbook example of the white moderate of whom King warned, telling Hannah-Jones that Black people must wait for a more convenient time for people like her and the many privileged parent leaders to become comfortable with integration.

Like many opponents to school integration, Maron’s comments trivialize and dismiss the benefits of school integration when rivaled with her concern that white children would have to share the same educational space and opportunities with Black and Latino children. In addition to opposing school integration, Maron and her ilk unsurprisingly oppose culturally responsive education and implicit bias training for educators. 

These anti-integration advocates hold an outsized influence over education policy, occupying critical seats on their local community education councils. And they seek to grow their influence and power, including through upcoming city elections. Maron is now taking her education platform and running on it, as a Democrat, for New York City Council in the 2021 election.

Despite Maron’s attempts to portray herself as a “liberal,” time and again she has fought against organizations like Teens Take Charge, a youth-led group that fights for educational equity, and more recently targeted a youth activist of color for raising allegations of racism with her political campaign. In response to her critics, Maron published an op-ed identifying herself as a public defender as a liberal bona fide. She goes on to say that anti-racism is what invites discrimination, and then characterizes education equity advocates as race-obsessed. In response, the Black Attorneys of Legal Aid and The Legal Aid Society, Maron’s employer, both issued statements condemning Maron’s brand of liberal racism.

Maron is no longer only speaking to Tribeca moms who secretly oppose integration in hushed voices. She is publicly dabbling in the rhetoric popularized by Donald Trump and his right wing supporters who attack and deride antiracism as political correctness and cancel culture. She has even galvanized an online army of vile racism denialists who harass and dox anyone who criticizes Maron or her segregation activism. 

One of Maron’s most ardent supporters include Thomas Wrocklage, a fellow CEC member, lawyer, and co-founder of the anti-integration nonprofit called PLACE NYC. Wrocklage comfortably engages in a range of aggressive antics to harass Maron’s critics, going as far as to dox multiple of Maron’s Black and women colleagues and fellow CEC members, and indefensibly harassing teenagers from Teens Take Charge. Maron has not denounced the offensive tactics or racist views espoused by her supporters on her behalf.  

Ultimately, the segregationist views of Maud Maron and Thomas Wrocklage are not new or unique. Attacking school integration is as American as apple pie. It is the story of the Little Rock Nine, a group of nine Black students who integrated Little Rock High School in Arkansas in 1957—only two years after Brown v Board of Education held that segregation of public schools was unconstitutional. The Little Rock Nine faced white mobs and riots, and the Arkansas National Guard was sent in to stop these nine Black children from entering their school.

This legacy of anti-Black racism and logic lives on. White mothers fought to uphold Jim Crow—they saw their moral authority derive from protecting their white children from the racial threat of integration. While people like Maud Maron seemingly couch their arguments against school integration in a thin veil of parental concern, they remain on the wrong side of history.

It is our duty to go beyond denouncing brazen, bullhorn racism. For far too long and often, more subtle, covert forms of racism go unchecked. To be clear, this is not simply a matter of political correctness or word choices. The issue before us is that the promise of Brown, 66 years later, has not been realized. We must expose and challenge the systemic racism that underpins dog whistles, and bullhorns alike, if we are to have a chance at real integration.

Rigodis Appling, Diana Nevins, Olayemi Olurin, and Jason Wu are public defenders in New York City. On Twitter @rigodis, @artemis_nieves, @msolurin, @criticalrace.

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Lessons from How We Prevented COVID-19 from Ravaging Our Homeless Clients

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Food distribution during the covid crisis (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

COVID-19 has taught us painful lessons about inadequate disaster preparedness and a vulnerable health-care ecosystem. In the midst of access obstacles, insufficient resources, and a limited federal response, a virus of moderate virulence and lethality has taken an appalling toll — over 140,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 including more than 700 health-care workers. Local providers and governments have had to scramble and improvise to manage the onslaught to prevent an even worse disaster. 

At the Center for Urban Community Services, one of New York City’s largest health-care providers to people who are homeless, we have managed to scramble and improvise effectively for our clients and workforce. Our client infection rate has remained below 5 percent, well under the estimated 15-20 percent infection rate for New York City residents. We have also managed to keep our staff infection rate low, and even more importantly, we have had zero staff fatalities.

As COVID-19 cases continue to surge across the American South and Southwest, and in anticipation of influenza season, which we fear will exacerbate the pandemic, lessons of the spring in the Northeast can mitigate a possible second coronavirus wave. Here is some of what we learned:   

Communicate, including about your ignorance.  
Effective action always starts with accurate, relevant information people trust. A crucial ingredient of earning trust is to also be open about one’s ignorance. An early challenge of COVID-19 was that so much was unknown in the early spring about how SARS-CoV-2 transmits, causes illness, and leads to death — we didn’t really know what we were up against.

It was difficult to strategize about reducing transmission when it wasn’t clear how the virus was spreading, and it was difficult to screen people when it wasn’t clear what symptoms reliably correlated with infection. Furthermore, a lack of testing meant we didn’t even know how widespread a problem we were facing. The first thing to be up front about, then, is what you don’t know.

In March and April we communicated frequently with our clients and staff about our plans for trying to keep people safe, but also that we were committed to changing course as new information and understanding developed. An important example of this was the shifting understanding and recommendations about the value of face coverings. Early on we recommended against mask-wearing but shifted gears as evidence mounted about the effectiveness of face-covering. Because we prepared people for course changes, however, our clients and staff embraced mask-wearing easily and quickly.    

Another example of ignorance we allowed ourselves to be open about was the lack of clarity about the symptoms of COVID-19 and about the relative importance of asymptomatic and presymptomatic spread.

Realizing that confusion about these issues made it impossible to reliably identify who might be contagious at any given moment profoundly influenced our strategy in a way that we believe kept our infection rate low. Since we understood we could not completely prevent people who are contagious from being at our workplaces, we transformed our programs and operations to be safe even if people were contagious.

We eliminated as many “close contacts” between client and staff and among staff as possible. A contagious person cannot infect you if you keep your distance, avoid prolonged interactions and wear a mask. We believe our workplaces are currently safer than people’s homes.

Get ahead of the problem and on the side of caution.
By the time there was a first confirmed case of COVID-19 in New York City, we had been closely monitoring developments in China and Italy and we had already started educating our staff and clients about the seriousness of the situation. Sensitizing people to the grave nature of the crisis prepared our team to rapidly develop protocols that we ended up executing well before the city and state began issuing guidance.

We had decided how we were going to respond to the closing of the New York City school system and the stay-at-home order before those measures went into effect. Given how quickly SARS-CoV-2 can spread, we believe this foresight and rapid mobilization prevented a significant outbreak at our agency.  

In mid-March we transitioned most staff to remote work, a significant challenge for a client-facing service-provider. Much of our medical team shifted to two-week, staggered rotations to limit the number of providers who would be risking exposure at any given time while also ensuring our clients access to necessary care. Acting swiftly and decisively, with healthcare workers’ well-being driving every decision, minimized the number of clinicians who became infected and allowed us to keep providing care to people. 

Although COVID-19 prevalence in New York City is currently quite low, and the city has moved on to phase 4 of reopening, we recognize this is a fragile state of affairs and that we cannot let our guard down. Our protocols continue to be informed by the assumption that everyone you might interact with might be contagious. SARS-CoV-2 can spread easily and case counts can quickly grow exponentially. We move forward assuming that might happen any time, and we believe this is the only prudent assumption until there is a widely available, effective vaccine. 

Be flexible.
A significant, unanticipated early challenge of this pandemic was the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) — just as toilet paper disappeared from the stores, so did face masks from our suppliers. To address this unprecedented challenge, Center for Urban Community Services formed an informal team to become equipment hunters and importers. For example, we deputized procurement officers who had no such previous experience.

This team collaborated with different organizations in a national, and in some cases international, effort to obtain face masks for frontline workers on our outreach teams and shelter and housing programs. People from all over the country supported this cause, mailing in hand-sewn face masks not only from New York City and State, but also from as far away as Alaska, California, and Washington State.

Through this effort, Center for Urban Community Services was able to distribute over 8,000 face masks to frontline staff and our clients who are homeless. Our investment in this effort has built new supply chains to ensure we have sufficient PPE to protect our staff and clients in future surges. 

Although New York City is experiencing a brief respite, it would be unwise to become complacent. COVID-19 is surging through much of the country and people travel from hot spots to New York every day. The onset of influenza season will almost certainly exacerbate whatever COVID-19 is prevalent in the city this autumn and winter. COVID-19 safety and preparedness has become embedded into all that we do — it must be inherent in our new normal — in order for us to keep people safe and to continue to provide the care and services that are so crucial to our clients.  

As scientists and physicians learn more, and COVID-19 has become less mysterious, it has become clear that good old-fashioned, basic public health measures can reverse outbreaks and control the spread of SARS-CoV-2. Social distancing; testing, tracing and isolating; hand hygiene; and mask-wearing are unfancy interventions well within the capacity of a country with the political will to resource such efforts.

By now there are dozens of examples of whole populations of people who, with clear, consistent communication and leadership, are happy to work together to protect everyone. A coordinated effort by government and citizens to employ simple, straightforward tactics could allow this country to enjoy a semblance of normalcy — being with loved ones, going to school, helping one’s neighbors — until an effective vaccine can finally put an end to this pandemic.  

Dr. Van Yu is Chief Medical Officer at the Center for Urban Community Services. On Twitter @CUCSnyc.

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