New York is making significant progress in getting COVID-19 under control, with the daily tally of new cases falling this week to its lowest level since the pandemic began. But now that we seem prepared to enter Phase 4 of the state's reopening plan in earnest, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his administration seem to be singling out shopping malls with standards that haven't been applied to other business environments that pose similar risks.
Malls were originally scheduled to reopen along with other Phase 4 businesses last week, but Cuomo abruptly announced Friday that he was concerned about the virus spreading through the air of enclosed mall spaces, musing that perhaps additional ventilation might be in order. On Monday, he required the installation of high-efficiency particle air, or HEPA, filters before such malls can reopen, but set no reopening date even with the filters.
Throughout the pandemic, this editorial board has urged caution against reopening too soon or without taking proper precautions. And Cuomo, to be fair, has largely succeeded where other governors have failed in getting the virus under control, as New York's largely flattened curve has set an example that Sun Belt states have failed to heed with increasingly dire consequences.
But is a shopping mall structurally all that different from the big box superstores that Cuomo allowed to remain open through the pandemic? As restaurants closed and most stores scaled back their hours in March, Oneonta's Walmart and Hannaford stores, for example, became increasingly crowded, being among the few sources for household goods that remained open. These stores, to their credit, enforced mask-wearing and did what they could to impose social distancing on shoppers, but it's hard imagine how their air quality — or that of narrower-aisled dollar stores and pharmacies — would be any safer than that of the cavernous Southside Mall.
Regardless, it's hard to see the fairness of applying a HEPA filter mandate for malls but not these other chain stores. If Cuomo finds it necessary to impose this requirement on malls, he should look for a way to compensate them for it.
But where did he even get this HEPA thing, anyway? It seemingly came to Cuomo on a whim late last week, as if he got cold feet about malls in Phase 4, perhaps concerned by the idiocy-induced outbreaks we've seen in parts of the country that refuse to take the virus seriously. Perhaps it's hard to blame him for that.
But the science on how COVID is spread through lingering airborne droplets seems speculative. The federal Centers for Disease Control says person-to-person contact through direct sneezing or coughing without a facemask is the most common form of transmission, with airborne droplets only traveling outward about 6 feet before falling onto surfaces (hence that length in social distancing rules).
We wouldn't call for the reopening of malls unless we were confident it could be done safely. But having had weeks to prepare and learn from other businesses, it's probable that malls could reopen in limited form without a problem. With the summer movie season largely canceled and widespread reluctance to travel, it's unlikely that reopened malls would see as many visitors as in the past, anyway. But a bit of traffic into the mall could alleviate some of the crowd density at the superstores.
Don't expect to be allowed in without a mask, don't expect to linger or eat in, and don't shirk your personal responsibility in whether these stores reopen successfully without sparking another outbreak. With that said, the governor should let the malls reopen. He has erred on the side of caution thus far, but the err is starting to outweigh the caution.