Empty retail stores are seen in the Manhattan borough, following the outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19), in New York City, on March 15, 2020. Image Credit: Reuters

New York: Facing mounting pressure, New York City officials announced Sunday a sweeping shutdown of tens of thousands of bars and restaurants and the closure of the city’s public school system - the largest in the nation - in an effort to suppress the spread of the coronavirus.

From California to Washington, DC, governors and mayors are grappling with how far government should go in constricting people’s daily lives to keep them home.

A patchwork of recent measures - mandatory curfews in Puerto Rico and Hoboken, New Jersey; the closing of restaurant and bar dining rooms in Ohio and Illinois; and the closure of public schools in several states, including Minnesota, South Carolina and Rhode Island - was a sign that the restrictive interventions could soon become the norm nationwide.

New York provided another stark example Sunday: Shortly before 10pm, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city will close its bars and restaurants, except for delivery and pickup services, leaving waiters, bartenders and baristas uncertain about their next paycheck.

The mayor also ordered the closings of nightclubs, movie theatres, small theatre houses and concert venues. The closings go into effect Tuesday morning for an indefinite period.

Warning of federal shutdown

The order came just a few hours after officials had announced the suspension of public schools in New York City as of Monday - a move that will, at least temporarily, upend the routines of 1.1 million students and 75,000 teachers as the city transitions to remote learning.

“Our lives are all changing in ways that were unimaginable just a week ago,” de Blasio said in a statement Sunday night. “This is not a decision I make lightly. These places are part of the heart and soul of our city.”

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Pastor Kristen Hanna at the Christ United Methodist Church in Chapel Hill, N.C., on Sunday, March 15, 2020. This week, as the coronavirus has spread, one American ritual after another has vanished, no more morning gym workouts and now it was a Sunday without church. Image Credit: NYT

The moves dovetailed with new guidelines issued Sunday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; they recommended that local governments and individuals cancel large gatherings of more than 50 people for the next eight weeks. The recommendations apply to “planned or spontaneous” events, including conferences, festivals, parades, concerts, sporting events and weddings.

Earlier Sunday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned that people were “going to have to hunker down significantly more than we as a country are doing.”

He suggested a 14-day federal shutdown could be warranted down the road and urged young people to practice social distancing out of fear they could spread the disease to older people.

Pleas ignored

But while many government and health officials urged people to observe such distancing, some Americans had ignored those pleas, including in New York City.

New York state, where the number of confirmed positive results rose to 729 on Sunday, had implemented a ban on large gatherings and established rules to reduce capacity at places like restaurants with occupancies of fewer than 500 people.

But the measures, put in place Thursday, did not seem to be having their desired effect: A handful of elected officials called for a total shutdown of bars and restaurants following reports of large crowds over the weekend.

“I am alarmed at the cavalier attitude of most New Yorkers who still don’t seem to understand what’s about to hit us and what we need to slow it,” Councilman Mark Levine, who is chairman of the council Health Committee, said Sunday morning.

Levine, along with a handful of City Council members, including Corey Johnson, the council speaker, as well as the city comptroller, Scott Stringer, expressed outrage that people ignored officials’ pleas to stay home and instead converged at clubs and bars.

The officials, using the hashtag #shutdownNYC on Twitter, described the disregard of social distancing as reckless behavior.

Calls for broader shutdown

By Sunday evening, de Blasio succumbed to the escalating pressure, after both he and Gov. Andrew Cuomo had resisted calls for a broader shutdown.

Earlier this week, Cuomo had banned events of more than 500 people while curtailing the capacity of business establishments that hold fewer than 500 people, like restaurants and bars, to less than 50%.

By noon Sunday, as support for a larger shutdown crescendoed on social media, Johnson, the Council speaker, had joined the campaign, calling for the closure of schools, restaurants and bars.

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Johnson, a Democrat, said that grocery stores, bodegas, pharmacies and banks should remain open. He said all levels of government should intervene to ease the losses of business owners, provide financial assistance to affected workers and help parents with child care.

Then, Sunday afternoon, Cuomo changed course: He called on businesses to shutter voluntarily, as has happened in Boston, Cleveland and other parts of the nation. The governor of California on Sunday also asked bars, nightclubs and wineries to close.

“I’m asking them voluntarily to shut down their bar, their restaurant, their gymnasium,” Cuomo said. “Let’s see what they do. If nobody does it, then we can take more actions.”

Child care and meals

For days, de Blasio also faced calls to close public schools, a move he had been reluctant to make, arguing that it could lead to classes being cancelled for the entire year.

Both the governor and mayor had raised concerns about what cancelling classes would mean for parents who cannot afford child care and children who depend on school for their meals.

The mayor said the city would prepare teachers for remote learning this week as well as open sites for at-need students to pick up food and “learning centers” for the children of essential city workers like health care employees.

“It has never been attempted by the City of New York at this scale, to say the least,” de Blasio said. “It is a system that will improve with each week.”

In Albany, state legislators were still planning on returning to the state Capitol on Monday, even after two members of the Assembly who represent parts of Brooklyn - Helene Weinstein and Charles Barron - tested positive for the virus.

Some lawmakers raised concerns about that prospect, considering the often close quarters in the legislative chambers as well as conference rooms where members meet, but Cuomo was adamant that lawmakers should return to the capital, likening it to service in war times.

“Should the military not show up? Should the police officers not show up?” the governor said, adding, “If we can ask nurses to put on a hazmat suit and take blood, we can ask elected officials to come and sit at a desk and vote on a piece of legislation.”