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Social Distancing, Masks Help New York Keep COVID-19 Cases Down


As much of this country heads into a new crisis with coronavirus cases soaring, some places are doing better. In New York City, the number of new cases has gone down. And in upstate New York, the northern reaches of that big state, people feel they have averted catastrophe. Here's Brett Dahlberg of our member station WXXI in Rochester.

BRETT DAHLBERG, BYLINE: As New York City was working through a surge of COVID-19 cases that overwhelmed its health care system, hospitals upstate were bracing to be slammed with patients a couple weeks later. That didn't happen. In upstate New York, many hospitals prepared to triage patients in hallways and cafeterias and then never ended up needing those plans. Health authorities in the state say closing nonessential businesses and getting public buy-in for masks and distancing ended the crisis in New York City and avoided one in other parts of the state.

Now, things are slowly starting to reopen. Tony Cortina owns a slew of Supercuts in the Rochester area.

TONY CORTINA: Our public health officials had to make a choice between shutting down the economy with the hopes of not overwhelming the hospital system.

DAHLBERG: He says the requirements for masks and goggles and disinfecting and distancing are burdensome but he understands why they're necessary. Cortina shut his salons down before he was actually required to. He says he couldn't keep them open knowing health authorities were predicting a huge surge in COVID-19 cases.

CORTINA: You know, if you go back to late March and early April, I mean, it was a really scary time.

DAHLBERG: But he didn't expect to have to stay closed for as long as he did.

CORTINA: Probably after about 30 days is when I went into what-the-hell mode.

DAHLBERG: Cortina's salon stayed closed for 2 1/2 months. During that time, New York state went through a peak in COVID-19 cases and then a decline. His shops are starting to reopen now, appointment-only with reduced hours and a partial staff.

The New City Cafe & Roastery never shut down. Like other restaurants, the state classified it as an essential business, so it stayed open for takeout service all the way through the shutdown. Director Nick Trombley says the state's stringent regulations on essential businesses were actually helpful.

NICK TROMBLEY: In so many ways, I've been thankful for the amount of regulations that we've had because it hasn't left a ton of gray space for us to try to figure things out on our own.

DAHLBERG: He says he does hear a wide range of opinions from customers.

TROMBLEY: Yeah, we've had folks who come in and say they're grabbing a coffee on their way to a protest against social distancing and masks. And then we have someone else come in who is really worried and wants to know that we're doing everything that we ought to do to keep them safe.

DAHLBERG: But Trombley says no matter people's views, they're all willing to mask up and keep their distance while they're at his cafe.

As New York state gets further from its COVID-19 peak, more businesses are starting to reopen. Health authorities say cases of the disease are staying low thanks to people's willingness to wear masks and keep their distance from each other. Speaking on CNN recently, Governor Andrew Cuomo said other states can learn from New York's experience.


ANDREW CUOMO: God bless the people of New York. You're talking about masks now. We did that two months ago. New Yorkers heard the facts. They believed in government. They believed in the state government. They rallied together. They were community. They were together. It was beautiful.

DAHLBERG: Officials say they're watching the numbers carefully. And if cases start to surge again, they'll move in quickly to shut things down.

For NPR News, I'm Brett Dahlberg in Rochester, N.Y.


Brett Dahlberg