Back in May, as New York was on the precipice of reopening after more than a year of COVID-19 restrictions, the city submitted plans to the state’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) seeking permission to begin transferring around 9,000 homeless adults from hotel rooms back to the group shelters the city had used before the pandemic.
The rooms, rented by the city at the start of the crisis at some 60 hotels across the boroughs, were intended to help curb the spread of the virus by providing shelter residents with access to more private space instead of the often crowded, dormitory-style sites that make up the shelter system.
The effort worked—just 0.4 percent of the city’s total COVID-19 cases
have been among New Yorkers experiencing homelessness, officials
say—but their use was always intended to be temporary, Mayor Bill de
Blasio repeatedly stressed.
In seeking the state’s permission to cease using the hotel sites, the city’s Department of Social Services (DSS) and Department of Homeless Services (DHS) submitted detailed plans to the state on how it would do so in order to minimize COVID risks, including meeting a series of specific criteria laid out by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH).
But a month later, then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo lifted the state’s COVID-19 restrictions and social distancing guidelines in light of increasing vaccination rates, meaning the city no longer needed state permission to move forward on the hotel phase-outs. Those earlier required plans, a spokesperson for the former governor told City Limits at the time, were “moot.”
In the months since, the city has pushed forward on the controversial hotel transfers, despite legal challenges that temporarily halted the practice this summer. And the moves have been carried out without needing to meet the requirements the city set for itself in those May plans sent to the OTDA, since it was no longer required by the state to do so.
But those earlier draft plans, obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request by advocates from the Urban Justice Center’s Safety Net Project and shared with City Limits, offer a look at the city Health Department’s initial recommendations for the moves, at odds with how the actual transfers have been carried out since.
The letter city agencies sent to OTDA on May 18 includes a list of Health Department “shelter reopening metrics,” and recommends that shelter populations should “remain in hotels until the criteria laid out in this document are met.” The criteria included, among other things, that the 7-day average hospital admission threshold for COVID-like illnesses remain below 50 cases per day, and that the city sees “no unforeseen changes in the COVID-19 disease landscape” such as “a major increase in COVID-19 variants of concern.”
The Health Department also recommended that the hotel-to-shelter relocations should be “discontinued (if not yet complete) or there should be a return to the use of hotels” if those factors are no longer met. The city’s average COVID-19 hospitalization admissions began to surpass that 50-case threshold beginning in July; it was 54 on Thursday, city data shows. Meanwhile, the highly contagious Delta variant now accounts for 98 percent of positive city COVID tests over the last four weeks, what advocates argue constitutes a major change in the city’s “COVID-19 landscape” that the DOHMH warned about in its draft recommendations.