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In NYC, Closing Streets May Help to Ensure Social Distancing



ASEEM SHUKLA, HOST: In an effort to create more space for residents to be outside, while still practicing social distancing, New York City began closing some streets to vehicular traffic this morning. In Manhattan, for example, Park Avenue between 28th and 34th street has been set aside for pedestrians. The hope is that the extra space will alleviate crowding in parks. If the pilot works, the city may expand the closures.


But some critics say that the effort is insufficient, and even dangerous. They’re voicing their concerns on Twitter, saying that the closed areas are small enough that they’ll attract crowds. I spoke with Dr. Jessica Justman, who teaches epidemiology at Columbia Medical Center, and asked her if she agrees with the criticism.

JESSICA JUSTMAN: I think the city's pilot plan to close certain sections of certain streets to get more open space is a really great idea. I have heard that Central Park and other parks have really become very crowded. And I think we can anticipate that will only increase as the weather becomes warmer, and creating more open space for people to go outside, but still, you know, have enough space to practice social distancing is a terrific idea.


SHUKLA: Some online commentators have said that closing blocks of streets that are all adjacent to each other is just going to have the effect of creating gathering points. Do you think that’s a valid criticism?


JUSTMAN: You know it I understand that it's a pilot project to see if it works. I do think that the city will have to open up much longer stretches of the streets in order to make it work. If you only open up a very small section of a street it will become crowded as people gather together. The key is going to be to have a long enough section of the street, and/ or adjacent streets, that are closed to cars and allow people to have space to walk. But it makes total sense to do this first as a pilot project.


SHUKLA: Others have said that this program is too little too late. How would you respond to that?


JUSTMAN: Well, I might agree that it is a shame that it hasn't started sooner. But I also will say: Better late than never. So I think it's a great idea to try it and see what happens. The key will be to take that initial data, and make a decision quickly on how and whether to expand it, and then expand it quickly.


SHUKLA: What other recommendations would you have for the city to allow people to go outside but still be socially distant?


JUSTMAN: I think perhaps it would be interesting to see if it's possible to expand bike lanes to make it easier for people to go for bike rides. Just having safe ways to get water from water fountains is something that I hope somebody is thinking about as people spend more time outdoors and as it gets warmer. Because we don’t want people to get any contamination if they are using a water fountain that others may have been coughing or sneezing near.


SHUKLA: Dr. Justman, when was the last time you saw somebody who you don’t live with?


JUSTMAN: I would say about two weeks ago, um, I did attend a wedding. And everybody at the wedding really was very careful to stay far apart from each other. Now, I don't think I would attend a wedding. I don't think anybody would attend a wedding. After that was so that was two weeks ago. I then did see a few other people and did maintain that physical distance of six feet away from others. The last week though I haven't seen anybody besides my husband.


By the way, social distancing is really about physical distancing. It's still quite possible to socialize at a distance and socialize remotely and I think that's a really healthy and important thing that we do, while we maintain physical distance of least six feet from other people.


SHUKLA: Dr. Justman, thank you very much for being with us today.


JUSTMAN: Thank you. Thank you for having me and happy to help anytime.

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