New York City, once the worst-hit by the Covid-19 pandemic in the world, has now reached a milestone on the road to recovery by opening its schools for in-person teaching and starting indoor dining in restaurants amid controversies over relaxing restrictions.
After taking elaborate safety measures, the Democratic-run city opened its 1,600 schools covering 500,000 students on Thursday while the party’s leadership has been critical of President Donald Trump’s calls for starting in-person learning.
New York City has the biggest school system in the US, therefore the reopening could also be the start of a national turn around, even though infections are still rising in some states.
The city opened restaurants for limited indoor dining at 25 per cent capacity on Wednesday after having permitted outdoor dining and blocking parts of streets to allow them to set up tables and service safely outside.
The city, which has suffered almost 24,000 death from about 250,000 cases of Covid-19, pandemic, has now beaten the rate of positive infection rate down to about one per cent.
“This is an absolutely amazing moment, fighting back this pandemic,” Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters after the schools that had been shut since March reopened.
“We did it, New York City, and everyone should be proud of this moment,” he said.
For a staunchly Democratic city, the openings have a touch of irony as President Trump, a widely despised figure here, who has been crusading for reopening schools and businesses while Democratic leaders oppose his calls.
Trump “is insisting that we go forward and open, when you have almost half the states in America with a significant increase in coronavirus cases and deaths. And he wants to open it up more”, Democratic presidential nominee Biden said during the debate on Tuesday.
The campaign to contain the pandemic was led by two Indian-American doctors, Mayor’s Senior Adviser for Public Health Jay Verma and Health Commissioner Dave Chokshi, who took over the job in in the middle of the pandemic on the recommendation of former Surgeon-General Vivek Murthy.
The city has set up an extensive network of testing and contact tracing to quell the disease.
In a reversal of the situation in the early phases of the pandemic, New York state has mandated a two-week quarantine for anyone coming in from or have visited about 35 states with high rates of infection.
While the city has generally beaten back the disease, it is surging back in ten contained neighbourhoods, according to Chokshi, who is redoubling containment efforts there.
Most of those neighbourhoods are dominated by sects of ultra-orthodox Jews, insular groups that follow their literal interpretation of the scriptures, who have been flouting the rules on mask-wearing and restrictions of meetings.
Their children do not attend city-run schools.
The opening of the schools has been opposed by the union representing principals, which has expressed “no confidence” in the Mayor and Governor Andrew Cuomo.
The school year started with online teaching and the powerful teacher’s union initially opposed re-opening schools and delayed it for two weeks till the city agreed to its conditions.
Ventilation systems in the schools were set up or revamped to ensure air circulation and hygiene facilities created with nurses posted at every school building.
The number of students in each classroom is limited and furniture rearranged to ensure social distancing.
Students’ temperatures are checked and staff and students undergo random Covid-19 tests, according to the Board of Education.
If a student becomes infected, the class would have to be self-qurantied for 14 days, and if there are several cases in a school, it may be shutdown and everyone quarantined.
The pandemic has dealt a blow to the about 27,000 restaurants in the city, which are one of the its economic engines employing about 680,000 people, a large number of them immigrants.
Hundreds of restaurants have closed permanently after losing their business, especially from tourists, because of the pandemic.
Now the survivors have to do with catering to 25 per cent of the indoor capacity and follow stringent health regulations including temperature checks at the door and registering the name of at least one person in a party for contact tracing.