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As phase four of “New York Forward” began in parts of New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo explained more has to be learned before gyms, theaters or malls can reopen.
“Gyms, theaters, malls, we are still looking at the science and the data,” he said on a Friday morning conference call. “There has been information that those situations have created issues in other states. If we have that information, we don't want to then go ahead until we know what we're doing, right?
“This is a road that no one has travelled on before. Logic suggests if you see a problem in other states that you explore it before you move forward in your state, and that's what we're doing with gyms, theaters and malls.
“Our Department of Health is trying to determine if there is any filtration system for an air conditioning system that can successfully remove the virus from air circulation. Is there a filter that can be added to an air conditioning system that we know will filter out the virus? The issue they're looking at is, are these air conditioning systems recirculating the virus, and you're not getting a high percentage about the air conditioning system is recirculating and could be recirculating the virus.
“So, that's the issue that we're exploring on that, and if anybody knows of a filter that successfully filters out the coronavirus, that we can add to an air conditioning system, that would be very helpful.”
Cuomo further explained, “The reason … we slowed on the malls, movie theaters, gyms, these states that have stayed open are making findings, or the businesses themselves are making findings in some of these areas. And so, we incorporate that data. These interior spaces with large numbers of people that have recirculating air conditioning systems pose an issue. And I've spoken to a number of engineers about it. You get a movie theater, you get a mall, you have a large number of people. So, there's a possibility that you have the virus in the air, because you have a large number of people.
“The air conditioning system recirculates the air. Most air conditioning systems – (just about) all air-conditioning conditioning systems – filter the air. The filters that they use have different densities. And some filters are better at taking out fine particulate matter than other filters. That's always been the case. Some filters claim they filter viruses out of the air. This is a different virus, as we have all learned, and the question is do the filters take out the – can they filter out the coronavirus?
“So, the Department of Health is working on that. And Robert Mujica, budget director, has been talking to a number of engineer firms and filter companies … and Rob is doing this personally; I asked him to. Rob is looking to see if we can find filters that we knew with a degree of certainty could actually filter out the COVID virus. That could really be helpful – not just to New York, but across the board.
“Apparently, what Rob has found out so far, is that requires a density of a filter that is actually hard for an air conditioning system to operate. Because it restricts the airflow to such an extent; but I'm not an engineer, and I’ve exhausted everything I know about air filters. Those are the kinds of issues we're talking through now.”
A reporter from Bloomberg News asked Cuomo about a European study by Norway's government that, she said, found people who are exercising in a gym are not at a higher risk of infection. She questioned whether the governor was looking at best practices from other countries.
Cuomo said, “We are looking at gyms. There’s a variety of information on gyms. It's impractical, most gym operators say, to tell people they have to wear a mask while exercising; so you don't wear a mask when you're on a treadmill, etc., because it restricts your breathing when you're running. So, now you have a number of people on treadmills, breathing in and out deeply on a treadmill.
“The deeper breaths, laughing, etc., shouting, tends to put more of the virus in the air, if you are positive. OK. If you are running and you're breathing deeply, exhaling deeply, you're on a treadmill, that might put more virus in the air. If you're a gym that also has an air conditioning system that is recirculating the air – then getting back to this whole filter conversation – that might be problematic.
“So, these are the issues that we're working through. But I know there are a number of countries that have been looking at this, and I think it's going to come down to the gym and the equipment – their policies, masks, etc. And again, we're looking at this air conditioning, air filtration system.”
Western New York is expected to enter into phase four on Tuesday, June 30.
The Central New York, Finger Lakes, Mohawk Valley, North Country and Southern Tier regions began the final phase of reopening on Friday.
At a Monday morning press conference, Cuomo announced air conditioning filters with a minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV) rating capable of filtering COVID-19 particles or similar air exchange measures will be mandatory for large mall reopenings.
A COVID-19 particle is approximately 0.125 microns in diameter. Filters with a high MERV, such as high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, have been shown to help reduce the presence of COIVD-19 in air filtration systems.
“There are air filtration devices – air filters that can actually help with the COVID virus and NASA has studied these,” Cuomo said. “There are HEPA filters, which are high-efficiency particulate air filters that can actually filter out the COVID virus. The COVID virus is 0.1 microns. There are HEPA filters that can filter out 0.01, so any malls that will open in New York – large malls – we will make it mandatory that they have air filtration systems that can filter out the COVID virus.
“For many of these systems, it depends on what filter you install, called the MERV rating of the filter. But they have different filters that filter out different sized particles, and they have filters that can actually filter out and catch the COVID virus.
“For large mall reopenings – which we haven't done yet – but we're going to make this mandatory. I would recommend – the state recommends – for all businesses and offices, they explore the potential for their air-conditioning/air-filtration system, adding a filter that can filter out the COVID virus. We have been looking at this issue, because we look around the country and you're seeing malls, you're seeing air-conditioning systems, indoor spaces that have been problematic. And we think this offers promise.”
Speaking Monday afternoon on LCTV, Niagara County Legislature Chairwoman Becky Wydysh said, “We certainly will attempt to get more clarity on this issue and pass it along as we hear it. We know that gyms, especially, have been a big one that have come up: Gym owners having very good cleaning and safety protocol guidelines in place, that they feel that they could get opened up at this time. We will continue to advocate for that on our regional control room calls.
“We do know that many gyms are holding outdoor training classes, as they are allowed to do at this point; so, you might want to check with your facility to see if there are options available to you that you can use.”