Governor Andrew M. Cuomo tours construction of temporary FEMA hospital at Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. (New York Governor’s Office)

By Jonathan Greig

New Yorkers are facing the brunt of the coronavirus outbreak as it continues to spread across the country. The state has more than 20,000 cases and at least 157 people have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Almost half of all cases in the United States are in New York state and over the past two weeks, New York City has become an epicenter for the virus, with more than 12,000 positive cases of coronavirus and 99 deaths. 

Efforts are underway in the Haitian community in New York to set up outreach efforts through Facebook and WhatsApp as well as other media sources to spread information about coronavirus in Creole. Other local leaders also want to set up food drives through churches and medical resources to help those who may be fearful of seeking help through official outlets.

Both Brooklyn and Queens have more than 3,000 cases and numbers continue to skyrocket by the hour. Emergency room visits in New York City for influenza-like illness are up 403% compared to the same day last year.

Queens has seen the biggest increase in emergency room visits for influenza-like illness over 2019 with 445%, followed by Manhattan at 403%, the Bronx at 394%, Brooklyn at 367% and Staten Island at 147%.

New York governor Andrew Cuomo has ordered all nonessential businesses closed and in news conferences on Monday morning and afternoon, he reiterated that people should only leave their homes for essentials like food and medicine. The situation in hospitals has gotten so bad that Cuomo has turned the Javits Center into an overflow facility that will hold 1000 federal emergency hospital beds.

The New York State Senate recently passed a paid sick leave bill that outlines how much time employees can get off based on the size of a company and the amount of yearly revenue.

Haitian-American assemblywomen Rodneyse Bichotte and Kimberly Jean-Pierre worked on the bill and spoke at length about how more needs to be done to help people that may lose their jobs during this unprecedented public health crisis. 

“Many of my constituents and others throughout New York live paycheck to paycheck. If you’re sick, a pause in the flow of income can be detrimental to the family. The legislation also extends benefits to those who have children and are under mandatory quarantine,” Bichotte said.

Earlier this month, the two also worked to help pass a measure that allocated $40 million in emergency funding to help combat the spread of the novel coronavirus. 

The emergency funding will be used to purchase medical equipment and supplies as well as hire and train additional health care workers.

“While COVID-19 can affect anyone, it’s clear that working-class families, communities of color and other marginalized groups will bear the brunt of the pandemic’s economic impact. By guaranteeing sick leave and making New Yorkers directly affected by the virus immediately eligible for state benefits, we’re ensuring that every resident can stay home when they’re sick without losing their income,” Jean-Pierre added. 

“I’ll continue working with state leaders and health officials to ensure our communities have the resources they need to slow the spread of COVID-19.”

The bill provides sick leave, expanded paid family leave benefits and temporary disability insurance to New Yorkers who may be subject to a mandatory or precautionary quarantine or isolation.

Bichotte and Councilmember Farah Louis organized a wide-ranging COVID-19 Constituent Information call late Thursday evening that covered a variety of topics related to coronavirus and its effect on government services. 

The two Haitian-American political leaders gathered experts from a number of different fields to provide people with the most up-to-date information.  

“This is the greatest public health emergency of my professional career and I would argue, for all of our lives,” said Dr. Wayne Riley, president of SUNY Downstate Medical Center. “We have not seen such a pathogenic virulent infectious disease hit the United States since 1918 when none of us were around. This is a very serious epidemic.”

Dr. Riley highlighted that any rumors about Black people being immune to coronavirus are false, as evidenced by the number of high profile stars and athletes that have tested positive like Idris Elba, Kevin Durant and Donovan Mitchell. 

He also said that doctors at his hospital have noticed that the virus is particularly punishing on anyone with type 1 or type 2 diabetes, as well as people with pre-existing conditions like asthma, sickle cell anemia, COPD, cancer, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.  

He added that young people need to be very worried about the virus because studies have shown that a high percentage of those hospitalized were between the ages of 20 and 40. 

“At Downstate, we are preparing for a surge of patients. I have cancelled all vacations and annual leaves for all of our doctors and nurses. Like all hospitals, we’re bracing ourselves for the worst. Our job is to do the best we can,” he said.

The call also brought on Dr. Jennifer Rosen, chief of the city’s preventable disease department, who spoke at length about how the virus spreads and what New Yorkers can do to help hospitals.

The virus is spread primarily through physical contact and most commonly causes shortness of breath, fever, and coughing. Scientists are hard at work on a vaccine but it is still at least 12 months away, Dr. Rosen said. All New Yorkers should stay home and anyone feeling sick should only go to a hospital if their symptoms are life-threatening. 

Hospitals are already overwhelmed and coronavirus tests are in short supply, so everyone should simply assume they have coronavirus and stay home, Dr. Rosen noted. 

“The reported case counts significantly underestimate the true burden of the disease because most people are not getting tested as outpatients. Given that there is widespread community transmission, everyone should act as if they’ve been exposed regardless of if they’ve had contact with someone who has a lab-confirmed test,” Dr. Rosen said. 

“Everyone should think of themselves as exposed and for this reason, everyone in New York City should practice social distancing, regardless of if you are well or sick. If you need help getting medical care, you can call 311 and you can get care in New York City regardless of your immigration status or ability to pay.”

Adrienne Austin, acting deputy chancellor at NYC Department of Education, chimed in on the call and covered a number of topics about how the city’s schools are responding to the crisis. 

All public schools are closed until at least April 20 but starting on Monday, families in need can go to select locations around the city to receive three full meals. The meals will be available from Monday to Friday, 7:30 am to 1:30 pm and all meals can be picked up at the same time. To find the site closest to you, call 877-877-food or 311 or head to the department of education website.

Although all schools will be closed, there will be 100 regional enrichment centers open starting on Monday to serve primarily first responders, healthcare workers and transit employees. They are still assessing capacity but those sites can also be found on the city government’s website. 

Schools have started remote learning courses for students in grades from K through 12 and devices are available to those who need it. If you still need a device or need help with the digital learning website, head to for more information. 

Many parents have had questions about what will happen to kids graduating from high school and other students moving up to the next grade, but Austin said the city was waiting to see how the response to the virus evolves.

Reggie Thomas, senior vice president of government affairs at the Real Estate Board of New York, discussed how housing laws have been affected by coronavirus, telling the audience that warrants for eviction will not be executed for 90 days. Proceedings for residential and commercial tenants statewide have been suspended. 

Thomas also reiterated that tenants have many rights and that if they have any issues, call 311. Others on the call noted that there is now a 90-day moratorium on mortgage payments based on your level of financial hardship.

Interim President of the New York City Transit Sarah Feinberg confirmed reports that MTA ridership had cratered since the virus began to spread, with subway ridership falling by 71% and bus ridership going down 60%.

She also noted that almost all surfaces on the subways and buses are now thoroughly cleaned every night with disinfectant. 

TLC Commissioner Aloysee Heredia Jarmoszuk also hopped on to the call to briefly discuss efforts being made by the city to help taxi drivers find new lines of business since most of the city is not traveling at all. She also spoke about the city’s work with Uber and Lyft to pass new regulations that limited car pooling. 

Small businesses have also been gravely impacted by the coronavirus crisis and Gregg Bishop, commissioner at the NYC Department of Small Business Services, said anyone who owns a small business should go to the city’s website to look through the resources available for those in need. If you visit, business owners will find registries of city, state and federal grants for companies affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

There are a variety of low or no interest loans available for small businesses with favorable terms that are designed to get owners through this difficult time when there is little to no foot traffic. 

Bishop also mentioned that price gouging was now illegal and that anyone who believes a store is unfairly raising prices more than 10% on goods related to the prevention or limitation of coronavirus should contact the city at 212-416-8000.

“A significant amount of small businesses have been severely impacted by this crisis. We have not seen this before and we have not seen this in our lifetime,” Bishop said. 

During the call on Thursday, Bichotte added that multiple assembly members and councilmembers have tested positive for coronavirus, including Jean-Pierre, who spoke about her diagnosis in a statement last week

“Today, I learned that I have tested positive for COVID-19. I am now home and doing well and will continue working for New Yorkers remotely during these trying times until it is safe to end my self-quarantine,” Jean-Pierre said. 

“From the outset of this dangerous virus, my staff and I have been heeding the health recommendations from the CDC and the Department of Health and we will continue to do so to mitigate the spread of the virus. I urge all New Yorkers to take this seriously and follow these same guidelines so that we can recover from this public health threat.”

Jonathan Greig is a journalist based in New York City working as a contributing writer for CBS Interactive. He recently returned to the United States after reporting from South Africa, Jordan, and Cambodia since 2013.

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