With bills to set emergency protocols and clear public information, Councilmember Lincoln Restler offers a playbook for the next time an orange haze engulfs the city.
Samantha Maldonado, The City
In early June, an unprecedented orange haze of wildfire smoke choked New York and caught city officials off guard.
In spite of tweets and advisory alerts, many New Yorkers were unclear that the smoke contained harmful particulate matter — and what that meant for their health or how to stay safe. New Yorkers without access to clean indoor air had few options.
At the time, Mayor Eric Adams said there was “no blueprint or playbook for these types of issues.”
With climate change making the conditions for wildfires more severe and more frequent, there’s a push to prepare that playbook.
Councilmember Lincoln Restler (D-Brooklyn) will introduce three bills on Thursday that detail steps the city would have to take to prepare for and address emergency periods of poor outdoor air quality. Restler had been a vocal critic of the Adams administration’s handling of the June air quality event, when smoke from Canadian wildfires blanketed the city.
According to the proposed legislation, New York City would declare an official air quality emergency when the air quality index — a measure of various air pollutants on a single scale — is forecast to hit at least 150, which denotes unhealthy air.
The AQI on June 7 reached a record of 484, which is hazardous and can harm everyone, whether or not they have pre-existing health conditions.
“Air quality crises are unfortunately a new part of our climate reality,” Restler told THE CITY. “It’s time for New York City to get prepared. I was shocked and disappointed by the lack of communication and guidance and public health information and action…when the Quebec wildfires overwhelmed New York City.”
A spokesperson for Adams said the administration would review the legislation.
Two of Restler’s proposed measures would require New York City Emergency Management to notify the public both about the air quality and how to stay safe, and to create a specific emergency response protocol. The city’s alerts and messaging in June told people to stay indoors but did not detail any other actions, and the response did not follow a predetermined plan.
Emergency Management is working on incorporating air quality events into its plans, according to Heather Roiter, the office’s deputy commissioner for planning and resilience.
“This one, I promise, has been accelerated far above and beyond all of our other planning efforts,” Roiter said Wednesday during a City Council health committee hearing. She declined to provide a timeline for when the plans would be made public.
Steven Markowitz, director of the Barry Commoner Center for Health and the Environment at Queens College, thought the legislation would be useful.
“This would be a step forward. This would help govern actions related to poor air quality days that we’ve had,” Markowitz said. “The public needs as much notice as possible about this — they need something beyond local predictors that give warning.”
Spare the Air
Under the third bill, “Spare the Air” days would come into effect when the air quality is expected to be unhealthy, at an AQI of at least 150.
Under Restler’s proposed legislation, a slew of emergency protocols would kick in on those days. Activities that emit harmful air pollutants would be limited; for example, charcoal grilling would be banned and personal driving discouraged in an effort to avoid worsening the air. The city would open clean air centers where the public could seek respite, and it would distribute free masks in each community district. Employers would be encouraged to allow workers to work remotely in order to avoid going outside.
Plus, no homeless person seeking shelter would be denied, similar to how a Code Blue or Code Red works for extreme cold or heat.
“I didn’t understand why the administration failed to issue a similar directive in this situation, when many of us would spend just a few minutes outside while masked and experience serious headaches,” Restler said.
At a July Council hearing, Emergency Management Commissioner Zach Iscol said that the shelter policy was implemented. He also said that outreach workers passed out masks to homeless people and encouraged them to go into shelters.
Victoria Sanders, a research analyst at the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, grew up in the Bay Area in California and remembered experiencing “Spare the Air” days.
“People would try harder to carpool, they would drive less… They would try to take public transit more and stay inside more,” she said, adding that “Spare the Air” days have become shorthand to her family for how to behave during smoky periods.
“It’s the type of emergency they’re used to,” Sanders said. “If New York City can adopt these practices of states that are used to that, it’ll be second nature to us as well.”
THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.