This story was reported by Lisa Colangelo, Jesse Coburn and Scott Eidler. It was written by Colangelo.
As restless New Yorkers filled Long Island beaches and parks on Sunday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo visited Jones Beach State Park and encouraged them to enjoy the Memorial Day weekend but not forget social distancing rules designed to stem the spread of COVID-19.
“We are now decidedly in the reopening phase,” Cuomo said. “We have to stay smart.”
There have been more than 361,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, to date in New York, Cuomo said. The number of fatalities went up slightly to 109 on Saturday. It had dropped to 84 on Friday.
Overall more than 23,000 deaths in the state have been linked to the virus that has caused a worldwide pandemic.
But the governor said Long Island is still on track to proceed with Phase 1 of reopening by Wednesday. And Sunday he announced that professional sports teams can now restore their training camps, with future games to be played in empty venues. He said the reintroduction of sports represented a “return to normalcy.”
Cuomo also said campgrounds can open Monday and veterinarian offices will be allowed to restart, although many had already been seeing pets while owners had to wait outside.
Sunday afternoon, many Long Island beaches were already filled to capacity, officials said, despite sometimes cloudy, cool weather. Thousands flocked to them, itching to leave their homes after more than two months of restrictions under the pandemic.
“We are going a little stir crazy at home,” said Michael Geraldi of Merrick. “Just to be here with our neighbors and friends and family — it feels great. Hopefully the sun pokes through soon.”
New York City residents were expected to venture east for sand and surf since their own beaches are closed. Nassau and Suffolk were limiting county beaches to residents, but state beaches, including Jones Beach, Robert Moses, Sunken Meadow and Hither Hills, were open at 50% capacity.
As the prospect of Long Island reopening looms this week, Cuomo also called for government to help “stimulate and recreate the economy” by encouraging construction of public projects to overhaul mass transit, airports and telemedicine, after the pandemic forced a shutdown of all but essential businesses in New York State.
The governor pointed to projects like the massive development of Jones Beach, historically one of the most challenging of public works by master builder Robert Moses decades ago.
“Let’s get that kind of ambition back,” he said.
He added that this kind of stimulation was critical because he didn’t believe the economy will “bounce back” and that the shutdown may have fundamentally changed it, saying employers could see opportunities to lay off workers to save money.
And as people have lost their jobs, hunger has become a dire need. More than 10,000 Long Island households have received surplus food from farmers under the Nourish New York program, officials said. Six new distribution sites are scheduled to take place in Nassau and Suffolk counties this week.
“You have people who literally do not have enough to eat. The demand on food banks has skyrocketed,” Cuomo said. “That’s true all across the state. It’s true here on Long Island and we encourage people who want to make donations, philanthropies who want to make donations, to make them for the purpose of food banks.”
Cuomo said Long Island is still on track to hit all seven of the reopening metrics on Wednesday, one of the last regions in the state to do so. But he warned that such plans must be done carefully with a mindset toward avoiding future public health crises.
Reopening the state’s economy is based on seven metrics: decline in total hospitalizations, decline in deaths, less than two new hospitalizations per 100,000 residents based on a three-day rolling average, hospital bed capacity, ICU bed capacity, diagnostic testing capacity and contract tracing capacity.
Once those numbers are reached, a region can start Phase 1 openings, which includes construction, manufacturing, wholesale trade, agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting as well as retail limited to curbside or in-store pickup.
Long Island needs 1,800 tracers between Nassau and Suffolk County, which officials said they expect to have in the coming week. It is also lagging on the number of decreased hospital deaths — which need to be a 14-day decline or fewer than five deaths in a three day average.
“What do we really think, this is the last time we are going to have a public health emergency? he said. “Let’s make sure we are better for what we have gone through and start preparing for a new chapter in this saga … We are writing history in New York. We are writing history in America.”
Cuomo also said with more riders expected to return to the Long Island Rail Road, the MTA is cleaning and disinfecting trains on a daily basis, for the first time ever. The agency also plans to add more cars to trains so riders can observe social distancing.
“I want people to remember that the mask is mandatory on public transportation,” Cuomo said. “I think you’re making a mistake, a grave mistake, if you don’t use a mask in your own personal life. We know that it works.”
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said Sunday the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the county has fallen to its lowest level since late March.
Hospitals in the county are treating 374 people for the virus, Bellone said, down from 409 the day prior.
“That is a very good thing as we approach a Phase 1 opening this week,” Bellone said.
An additional 162 people in the county have tested positive for the virus, Bellone said Sunday, bringing Suffolk’s total to 38,964.
Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said in a statement Sunday that the county is now down to 460 hospitalizations, 21 less than Saturday. She added “along with our falling daily fatality rate, we are on track to meet the New York State metrics for reopening this week.”