New York City's 'big test' begins with easing of some coronavirus restrictions

New York City, which has seen more than 21,000 people die of confirmed or probable COVID-19 - a total greater than most countries in the world - entered Phase One of its reopening strategy on Monday.

City enters Phase 1 of reopening Monday, though large swaths of economy still shut down

Patrons wearing protective masks wait to enter a Chase bank location on Monday in Queens, New York. After three bleak months, New York City will try to turn a page when it begins reopening Monday. (Frank Franklin II/The Associated Press)

The city that never sleeps had a curfew for much of last week. Famous stores were boarded up after days of unrest. The lights are out on Broadway theatres, and the subway no longer runs overnight.

But after three bleak months, New York City began reopening Monday after getting hit first by the coronavirus, then an outpouring of rage over racism and police brutality.

With the virus in check — at least for now — New York is easing restrictions that shut down schools, businesses and much of city life in March.

Construction, manufacturing, wholesalers and previously "nonessential" retailers can resume work during Phase One of reopening, with restrictions. Retailers can reopen for delivery and pickup, though customers can't yet browse inside.

"So far, so good," construction management company owner Frank Sciame said as job sites started humming again, with new precautions such as health screening questionnaires and lower limits on the number of workers allowed in construction hoists. "Let's hope it continues."

"New York," he said, "will always come back."

Construction workers return to the job in the Bronx as part of Monday's reopening from the coronavirus lockdown. (David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)

Some major store chains took it slow: Macy's declined to give a date for starting curbside pickup at its flagship store, where smash-and-grab thieves hit amid last week's protests over George Floyd's death. Saks Fifth Avenue, which girded itself with razor wire last week, and Tiffany's may launch pickup service later this week.

Owners of smaller shops were eager to reopen, even if they didn't expect much business.

"We are going to be open every day for the sake of showing life," said eyewear designer Ahlem Manai-Platt, who was reopening a lower Manhattan store.

"This is a triumph for all New Yorkers that we've gotten to this point," Mayor Bill de Blasio said.

But he warned the city against letting its guard down and risking a resurgence of the virus: "We got this far by doing it the right way, by doing the social distancing, the face coverings. We've got to keep doing it at those work sites and everywhere if we expect to keep moving forward."

Distancing guides on public transit

Overall, more than 21,000 people citywide have died of confirmed or probable COVID-19. One of the most recent, it was announced on Sunday, was the New York City Police Department's chief of transportation.

At its peak, the virus killed more than 500 people a day in New York City in early to mid-April. The number has since dropped into the single digits. New hospitalizations, which topped 800 a day in late March and early April, were down to 67 on Saturday.

Reopening the economy could spark a resurgence of the virus as people circulate more.

"All eyes will be on New York this next couple of months," said urban policy expert Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future. "The city now has to prove that it really knows what it's doing, that it can still be a dense city like New York and yet figure this out."

Sam Solomon wondered what the new normal would look like.

"I don't know if it's ever going to be like it was," said Solomon, 22, who has a health-related job.

After months of relative isolation, "It's going to be an adjustment being around so many people," said the native New Yorker, who never thought she'd have to get used to crowds.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo greets workers cleaning inside a toy store in Grand Central Terminal. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

New York City, population 8.3 million, has already reawakened somewhat as warm weather drew people outdoors, more restaurants offered carryout service, and thousands of people marched in protest over Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police.

Subway ridership is ticking back up after plunging from 5.4 million rides per weekday in February to under 450,000 in April, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said.

Commuters will find subway schedules back to usual Monday, with signs showing people how far apart to stand — or try to — on platforms. The 1 a.m.-to-5 a.m. shutdowns that began in early May will continue so trains can be cleaned.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo took a subway ride Monday to send a message of safety.

Many activities, such as indoor dining and gym workouts, aren't yet allowed, Broadway theatres and other big venues remain shuttered, and New Yorkers are still required to wear face masks when close to others in public.

Months of physical distancing, mask-wearing, handwashing, shock and fear have made New Yorkers better prepared to keep the coronavirus under control, health experts said.

"It's going to be a big test," said Dr. Bruce Polsky, a city resident who is chairman of medicine at NYU Winthrop Hospital.

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