Public Spaces Weren’t Designed for Pandemics. N.Y.C. Is Trying to Adapt. | The New York Times


A sweeping red-glass staircase in the heart of Times Square that is a magnet for selfie-snapping tourists has been barricaded off.

There are calls for one-way sidewalks on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where the concrete is too narrow to keep people six feet apart.

Tables for two and potted trees may soon replace cars along Arthur Avenue, the heart of Little Italy in the Bronx, where restaurants are turning to curbside dining so customers can spread out.

The rigorous social distancing that has beaten back the coronavirus is being put to its biggest test yet as New York City eases restrictions after a three-month shutdown. Though still far from normal, empty streets and sidewalks are starting to fill with commuters, plazas are getting visitors, and playgrounds are bustling with children.

The pandemic, which has taken away so much already, has created new challenges for public places that are, by design, meant to be shared by everyone, and are central to cities like New York, where limited space forces people together.

New York City has vastly expanded its network of public spaces over the past two decades — including new showcase parks and pedestrian plazas carved from streets — that serve as the backyard for countless New Yorkers who live in small apartments.

While these spaces have made the city more vibrant, they also draw crowds that now make them a public health threat.

Some states that have reopened faster than New York, including Florida, Texas and Arizona, have seen a surge in coronavirus cases as people have headed back to beaches, shopping malls and other public places.

“Everyone is desperate to encourage public activity, but how to do it safely with a less than perfect understanding of how risky is risky?” said Tom Wright, the president of the Regional Plan Association, an influential planning group.

Even before New York City, which became an epicenter of the pandemic, officially began reopening on June 8, the streets were filled with demonstrators protesting the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

And as virus fatigue set in, people increasingly flouted social distancing rules: going maskless in public, crowding around bars and cutting chains on playgrounds before they were officially reopened.

City and state officials face additional hurdles as offices start reopening, bringing out thousands more workers, and as outdoor service begins at hard-hit restaurants that are often squeezed into tight spaces.

An outdoor dining plan announced by Mayor Bill de Blasio allows restaurants to expand seating outdoors on sidewalks and in parking lanes and plazas. Restaurants will soon be able to use streets that have already been closed to traffic. And some indoor dining could resume as early as July 6.

In response to the pandemic, the city closed 44 miles of its 6,000 miles of streets to traffic, allowing for walking, biking and social distancing, under pressure from residents and transportation advocates. The mayor announced an additional 23 miles of streets would be closed this week.

Polly Trottenberg, the city’s transportation commissioner, said the pandemic had given people a chance to take ownership of their streets and have more say in how they should be used. “It has brought forward a desire to see city streets used in more open and creative ways,” she said.

But with little official guidance from the city on public spaces beyond streets and outdoor dining, many business and community groups have been left to figure out how to keep people safe.

Some Upper East Side residents have called for one-way sidewalks. “The stressful part of going anywhere is getting there, because the sidewalks are so narrow,” said City Councilman Ben Kallos, who represents parts of the neighborhood and Roosevelt Island. “There’s no room for distancing, especially when people are walking toward you.”

City transportation officials said that while they appreciated the creative proposal, it was not practical and could require people to cross additional streets to get where they were going.

Some businesses, anticipating that checkpoints to screen workers for the virus would create lines that spill onto sidewalks, are considering staggering work hours; asking employees to take stairs instead of waiting for elevators; and installing cameras that automatically flag people with high temperatures, said Margaret Newman, a principal at Arup, a design and consulting firm.

Some of the city’s most popular plazas and parks have already taken steps to prevent crowding, including removing chairs and tables. Along Broadway in the garment district in Manhattan, only about one-third of the chairs have been put out. Sidewalk stickers placed six feet apart outside stores and restaurants show people where to stand.

Times Square, one of the most famous gathering spots in the world, draws up to 450,000 people daily. The cascade of 27 ruby-red glass steps, which seats hundreds at a time, has been closed indefinitely. Dozens of theater-inspired signs remind visitors of social-distancing rules, including one that says, “Phantom of the Opera: popularizing masks since 1986.”

In Bryant Park, another crowded space in the heart of Manhattan, there is a limit of three people in each bathroom. Drinking water fountains have been converted into hand-washing sinks. Chess players are encouraged to sit at separate tables with separate chessboards and call out moves to each other. And when the carousel reopens, children will be seated on every other horse.

In Central Park, police officers will restrict entry into the lush, 15-acre lawn known as Sheep Meadow when it becomes crowded. In Brooklyn Bridge Park, fitness classes and basketball and volleyball games have been suspended. Nearby in Domino Park, the lawn has been divided into 30 white circles, each eight feet in diameter and spaced six feet apart. A park worker reminds people to stay inside their own circle.

  • Updated June 24, 2020

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      A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.

    • I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?

      The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

    • What is pandemic paid leave?

      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

“We found it was the lowest common denominator, it was the simplest solution to separate people,” said Michael Lampariello, the park’s director, who fields inquiries about replicating the circles in other cities.

Still, many people overseeing public spaces say there is only so much they can do to maintain social distancing.

“We want the city to offer up guidelines and some degree of enforcement to help us comanage these public spaces,” said Tim Tompkins, the president of the Times Square Alliance, which manages Times Square.

City planning officials, who regulate hundreds of privately owned public spaces in some of New York’s busiest neighborhoods, said they would soon release a plan to make social distancing possible.

Jerold S. Kayden, a professor of urban planning and design at Harvard University, said that in many cities, public spaces were created largely piecemeal rather than through a master plan, and are overseen by a patchwork of government agencies and private property owners. “We need to think of public spaces in total,” he said. “They’re all part of the solution and we need to think about them in the same way.”

Leaders of business improvement districts lobbied city officials to expedite the authorization process for outdoor dining. By Sunday, more than 6,000 restaurants had applied, including 3,000 in Manhattan.

“Outdoor seating is a lifeline,” said Michael McNamee, an owner of PMac’s Hospitality Group, which has several Manhattan restaurants, including Dutch Fred’s and Tanner Smith’s in Midtown. “We need customers to feel happy and confident in our ability to have a secure and virus-free environment.”

Moving dining tables outside would not offset the losses from reducing indoor capacity, Mr. McNamee said, but it would allow his restaurants to bring back up to 50 percent of their employees.

In the Belmont neighborhood of the Bronx, known as the borough’s Little Italy, the business improvement district is planning to transform a stretch of Arthur Avenue into an Italian piazza in the evenings with tables on the sidewalk and part of the street, while still allowing room for emergency vehicles.

“Getting people back working is our first priority, but with that comes the reattachment of the limbs here that make us whole,” said Peter Madonia, the chairman of the Belmont Business Improvement District and a third-generation owner of Madonia Bakery on Arthur Avenue. “This is deeply personal for me as well as professionally.”

Regina Myer, the president of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, recently took Ms. Trottenberg, the transportation commissioner, on a neighborhood tour, pointing out where tables and seats could be brought outdoors, including one spot outside Junior’s Restaurant, which is famous for its cheesecake.

“Having Junior’s reopen,” Ms. Myer said, “would be a huge symbol for the borough.”

In Queens, some property owners in Long Island City are considering helping their tenants by using spaces in private parking lots for outdoor restaurant seating.

“You get a foot here, and you get a foot there,” said Elizabeth Lusskin, the president of the Long Island City Partnership. “And hopefully, it adds up to something usable.”

Mr. Kayden, the professor, said some of the new ideas and measures could outlast the pandemic and fundamentally change the way that public spaces are designed.

“Everybody is rethinking their public spaces,” he said. “A lot of people are using this crisis as an opportunity to say we want more and better public spaces.”