Governor Cuomo has declared a state of emergency following a dramatic spike in coronavirus cases statewide, with 82 flagged in Westchester County and 12 in New York City as of March 8.

Concerns about the potentially deadly disease prompted the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to relent from its previous prohibition against transit workers wearing surgical masks as a precaution while on duty, which Transport Workers Union Local 100 had vigorously fought.

Public schools in Scarsdale and Columbia University canceled classes effective March 9.

Calls on Feds to Act

At a press briefing a day earlier, Mr. Cuomo said that state had increased its capability to test for the virus at its Wadsworth Lab in Albany but needed Federal approval for private labs to be engaged and for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to approve the use of automation in processing the tests.

The FDNY, in an effort to prevent city firehouses from being placed under quarantine due to the virus, ordered firefighters not to respond to medical emergencies related to respiratory distress, instead placing full responsibility for handling those calls with its Emergency Medical Service.

As of March 9, there were more than 500 cases of the disease in the U.S., with 22 deaths resulting from it. Worldwide, cases had surpassed 111,000 and the death toll was approaching 3,900. Italy and Japan closed their schools to stem the spread of the virus.

The disease can be particularly perilous to the elderly and those whose immune systems are already compromised by pre-existing conditions.

Mayor Sided With MTA

Last week, Mayor de Blasio had joined top MTA officials in stating that it was not necessary for healthy transit workers to don the masks. Pat Warren, the MTA’s Chief Safety Officer, had stated, “Medical guidance indicated that respiratory masks do not protect healthy people—they are designed to keep infected people from spreading the virus to others. Accordingly, since a mask is not part of the authorized uniform and not medically recommended at this time, they may not be worn by uniformed MTA employees. In the event that guidance from Federal and state health authorities should recommend a modification of this policy, it will be reevaluated at that time.”

But after the Governor declared a state of emergency, MTA Chief People Officer Paul Fama sent a notice to all workers that “any employee may choose to wear gloves and masks if they have underlying medical conditions or if this makes them more comfortable during this time. Any gloves and masks that are not part of [personal protection equipment] would be provided by the employee.”

Four days earlier, flanked by city Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot and NYC Health+Hospitals President and CEO Mitchell Katz, Mayor de Blasio had concurred with the MTA’s insistence that masks were not necessary, saying, “If you have the disease, wearing a mask helps you not to spread it to others. If you are a health-care professional who comes into contact on a regular basic with folks who may have the disease, a proper mask helps protect the health-care professional…It is not a general prophylactic for everyday people trying to ward off the disease.”

Tramell Thompson, a leader of the Progressive Action faction of Local 100, had strongly advocated for the right to wear masks, saying in an email before the regulation was changed, “The MTA is actively getting supervisors to impose their will on train crews who choose to protect themselves by wearing a mask in light of the coronavirus.”

‘Not Eccentric to Protect’

He had bristled at the MTA’s invoking a ban of “eccentric attire,” saying there was nothing eccentric about “workers protecting themselves during this global pandemic.”

While he is often at odds with the union’s leadership, it also had pressed to have the prohibition lifted.

The union’s Rapid Transit Operations Division vice president, Eric Loegel, had said in a statement to members, “You should not be harassed, threatened or disciplined for wearing one of these masks.”

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