NEW YORK - The nation's largest public school system is staying open during the coronavirus crisis, New York City's mayor said Friday, defying mounting pressure to close as he raised concerns about the unintended consequences of leaving more than 1.1 million students with no place to go.
Mayor Bill de Blasio's decision leaves New York City as an outlier among a growing list of cities and states, from Pennsylvania to Oregon, that are closing schools for a week or more as part of a nationwide attempt to limit the spread of what's known as COVID-19.
The disease has already turned the lights out on Broadway and shuttered big New York gathering spots from art museums to Carnegie Hall, but de Blasio said shuttering schools could hamper the city's ability to respond to the crisis by forcing parents who are first responders and healthcare workers to scramble childcare or stay home.
"Many, many parents want us to keep schools open," the Democratic mayor said. "Depend on it. Need it. Don't have another option."
New York teachers unions and a number of local politicians disagreed, worried about the risk of teachers and students being exposed to the disease. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, a Democrat, argued that "teaching and learning can not take place under these circumstances." Student attendance plummeted on Friday to 68% from 85% the day before, the city said.
But a major healthcare workers union, 1199 SEIU, backed de Blasio's position.
De Blasio said the city's public schools would make adjustments to put more space between students in what is known as "social distancing," such as moving meals into classrooms to avoid cafeteria crowding and moving gym classes outside when weather permits.
The mayor said that as of Friday morning, there was one confirmed case of a student with coronavirus, on Staten Island. A teacher who works at a school for "medically fragile" students in Brooklyn has also tested positive, he said.
The city is temporarily closing individual schools where people have tested positive or are suspected of having coronavirus, but de Blasio said "it is a very high bar to shut down" the entire system.
Still, he said that could happen if conditions change.
"I think there is an illusion out there that you can shut down schools temporarily in the midst of a growing crisis," de Blasio added. He said a shutdown could end up lasting the rest of the school year, or even the calendar year, once "momentum is lost."
As officials deliberated the schools conundrum on Friday, restaurants, subway cars and sidewalks were noticeably emptier as people telecommuted to work and avoided public places — and some were closed.
Gatherings with more than 500 people were temporarily banned in the state as of 5 p.m. Friday, though Broadway shows were called off a day sooner. Many smaller gathering spaces, such as bars and restaurants, now must cut capacity in half. The restrictions don't apply to schools, hospitals, nursing homes, shopping malls and mass transit, and there were exceptions for other types of businesses, such as casino floors.
Courts across the state curtailed operations, halting selection of new juries and encouraging proceedings to be done by video. Store shelves were wiped clean of basic necessities, such as toilet paper and tissues, and products like hand sanitizer and wipes.
Restaurants and nightspots are reporting drop-offs of 20%-80% over the past week, particularly around touristy Times Square, said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance.
"People are scared to come outside," Central Park tour guide Justin Rahim said. He said several of his pedicab drivers — reliant on tourists for their living — quit Thursday to drive for Uber's food delivery service. "It's crazy. How am I going to survive this?"
De Blasio encouraged people to continuing working and living their lives, albeit with extra care.
The virus, as of Friday afternoon, had been confirmed in more than 420 people in New York state, including over 150 in the city, and had caused one death in the metropolitan area, in neighboring New Jersey. About 50 New York patients are hospitalized.
The number of illnesses may be higher because of a shortage of test kits.
The state on Friday opened a drive-through testing center in New Rochelle, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo said New York had gotten federal permission to work with 28 laboratories to amp up testing. He said he hoped the statewide capacity could hit 6,000 tests a day next week — compared to about 3,200 tests done, in total, to date.
The governor revealed that one of his three daughters had been in a precautionary quarantine after coming into contact with someone who had traveled to a coronavirus hotspot. Her precautionary seclusion has now ended, he said.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover.
Recent data from China suggests children are at similar risk of infection as the general population, though less likely to have severe symptoms. Evidence from China also suggests that even if mildly affected, children can spread the virus to others.
Still, without school to occupy their days, kids would become restless and go find their friends, bringing the same potential for transmitting coronavirus as they'd have in a classroom, de Blasio said.
"What do you think would happen if you let a bunch of New York City school kids out for not a day, not a week, but three months?" he said. "You think they're going to stay in isolation in their apartment?"