In his first big test as mayor of New York City, Eric Adams is resisting pressure from city unions and elected officials to do more to stop the spread of the coronavirus as cases and hospitalizations rise.
Mr Adams firmly maintains that schools must remain open and he urges employers to return employees to their offices, despite calls from some union leaders to temporarily return to virtual learning and remote work.
With coronavirus cases increasing rapidly in recent days, a small but growing list of public school districts across the country – including Newark, Atlanta, Milwaukee and Cleveland – have temporarily switched to distance learning. On Monday evening, the Philadelphia School District announced that 81 schools, out of 216, would be distant.
In an interview with CNN on Tuesday morning, Adams defended his decision to reopen schools, even though about a third of parents did not send their children back to class on Monday for the start of semester. He continued to argue that students were safer at school.
“I will not let hysteria prevent the future of my children from receiving a quality education”, Mr. Adams said on CNN.
On Tuesday, President Biden, citing the lack of evidence that Omicron affects children more severely, called for schools to remain open in the United States. Local officials should use federal funds from the stimulus package passed last year to improve ventilation systems in schools and support classrooms large enough for social distancing, he said.
“We have no reason to believe at this point that Omicron is worse for children than previous variants,” Mr. Biden said. “We know our children can be safe at school.”
Mr Adams, a Democrat who was sworn in on Saturday just after the New Years Ball fell in Times Square, also urged companies don’t allow employees to work remotely, echoing a message he transmitted to Bloomberg TV on Monday: “You can’t run New York from your home.”
Mr Adams insisted on Tuesday that he was not at war with the teachers’ union and its president, Michael Mulgrew, who had called for a temporary return to distance education.
“There is no battle between Michael Mulgrew and Eric Adams,” Adams said, adding that they talk to each other three times a day and work together to keep classrooms safe.
Mr Adams has repeatedly argued that schools in the city must remain open and that poor children in particular suffer from distance learning. He recently announced, alongside his predecessor and the governor, a plan to distribute millions of rapid home tests to schools and increase random surveillance tests among students.
New York City reported nearly 30,000 new cases of the virus on Monday and the number of people hospitalized has has exceeded 5,000, according to state data. This level exceeds the peak of last winter, but remains below the hospitalization rate during the first wave of the pandemic in 2020, when 12,000 people were hospitalized on the worst days.
There are long lines outside testing centers, as they have been for weeks, and many private companies have said their employees should continue to work from home.
Some public officials have called for more aggressive measures to stop the spread of the virus, including Mark D. Levine, the new Manhattan Borough President who has become a leading voice in amplifying the opinions of health experts.
Mr. Levine released a 16-point plan on Monday that called on the city to encourage New Yorkers to avoid large gatherings, to temporarily allow city workers to work from home and to require masks in all indoor environments for vaccinated and unvaccinated New Yorkers.
“We must act now to slow this tide, protect our hospitals and support the sick,” he said.
His plan received support from leaders including Randi Weingarten, the leader of the country’s most powerful teachers’ union, and Ron T. Kim, a member of the Queens State Assembly.
In September, then-mayor Bill de Blasio ordered city employees who worked from home to return to the office. The city has more than 300,000 workers and around 80,000 of those who work in offices and who have been allowed to work remotely have had to return.
As coronavirus cases started to skyrocket in December, the city’s largest union representing workers called on Mr de Blasio to implement a remote policy for employees who can do their work from home. On Tuesday, a spokesperson for the union, District Council 37, said it would continue to push Mr Adams to adopt a policy from a distance.
“Our non-essential members have proven they can do their work from home,” said spokesperson Freddi Goldstein. “There is no reason to keep them in the office at the risk of their health.”
Mr Adams, who is close to the leaders of District Council 37, said he would discuss the policy with the unions.