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After Lockdown And Unrest, New York City Begins Reopening During Pandemic


New York City is taking its first steps in reopening after an almost three-month-long lockdown because of the coronavirus. Starting today, as many as 400,000 people will be able to join essential workers in doing their jobs outside their homes. It's a big move for a city that's seen more than 200,000 people confirmed with the virus, and more than 21,000 people have died from COVID-19 there. And this all comes after more than a week of unrest in New York City, all the protests over police brutality.

NPR's Hansi Lo Wang joins us from New York with the latest. Hansi, welcome.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Thank you, Rachel.

MARTIN: So New York City, I mean, the site of another weekend of massive protests against police brutality in the name of George Floyd. That combined with the pandemic there - I mean, it has just been a lot. Explain what's going to happen today.

WANG: Well, we're expecting to see more New Yorkers leave their homes to go to work starting today. This is part of the first phase of New York City's economic reopening. And like you said, this is a really major moment for a city that's been faced with two major crises right now. You know, it's been the national epicenter of this pandemic. And over the past week, these gatherings of nonviolent protesters have really highlighted longstanding issues with policing and racial injustice in this city. You know, there seems to be some momentum building for the protesters, especially those calling for the defunding of the New York City Police Department.

Yesterday, Mayor Bill de Blasio, after he announced the end of nightly curfews a day earlier than expected, the mayor also said that for upcoming negotiations for the city's budget, city officials intend to redirect some funding for the police to youth programs and social services in communities of color. So there are a lot of moving pieces right now in New York.

MARTIN: So let's talk about the first phase of New York's reopening. What kinds of businesses are going to be allowed to open their doors today?

WANG: You know, only some industries that state and local officials think can social distance more easily. That includes retail, manufacturing and construction. It's going to be a real test to see if and how the city can come back to life. You know, it's the largest, most densely populated city in the country, and it just emptied out after the outbreak. And now the numbers of new COVID cases and hospitalizations because of COVID-19 have dropped. A lot of workers, small business owners who cannot work from home, they've been really anxious to make money again and put food on the table, pay their bills.

MARTIN: So it's one thing to say, OK, we're going to do this phased reopening, and now hundreds of thousands of people can go back to work. But I mean, that's sort of dangerous, isn't it? Just getting to work, there are all these precautions with people's commutes.

WANG: There are a lot of risks involved. And, you know, a big thing here in New York is, of course, public transit, which is the lifeblood of this city, especially the subway. And the number of riders since the outbreak has really plummeted. And some essential workers have not had a choice over these past few months. But many people have been avoiding the subway and it's a question to see what they will do now that the city is reopening. New Yorkers have to wear face coverings when they're riding the subway. But it's very hard, if not impossible, to social distance. And employers hope to stagger work shifts. We'll see if that works out. I talked to one small business owner, Josie Ultarte. She owns this women's boutique called Zoe Zen in Brooklyn, had to transition to more online ordering. But she told me she's not opening her store anytime soon. Let's listen to what she said.

JOSIE ULTARTE: I don't think it's worth it. You know, this government is just more concerned about the economics and the money and rather than people's health.

WANG: You know, the city officials say they are trying to keep the city safe. You know, one thing to keep in mind, though, going back to all the protests, we're not sure how those gatherings might increase the spread of the virus. And so the city is encouraging everyone to get tested.

MARTIN: So one thing I haven't heard you mention is the schools. They're, of course, closed in places and states around the country. Where does that leave parents and guardians who have to go back to work now?

WANG: I talked to one small business owner, Leila Noelliste, of BGLH Marketplace. She's a single mother of three. She's very concerned.

LEILA NOELLISTE: There's this push to reopen. And I feel like no one is really talking about child care because I'm just kind of like, what do you expect me to do with my kids? And I have been asking around, and no one has an answer. And I just find that very, very confusing because it's the last big piece of the puzzle.

WANG: You know, for now, child care centers in the city are for essential workers only. But for parents like Noelliste, it's a real big problem right now.

MARTIN: Right. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang from New York City. Thank you.

WANG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR based in New York City. He reports on the people, power and money behind the 2020 census.