ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Tuesday he is giving county officials the power to add for-hire drivers and restaurant workers to the list of people eligible for a coronavirus vaccine.
If counties take the governor up on his offer, that would mean another major expansion of eligibility rules, even as New York struggles with an extremely limited supply of shots. The state estimated 7 million people - including health care workers, group home residents and staff, teachers, police, firefighters, public transit workers, grocery store workers and people over 65 - were eligible before this latest potential expansion.
There are nearly 200,000 licensed cabbies and ride-hail drivers in New York City alone. Statewide, New York had an estimated 865,800 restaurant and food service jobs as of 2019, according to the National Restaurant Association.
Cuomo has spent days complaining the rapid expansion of eligibility is making it harder for people most at risk to get shots. Just Monday, the Democrat slammed elected officials for pushing to vaccinate restaurant workers when supply was limited.
“It’s a cheap, insincere discussion,” Cuomo said. “Yes, I would like to see restaurant workers eligible. But what does eligibility mean when you don’t have enough?”
But Cuomo said Tuesday the federal government is signaling it will send New York 20% more doses for the next three weeks, meaning more doses for counties.
“If they want to add taxi drivers, Uber drivers, restaurant workers, they can do that if they think it works within their prioritization locally,” Cuomo said.
“Some localities have already done a large percentage of their police, their fire, their teachers and they do have flexibility,” Cuomo said. “There is no one size fits all here.”
His administration didn’t release details Tuesday on how many more doses it’ll send to counties.
Still, the promised increase wouldn’t be enough to cover all ride-hail drivers or restaurant workers: New York has been receiving 250,000 doses each week.
Cuomo’s announcement surprised Stephen Acquario, executive director of the New York State Association of Counties.
He said Cuomo’s administration had told counties to use a promised 16% increase for staff and residents of state-run homes for people with developmental disabilities, who were previously limited to vaccinations through hospitals.
And he said counties haven’t received guidance beyond Cuomo’s televised announcement.
“This has been consistent practice by the state and we will wait for official state guidance,” Acquario said.
Many New Yorkers have faced cancelled vaccine appointments over the past month, with county leaders saying they received fewer doses from Cuomo’s administration than expected.
Erie County will use the next weeks of vaccine allocations for people with cancelled appointments, spokeswoman Kara Kane said. Then, the county would open appointments for other eligible groups.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called earlier Tuesday to vaccinate restaurant workers.
“Good!” the mayor tweeted following Cuomo’s announcement. “This will help us reach more New Yorkers while driving equity in our Vaccine for All campaign.”
The move could open up eligibility to a wide swath of workers more likely to be immigrants at a time when New York City is vaccinating white and Asian people at higher rates than Black and Hispanic individuals.
Black and Hispanic or Latino individuals are about four times more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19 and three times more likely to die than white and non-Hispanic people, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
About 44% of New York City restaurant workers are Hispanic, while 20% are Asian, according to a November report. Similar data on for-hire drivers was unavailable Tuesday.
Still, it’s unclear whether expanded eligibility would vastly increase the number of vaccinated Black New Yorkers, who represent one-fourth of city residents and 13% of restaurant workers.
The restaurant industry, which has pushed to reopen indoor dining in the city, applauded Cuomo’s announcement.
“Since COVID-19 struck New York City, restaurant workers have been heroes on the front lines, interacting with the public to sustain our city’s food supply, feeding our most vulnerable populations and helping maintain some sense of normalcy in our communities by offering limited dining options,” NYC Hospitality Alliance Executive Director Andrew Rigie said.
Bhairavi Desai, executive director of a union representing 25,000 taxi and Uber drivers, said 60 drivers have died from COVID-19.
“Having priority access to the vaccine will keep more drivers alive and healthy, no longer forcing them to choose between economic survival and survival from a pandemic, and give members of the public access to more transportation as more drivers will be able to return to steady work,” Desai said.
New York averaged about 11,000 daily new cases over the past seven days - down from over 16,000 in mid-January, but up from 8,000 in early December.
New York has used about two-thirds of 2.9 million vaccine doses - in line with the national average, according to CDC data. New York ranks 22nd for people who’ve received first doses per-capita.
AP Writer Karen Matthews contributed reporting from New York City.
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