New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who just two days ago was assuring people that he would never approve local "shelter in place" orders to curtail the spread of COVID-19, today issued a statewide order "mandating that 100% of the workforce must stay home, excluding essential services." While that sounds an awful lot like the very policy Cuomo promised to avoid, he insists that it's different.
"It is not a shelter-in-place order," Cuomo said. "Shelter in place is used currently for an active shooter or a school shooter." But the term Cuomo prefers is hardly reassuring. "We're all in quarantine now," he said. "We're all in various levels of quarantine, and it's hard."
That's just how life is now, Cuomo added. "When I talk about the most drastic action we can take, this is the most drastic action we can take," he told reporters at a press conference in Albany. "This is not life as usual. Accept it. Realize it and deal with it."
Under Cuomo's order, New Yorkers are allowed to leave their homes as long as they stay at least six feet away from others at all times. Exempted businesses, including banks, grocery stores, and pharmacies, likewise must make sure their customers maintain that distance. People are supposed to avoid using mass transit unless it's "absolutely necessary."
Unlike Cuomo, California Gov. Gavin Newsom forthrightly described the sweeping restrictions he imposed yesterday as "home isolation." Yet Newsom's order, like Cuomo's, exempts businesses deemed to be essential and lets people leave home to buy groceries, fill prescriptions, pick up takeout food, and carry out other necessary errands. Newsom, like Cuomo, is also letting people walk their dogs and engage in other solitary outdoor activities.
"That is not going to happen, shelter in place," Cuomo told The New York Times on Wednesday. "For New York City, or any city or county to take an emergency action, the state has to approve it. And I wouldn't approve shelter in place. That scares people, right? Quarantine in place, you can't leave your home. The fear, the panic, is a bigger problem than the virus."
Perhaps Cuomo had in mind a stay-at-home order with no exceptions. But I don't think that is a policy any jurisdiction in the country has considered, let alone implemented. Cuomo was responding specifically to a threat by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who said he wanted to emulate San Francisco's policy, which was similar to what Newsom has now imposed on the entire state of California.
The distinction between what Cuomo insisted he would not do and what he is now doing seems to be purely semantic. Maybe not even semantic. The same governor who said a general "quarantine" was out of the question on Wednesday is now advising the public that "we're all in quarantine now."
Cuomo acknowledged the enormous economic pain his order will cause by depriving millions of people of their livelihoods. He hopes to ameliorate that problem with directives requiring lenders to waive mortgage payments "based on financial hardship," forbidding "negative reporting to credit bureaus," mandating a "grace period for loan modification," banning "late payment fees and online payment fees," "postponing or suspending foreclosures," and "suspending evictions across the state for 90 days."
Does that mean Cuomo's "quarantine" order will be in place for three months? Who knows?
It is likewise unclear whether the policy will succeed in "flattening the curve" to avoid overwhelming hospitals with COVID-19 patients, let alone reducing the total number of cases and deaths. As with aggressive COVID-19 control measures in general, the benefits are speculative, while the costs are certain.