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Big city, big worry: Pressure mounting to close NYC schools

NEW YORK — Calls to close the nation's biggest public school system grew Friday in a subdued New York City, where the coronavirus has already turned the lights out on Broadway and shuttered big gathering spots from arenas to museums.
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NEW YORK — Calls to close the nation's biggest public school system grew Friday in a subdued New York City, where the coronavirus has already turned the lights out on Broadway and shuttered big gathering spots from arenas to museums.

As a growing number of U.S. communities and entire states closed schools, the New York City teachers union and an increasing roster of local politicians said it was time for the nation's largest city to do the same.

“Teaching and learning can not take place under these circumstances for the safety and well being of the teachers and students," City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said in a statement Friday.

But Mayor Bill de Blasio has worried that closing public schools that educate over 1.1 million students could force health care workers, first responders and other needed employees to stay home to care for their children. He is also concerned that hundreds of thousands of poor students could go hungry without their free or reduced-price school meals.

As officials deliberated, restaurants, subway cars and sidewalks were noticeably emptier as people telecommuted to work and avoided public places.

“People are scared to come outside,” said Justin Rahim, a tour guide at Manhattan’s Central Park. 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?”

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 nearby 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 centre 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.

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.

Cuomo announced Thursday that gatherings with more than 500 people would temporarily be banned in the state as of 5 p.m. Friday, though evening shows on Broadway were called off a day sooner.

"This could be a six-, seven-, eight-, nine-month affair. ... This is not going to be over in a couple of weeks,” Cuomo said at a news conference Friday, later revealing that one of his three daughters had been in a precautionary quarantine after coming into contact with someone who had travelled to a coronavirus hotspot. Her precautionary seclusion has now ended, he said.

Many gatherings in smaller event spaces would have to cut capacity in half. The restrictions, imposed by an emergency order, don't apply to schools, hospitals, nursing homes, shopping malls and mass transit, and there were exceptions for other types of businesses, like casino floors.

People are also still free to go to work, and de Blasio counselled against giving up.

“The city has to keep going,” de Blasio said Friday on Fox 5 TV. “We need people to have their livelihoods. We need folks to show up at work. We need our public servants to be where we need them to be to take care of folks — hospitals, schools, first responders.”

Yet it was clear the slowdown would be painful for a city that relies on the economic engines of tourism, entertainment and Wall Street.

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.

The coronavirus dominated conversation, even in parks where joggers were intent on maintaining some normalcy.

Danielle Xuereb, 38, of Manhattan, had been preparing to run a half-marathon but learned it was cancelled. She said she's been working from home and expected to continue to lay low for a week or two, maybe skipping her normal yoga classes.

“I guess my main concern,” Xuereb said, “is how long this will all last.”

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Associated Press writers Marina Villeneuve in Albany, New York, and Karen Matthews, Deepti Hajela and Jim Mustian in New York contributed to this report. The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content. Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

Jennifer Peltz And Michael R. Sisak, The Associated Press

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