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Cuomo bans indoor dining in NYC, but says private home gatherings are biggest virus spreader

Governor Cuomo's office

Gov. Andrew Cuomo says the coronavirus is spreading the fastest through private in-home gatherings, WXXI's Karen DeWitt reports.

Credit Governor Cuomo's office

Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Friday unveiled details of what he calls the “winter plan” for limiting the spread of COVID-19 in New York state.

He said it’s aimed at avoiding further economic shutdowns, and he added that it’s up to New Yorkers to voluntarily limit in-home gatherings in the coming weeks.

The governor also said indoor dining in New York City will be banned, starting Monday.

Cuomo said he does not want another massive shutdown like the one the state experienced in the spring when New York was the epicenter of the worldwide pandemic.

He said new data reveals that many places once considered dangerous sources of virus spread -- including hair salons, barber shops, gyms and places of worship -- are now among the lowest sources of spread, according to information collected by contact tracers on a portion of total infections.

The biggest source of transmission -- at 74% -- is what’s known as “living room spread,” meaning small, private indoor gatherings.

“Compound that by the holiday season,” said Cuomo, who acknowledged that it’s a “natural” time to want to have a small group of friends and family over. “That is what is driving these numbers.”

Cuomo said schools have been found not to be super-spreaders of the virus, as previously thought, and should remain open if there are no major outbreaks in a school.

The governor said it’s up to local districts to decide. But he said he disagrees with a decision by Buffalo Public Schools, the state’s second-largest school district, to continue all-remote learning until Feb. 1. Western New York’s infection rate is among the highest in the state.

The latest data also finds that restaurants and bars account for just 1.43% of virus spread. Nevertheless, Cuomo is ordering indoor dining in New York City to be banned, starting on Monday. It is now operating at 25% of a dining room’s capacity.

Cuomo said he’s following the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, which recommends that any indoor activity where masks are not worn should be avoided. Cuomo’s chief of staff, Melissa DeRosa, said there’s no way to eat and drink while wearing a face covering.

“By definition of what the activity is, you cannot be wearing a mask,” DeRosa said.

Cuomo is continuing the microcluster hot zone strategy to try to keep the rate of infection down. But he said there will be some changes going forward. Gyms, hair salons and barber shops will now be allowed to remain open in orange zones, but at reduced capacity and with more frequent testing of staff.

He said the limited indoor dining that’s still available in orange zones outside of New York City will continue for now, but he will reevaluate that rule after the weekend.

The restaurant industry said the further reductions and prohibitions on indoor dining will result in the death knell for thousands more restaurants and bars.

“Shutting down indoor dining in New York City makes little sense based on the state’s own numbers, and to make matters worse, we are offered no plan for survival to get through this shutdown,” Melissa Fleischut, president of the New York State Restaurant Association, said in a statement. “Today’s news will do nothing more than incentivize more unregulated indoor household gatherings, which have accounted for a whopping 73.84% of exposures.”

New York City’s Five Borough Chamber Alliance said in a statement that “the restrictions could not have come at a worse time for restaurants across the five boroughs when many are holding on for survival by a thread and trying in some way to make up for the devastating losses of the past nine months.”

Cuomo is extending a ban on commercial evictions for eateries that have been unable to pay their rent, and he is asking them to hang on for a few more months. The governor has said Congress needs to act to provide financial relief for the restaurant industry.

Meanwhile, owners of gyms and fitness centers are pleased with the changes.

Bill Lia, chairman of the New York State Fitness Alliance, said in a statement that “fitness centers have proven that by following strict protocols, including mask wearing at all times, New Yorkers can work out without contributing significantly to the spread of the virus.”

The governor said he will not order a total shutdown of the state or any of its regions unless the trends show that hospitals will become overwhelmed in 21 days. He said so far, while the hospitalization rate for COVID-19 patients is on the rise, most hospitals have the ability to expand to take in more patients, or can make more beds available by suspending elective surgeries.

“If we see that we’re on a glide path toward overwhelming the hospitals, you have no choice but to close down the economy,” he said. “You cannot overwhelm the hospital system.”

The governor said despite all of the concerns, the highest virus rates in the state are still lower than those in 44 other states. New York’s overall positivity rate for Thursday was 4.98%, and 87 people died of COVID-19.

Copyright 2020 WXXI News

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.
Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.