Updated: November 15, 2020 12:37:26 pm
(Written by Sharon Otterman and Eliza Shapiro)
Across much of Europe, even as coronavirus cases rise anew, governments are keeping classrooms open while forcing restaurants and bars to shut their doors. But in some US cities, officials have opted to keep students home even as dining rooms bustle with customers.
Facing a second wave of the virus, New York City stands on the precipice of once again closing its classrooms. But with restaurants still serving customers in the city, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration faces a now-familiar conundrum: As the virus gains ground, should dining rooms be shuttered before classrooms?
The question reflects the complicated calculus that the pandemic has foisted onto cities all over the world, asking officials to balance livelihoods against lives, and to weigh the survival of today’s economy against the education of a generation of children.
There are no simple trade-offs, and it is possible that both schools and indoor dining will close in the coming days or weeks. For now, though, the city appears headed toward a discordant new status quo, asking hundreds of thousands of children to learn in front of their laptops even as New Yorkers are still making indoor dinner reservations.
New York City’s children face weeks or months without any in-person instruction if the city’s positivity rate reaches 3% over a seven-day rolling average. The city could hit that threshold in just a matter of days.
But while educating children is more essential than eating indoors, the sacrifice involved with shuttering restaurants is not suffered primarily by diners. The city’s restaurant industry, which employs many low-income New Yorkers of color, risks collapse without federal stimulus aid. Thousands of jobs are at stake, as is a major lifeblood of the city.
While de Blasio has said that it is time to reassess indoor dining, only Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has the power to shut it down. The state this week began to roll back dining, asking restaurants and bars to close at 10 p.m. starting Friday. It is also weighing more restrictions.
For New York, the looming decisions come just six weeks after dining rooms and classrooms reopened on the same day in September. And the considerations span science and politics, affecting millions of New Yorkers in ways that are both obvious and incalculable.
What science tells us about risk in schools versus restaurants
A mounting body of evidence from across the globe indicates that elementary schools in particular are not the superspreader sites they were once feared to be, though the science is more muddled for older children.
Schools have so far been a bright spot for New York. Only 0.17% of tests conducted in over 2,800 schools over the last month came back positive.
Several prominent public health experts have come forward in recent weeks to say they are now more confident that schools can reopen safely, as long as they implement strict safety measures and community transmission remains relatively low.
“I would not put schools high on the list of things driving community transmission that need to stop right now,” said Denis Nash, an epidemiology professor at the CUNY School of Public Health.
Meanwhile, the evidence that indoor dining is a high-risk activity has been steadily growing. Restaurants, gyms, cafes and other crowded indoor venues likely accounted for some 8 in 10 new infections in the early months of the U.S. coronavirus epidemic, according to a new analysis that used cellphone mobility data from 10 U.S. cities from March to May.
“Restaurants were by far the riskiest places, about four times riskier than gyms and coffee shops, followed by hotels,” in terms of new infections, said Jure Leskovec, a computer scientist at Stanford University and senior author of the new report, in a conference call with reporters.
This is in line with a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report from September that found people who tested positive for the virus were twice as likely to say they had eaten at a restaurant as people with negative test results. No other activity the researchers asked about was linked to as many cases.
“I think there is scientific and medical agreement that the priority has to be schools opening,” said Lindsey Leininger, a public health researcher at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. “Indoor dining is risky. I cannot say that more forcefully.”
Tom Bené, the chief executive officer of the National Restaurant Association, disagreed, saying that restaurants that carefully follow public health guidelines can be safe. “Not only do we feel that it can be done safely, it is being done safely,” he said.
New York City’s dilemma
Much is at stake for New York City and its 1.1 million public schoolchildren.
Over the summer, de Blasio said the entire school system would shutter if the average positivity rate hit 3% — a signal to nervous parents, educators and the teachers’ union that the city was taking safety seriously.
At the time, the average positivity rate was hovering around 1%. On Thursday, the average positivity rate reached 2.6%.
De Blasio also said over the summer that the city would reevaluate indoor dining if the positivity rate hit 2%. The city has already exceeded that threshold — but not yet taken action.
The mayor also reiterated Thursday that indoor dining should be reassessed, but said he was primarily concerned about people tightening up their behavior in response to the virus.
“Whether there’s indoor dining or not is not the central question,” de Blasio said. “The central question: Is everyone doing the maximum we can all do to fight back this disease?”
The consequences for children and families
If schools close, all students would be learning remotely indefinitely, though de Blasio said Thursday he believes closures would be temporary and, hopefully, brief.
That would be a major shift for the roughly 300,000 students who have at least attended some in-person classes so far, particularly pre-K students and children with disabilities, some of whom are in classrooms five days a week.
A group of parents has started a petition calling on the mayor to keep schools open.
But the vast majority of city students — roughly 700,000 — have been learning at home full time since March, because their parents have so far decided not to send them back to classrooms.
Mass school closures would be a clear sign that the city is in the midst of a dangerous second wave of the virus and that New Yorkers should change their behavior.
But it would be perhaps the most significant setback yet for the city’s recovery, and could prevent many thousands of parents from returning to work.
Around the world, a less fraught decision
Public schools in many large American cities have remained online-only, even as restaurants have been permitted to operate with capacity restrictions. Now that the virus is resurging, cities such as Portland, Oregon, and Seattle are considering restricting restaurants further, rather than banning indoor dining entirely — even as schools remain shut.
Cities including Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., have all closed classrooms while allowing restaurants to seat customers.
In many European countries, keeping schools open, with safety precautions, has been a political and social priority, even as governments have recently moved to restrict public life, including by shutting down restaurants and bars in France and Germany, and enforcing evening lockdowns in Italy and Spain.
What are the risks for the restaurant industry?
The restaurant industry before the pandemic employed 12 million people nationally, and about 2 million of them remain out of work, according to the National Restaurant Association, an industry group.
Even after restaurants were permitted to reopen, capacity restrictions have left many struggling to survive. Without a federal bailout package, many restaurant and bar owners have warned that they will have to shutter permanently, particularly if they have to further limit operations.
A federal relief plan, such as the Restaurants Act, would help restaurants and bars stay afloat by establishing a $120 billion grant program. But it has stalled in Congress, and states, including New York, say they are too cash-strapped to provide restaurants with support they would need to get them through an extended shutdown.
The widespread collapse of the industry would have ramifications for everything from employment to tax revenues.
“Any call for limiting restaurant operations must be coupled with a call to provide stimulus, otherwise they are not going to be around when it’s OK for them to reopen,” said Andrew Rigie, the executive director of New York City Hospitality Alliance.x
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