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City in state of emergency as coronavirus outlook becomes more dire

Shoppers wear face masks and sanitize their hands on the sidewalk in New York City | AP Photo

Shoppers wear face masks and sanitize their hands on the sidewalk in New York City | AP Photo

Mayor Bill de Blasio officially declared a state of emergency in New York City Thursday in response to the coronavirus pandemic, adopting a more ominous tone than usual as he warned it would be months before life would return to normal.

“We are getting into a situation where the only analogy is war,” de Blasio told reporters during Thursday’s news briefing.


The city reached 95 cases of the virus on Thursday, and the mayor predicted the number would balloon to 1,000 by next week.

With Broadway going dark and events involving more than 500 people canceled under an order by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, de Blasio signed a declaration of emergency that will give him power to enact even more draconian measures. The powers — none of which de Blasio is invoking yet — include imposing a curfew, restricting who can enter and leave certain parts of the city, closing public transit, rationing supplies and ordering vehicles or people off the streets.

“The last 24 hours have been very, very sobering,” de Blasio said. “Last night it just seemed like the world turned upside down in the course of a few hours.”

De Blasio said he and Cuomo were in agreement on ordering a shutdown of large events, and mandating that smaller venues, restaurants and bars that hold less than 500 people only allow in half of their normal legal capacity.

He predicted some businesses would be forced to close down because of the capacity restrictions, and said it would likely be months before venues like Madison Square Garden, Radio City Music Hall and Barclays Center could reopen.

“It’s really going to be kind of a hole in our lives, and it’s painful. It’s not something we would ever want to do, but it’s something we have to do,” he said. “None of us wanted to take this action unless it was 100 percent necessary.”

There have not yet been any coronavirus-related deaths in the city, but fatalities are widely expected. “We are going to lose some of our fellow New Yorkers. That, unfortunately, is inevitable,” de Blasio said.

The city is prepared to even open intensive care units in parking lots and tents, should that become necessary, the mayor said. There are 5,000 ventilators on hand.

De Blasio said three institutions — city public schools, public transportation, and the health care system — would remain open at all costs.

The city temporarily shut down two schools in one Bronx building Thursday morning after a child reportedly tested positive for the coronavirus, though officials have not confirmed that diagnosis.

Faced with federal hurdles that have prevented the city from doing testing for the virus on a widespread scale, de Blasio said he would support labs defying the federal government and conducting automatic tests even without authorization.

“We want to do wide-scale testing. We cannot do it without the federal government coming in,” de Blasio said.

“There has been talk of localities taking matters into their own hands. I believe that is what’s going to happen if we don’t get this federal approval. And I think this is bluntly the last chance. I think if the president of the United States and the FDA do not give us approval, I don’t blame any locality, any company, anyone who just decides to do whatever kind of testing they can at this point, and we will work with all of them.”

De Blasio and public health officials emphasized that hospitals and doctors offices should be doing tests on patients who have a fever and dry cough, and do not have the flu or other common conditions. There has been widespread confusion caused by fast-changing criteria for tests, leading to people with symptoms being turned away.

Ten percent of the city workforce will now be able to telecommute, which adds up to about 35,000 people. Among workers who will still have to report in person, 20 percent will be put on staggered schedules. City workers told POLITICO earlier on Thursday that they have been getting conflicting guidance from supervisors on working from home.

A special election scheduled for March 24 for Queens borough president will go forward, but the mayor encouraged campaigns to suspend door-to-door canvassing and instead campaign virtually.

“We are dealing with an unprecedented challenge, but I think it is a signature of a stable democracy that elections happen when scheduled,” de Blasio said.

Wall Street trading will continue, though some changes are possible on the stock exchange trading floor. The CEO of the stock exchange and other business leaders met with de Blasio at City Hall Thursday.

“We are adamantly devoted to keeping the market going,” the mayor said.

Despite the massive disruptions to daily life, de Blasio told New Yorkers that not everything is off limits — they can visit restaurants and businesses that observe capacity restrictions, and going out on dates is fine, though it might be wise to make sure your date isn’t feeling sick.

“It is dangerous to stop living life,” de Blasio said. “This is a crisis. But it is a crisis that will one day end.”

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