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New York Malls Have a New Roadblock to Reopening Plans

New York malls have a new roadblock on the road to reopening.

On Monday, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo required the state’s indoor shopping centers to install coronavirus-filtering air conditioning systems before they can swing open their doors.

Cuomo’s mandate added a new wrinkle for malls across the nation’s fourth-most-populous state, a move that likely means indefinitely delaying in when malls can restart business, even if they were on the cusp of Phase Four, which allows large-group gatherings at places like shopping venues and movie theaters. Upstate New York is set to transition to this fourth phase next week Monday.

The good news? These fit-for-purpose filtration systems are already out there—and NASA has taken them under review.

“There are air filtration devices that can actually help with the COVID-19 virus,” Cuomo said in a briefing Monday, adding “NASA has studied these…HEPA filters that are high-efficient particulate air filters that can actually filter out the COVID virus.”

The governor said these HEPA filters are designed to keep out 0.01 micron particulates, the size of the COVID-19 virus, “so any mall that will open in New York” must retrofit with a suitable air-conditioning system.

Cuomo’s new mandate adds another COVID-19 cost that malls and their retail tenants will need to factor into their operational structures.

“This is a tremendous undertaking. Malls have their own units for the common areas and each tenant has its own system. The mandate requires malls to swap out filters in their own units, and then they will have to require that their tenants do the same for their units,” said Richard Troy, president of Precision-Aire Inc., which has provided HVAC service to New York state shopping centers including the Smith Haven Mall in Lake Grove and at Roosevelt Field in Garden City, both of which are owned and operated by real estate investment trust Simon Property Group.

According to Troy, filters will be required for each zone that’s connected to the central system. Smith Haven has a multitude of units across four different zones, while Roosevelt Field has units on different floors, with the food court having its own filtration system.

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COVID-ready products are comprised of more layers to more efficiently filter out the smaller-sized virus particles, though “they will need to be replaced more often because they are capturing more particles,” Troy noted.

Businesses should install filters with MERV (Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value) ratings of at least MERV-13 to “accommodate normal operating conditions in public spaces such as commercial buildings and certain public areas within hospitals for example,” Camfil, a manufacturer of commercial and industrial systems for air filtration, wrote on its website.

But while MERV-13 filters can improve air quality, they shouldn’t be considered the first line of defense against COVID-19, Troy pointed out. Because most transmissions are through “droplets when someone speaks, it would have to travel really far to get caught in that filter,” he said, adding that the best defense is still for consumers to wear a mask, maintain social distancing and wash their hands, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The governor on Monday also recommended that businesses and offices explore the potential for their air conditioning and filtration systems to add a filter that can block the coronavirus. “We have been looking at this issue because you look around the country, you’re seeing that it’s the malls, air conditioning systems and indoor spaces that have been problematic,” he said.

Indoor dining was also cited by the governor as being problematical, mostly because the virus appears to spread in closed indoor areas that have systems circulating the same air over and over. In contrast, “outdoor dining has worked very well across the state,” he said.

Cuomo voiced his concerns with New York City’s Phase Three reopening, as people flout social-distancing rules and visitors from other states introduce new complications. “If other states have a high infection rate, the probability is [anyone traveling to New York] will increase the spread,” he said.

Plus, President Trump has been pressuring states to reopen, pushing Cuomo to “liberate New York,” the governor said. But Cuomo also took a shot at the federal government’s lack of a national standard for dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak, noting the spiraling infections across the U.S. while New York has largely flattened the curve.

“The denial by the federal government of the severity of this virus was followed by the federal government’s abandonment of responsibility. If you don’t believe it’s a problem, you don’t try to find a solution,” Cuomo said, adding that the federal government has opened just 41 testing sites, while New York State has opened over 750 such sites. He also believes it’s Trump responsibility to sign an order directing everyone to wear a mask in public.