ALBANY — New York's non-essential businesses and schools must now stay closed through April 29, even as COVID-19 deaths appear to be tapering off in the downstate region, Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared Monday.
Cuomo had earlier required the school and business closure to continue through April 15. The latest statewide death toll, meanwhile, rose to 4,758, an increase of 599 in one day.
The governor also stepped back from a controversial plan to have National Guard troops take ventilators from upstate hospitals and move them to the New York City region. He said it appears downstate hospitals now have the ventilators they need, though they still require additional personal protection equipment and more nurses and doctors.
U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-North Country, told CNHI she believes the Cuomo plan to shift ventilators away from upstate hospitals was aborted after it ignited an outcry from hospital executives and upstate communities themselves.
"I anticipate this will end up being a voluntary program to ensure the hospitals have what they need" as they face a wave of admissions driven by the pandemic, Stefanik said.
State Sen. Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, was among a chorus of upstate elected officials who denounced the plan to move the ventilators. He said he believes the number of people who have acquired the virus may be significantly higher than what county health reports suggest, due to the fact testing kits are in short supply in some regions.
"We knew from the beginning that the number of tests was going to drive everything else," particularly when it came to resources to respond to the medical emergency, Ortt said. Upstate hospitals were poised to help out as much as they could without being "threatened by calling in the military," he said.
On Monday, the governor pivoted away from his earlier emphasis on the need for more ventilators.
"We don't need any additional ventilators right now," he said, because New York is getting more ventilators from the states of Washington, California and Oregon, the federal government and China.
Cuomo said several times in recent days he planned to issue an executive order paving the way for the state to shift hospital ventilators from one facility to another. His aides did not respond Monday when asked to clarify whether the order was still going to be issued.
New York is the nation's epicenter for the contagion, with more than 17,000 people getting hospital treatment as a result of coronavirus infection and more than 130,000 residents testing positive for the virus.
Voicing frustration because many people have been congregating outdoors in parks and other locations, in violation of the state's social distancing mandate, Cuomo said he is doubling the penalty for violations of the edict to $1,000.
"Now is not the time to be playing Frisbee in the park with your friends," he said.
Cuomo attributed the slowdown in the spread of the virus to the ongoing shutdown of businesses and social distancing measures. "There is a real danger in getting overconfident," he said.
Bars and restaurants have been closed since the night of March 16, while the closure of non-essential businesses has been in effect since March 20.
The mandate, Cuomo said, should be enforced by local police agencies. "Now is not the time to be lax," he said.
The state has been effective thus far in managing the crisis, Cuomo said.
"Have we lost anyone because we didn’t have a bed or we didn’t have a ventilator or we didn’t have healthcare staff? No," Cuomo said.
Cuomo's upbeat suggestion that the rate of infections may be flattening downstate also came with a grim note: The hospital system is under severe stress.
“If we are plateauing, we are plateauing at a very high level and there is tremendous stress on the health care system,” he said.
Elaborating on the stressed system, he said, "The engine is at redline and you can’t go any faster, and by the way, you can’t stay at redline for any period of time because the system would blow. ... People can't work any harder."
As infections soared across the state in late March, the crime rate dropped sharply, according to the latest data from the state Division of Criminal Justice Services.
The agency reported the number of felonies outside the New York City area plunged by 60% from March 18 through March 24.
The governor, meanwhile, said President Donald Trump has approved his request for New York to use the U.S.N.S. Comfort hospital ship to treat COVID-19 patients. The Navy had initially provided the ship on the understanding it be used for patients needing care for ailments other than the virus.
"This virus has kicked our rear end," Cuomo said. "And we underestimate this virus at our own peril."
On another front, state officials said the Regents examinations taken by high school students in June have now been canceled. Information regarding new graduation requirements is expected to be issued Tuesday by the state Board of Regents.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.