This is our daily update of breaking COVID-19 news for Thursday, May 21st, 2020. Previous daily updates can be found here, and up-to-date statistics are here.

Read our guide to understanding New York on PAUSE, NY's stay-at-home order, as well as what the upstate reopening means; a look at preparing for the spread of coronavirus is here, and if you have lingering questions about the virus, here is our regularly updated coronavirus FAQ. Here are some local and state hotlines for more information: NYC: 311; NY State Hotline: 888-364-3065; NJ State Hotline: 800-222-1222.

Here's what you need to know:

"Would You Serve This To Your Grandma?"

4:00 p.m. Kathryn Garcia, the appointed food czar in charge of delivering food to New Yorkers made vulnerable by the pandemic, revealed on Thursday that the city had terminated two contracts with food vendors for poor performance.

"This is emergency food but it still must meet high standards," Garcia said, during a press briefing with Mayor Bill de Blasio.

From the start of the crisis, seniors have complained about missed meal deliveries and uneven quality. City officials at first attributed the problems to an early hiccup in its efforts to meet increased demand, but reports of unhealthy and inadequate food have persisted.

The city currently works with around 30 food providers to meet a variety of needs, including cultural and religious requirements.

Garcia said the city had responded to criticism, adding that she was now asking vendors, "Would you serve this to your grandma?"

The city is in midst of a massive food distribution effort, having handed out 32 million meals during the crisis, the mayor said.

Next week, the city plans to increase the number of daily meals served to 1.5 million. One million will be delivered, while another 500,000 grab-and-go meals will be made available at schools. Over the last month, the city has incorporated vegetarian as well as kosher and halal options.

The city estimates that two million New Yorkers are now food insecure as a result of the devastating economic toll of the virus. That is nearly double what the number was prior to the pandemic.

Cuomo Warns State Beaches May Reach Capacity By 10 A.M. This Weekend

Rockaway Beach

1:30 p.m. New York City residents hoping to hit the state beaches weekend should prepare for the likelihood that they will be turned away in the parking lot, Governor Andrew Cuomo warned on Thursday.

Unlike New York City's public shorelines, nearby state-run beaches such as Robert Moses and Jones Beach will be open for swimming in time for the holiday. But with space capped at 50 percent, New Yorkers' expectations for actually making it onto the beach should be kept low.

"Those beaches may reach capacity at 10 or 11 o’clock in the morning," Cuomo warned during his daily press briefing on Thursday. "That’s something to take into consideration. You don't want to take that ride and get all the way out there and find out the beaches are already closed."

If you do manage to get to the sand, strict distancing rules will be in effect. Picnic and concession areas will be closed, group activities are banned, and masks are required "when social distancing is not possible."

Similar restrictions are in place at beaches in NYC, with the added condition that there is no swimming.

"There is such a demand in the New York City area to get to a beach, to get some respite," acknowledged Cuomo, who has delegated beach opening decisions to local governments.

According to Mayor Bill de Blasio, it's unlikely city beaches will be opened fully in the "near term."

The governor also seemed to suggest on Thursday that summer day-camps could be shuttered across the state, thanks to the emergence of a coronavirus-linked illness that's impacting children. There have now been 157 cases of pediatric multisystem inflammatory syndrome recorded across the state — and health officials believe the true number may be much higher.

"Until we know how widespread this issue is, I wouldn't send my children to day camp," Cuomo said. "And if I wouldn't send my children to day camp, I can't ask someone else to send their children to day camp."

Many summer camps in NYC have already decided to cancel for the season, while others are drafting plans to go virtual. The state still hasn't reached a final decision on whether they will allow camps to open.

Concerns about the syndrome could also impact plans to reopen school in the fall. On Thursday, Cuomo said it was "too early to make a determination" on when children could safely return to class, but that the state would have further information next month.

Weekly Jobless Claims In New York Rise To 227,000

A line for a meal distribution site in Corona, Queens

12:00 p.m. Almost 227,000 New York state residents applied for unemployment benefits last week, a rise of 27,000 over the prior week, according to the U.S. Department of Labor on Thursday.

Overall, 2.3 million New Yorkers have filed for unemployment benefits in the nine-week period since the crisis began.

New York was one of the few states in which jobless claims actually rose last week. Across the country, 38 states saw those numbers decline.

Nationally, the unemployment claims are now leveling off. An additional 2.4 million Americans filed claims for unemployment benefits last week, bringing the total count of jobless claims over the past nine weeks to more than 38 million.

New York has ramped up its processing of claims under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which are open to freelancers, gig workers and self-employed individuals not normally eligible to file claims for unemployment. The state reported 178,000 claims last week, an increase of 125,000 over the prior week.

On Wednesday, the state Department of Labor said that more than 560,000 applicants for the federally-funded unemployment benefits program for freelancers and gig workers have been paid out in New York State.

NYC Will Increase Service On Staten Island Ferry

11:00 a.m. Mayor Bill de Blasio said that the city would increase rush hour service on the Staten Island Ferry in response to a rise in demand.

Beginning Thursday afternoon, the ferry will run every 30 minutes during rush hour. Since the coronavirus crisis began, ferries had been reduced to running every hour as ridership plummeted by 90 percent.

Prior to the pandemic, roughly 70,000 people rode the Staten Island ferry on weekdays. De Blasio said during his press briefing that there are now 600 ferry riders a day, up from a low of 400, and a change that he seemed to welcome as good news.
“That’s not a massive change but enough to make sure there’s more service and frequency,” he said.

He added that a $21 million grant for the ferry from the federal government would help pay for additional cleaning.

The decision to increase ferry service acknowledges a reality unfolding across the city: there are more cars on the road as well as people on the streets despite the ongoing stay-at-home order. The mayor has said that based on testing indicators, the city could begin to reopen in early June.

On Wednesday, the MTA reported an uptick in ridership. An estimated 1.3 million people are now riding on subways and buses on an average workday, up from a low of about 800,000 in April.

The number is still a far cry from normal ridership of 8 million a day.

NYC Ferry, de Blasio's pet-transit project, has also suffered from low ridership. On Monday, its ferry service was by an additional 20 percent, after an initial 30 percent reduction in March. Weekday and weekend service will end at 9 p.m.

NYC Ferry has also reconfigured three routes: the Lower East Side, South Brooklyn and Soundview.

Study Says Earlier Stay-At-Home Order Could Have Saved 36,000 Lives

A new Columbia University study by public health researchers concludes that had the same social distancing orders been implemented across the country taken place seven days earlier, the U.S. could have avoided 36,000 deaths.

The New York Times, who spoke to one of the authors, said that the researchers also estimated that fewer than 4,300 would have died in the New York metro area by early May had the same controls used by the federal and local officials been adopted a week earlier on March 8th.

Instead, there were 21,800 deaths recorded in the metro area by May 3rd. Across the U.S., 65,307 people had already died.

New York City schools closed on March 15th, following by the state's stay-at-home order on March 22nd. On March 16th, the U.S. travel ban on China was expanded to include all of Europe.

“It’s a big, big difference. That small moment in time, catching it in that growth phase, is incredibly critical in reducing the number of deaths,” Jeffrey Shaman, an epidemiologist at Columbia and the leader of the research team, told the Times.

The Columbia study supports an assertion made last month by Dr. Thomas Frieden, the former commissioner of the city’s Health Department, who said said that if the state and city had imposed a shutdown a week or two earlier, then the estimated death toll from the outbreak might have been reduced by 50 to 80 percent.

Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio have both been criticized for failing to act quickly enough in response to the coronavirus crisis. California's stay-at-home order was announced on March 17th, days after local leaders across the state began shutting down restaurants, bars, gyms and movie theaters, and five days earlier than when New York's went into effect.

Cuomo has tried to redirect blame to the federal government, public health watchdogs like the World Health Organization and National Institute of Health, and even the New York Times, which has covered the outbreaks since they began in China.

"Everybody missed it," he said last month. "Governors don't do pandemics. That’s not in my job description."