In the space of a few short months, New York City has gone from being the epicenter of America’s COVID-19 concerns to a shining example of pandemic response management. Its dogged pursuit of health and safety, as well as its transparent, information-driven approach to disease management, have empowered New Yorkers to emerge from the initial panic caused by the pandemic with grace and hope. 

In early August, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that the states’ COVID-19 numbers had ebbed to epic lows. Test rates have remained consistently under one percent positivity for more than two weeks. The number of hospitalized patients, intubations, and ICU cases have all dropped to the lowest they have been since mid-March. 

This is news worth celebrating; however, the struggle isn’t over yet. Now that the immediate crisis has stabilized, New York needs to turn more attention to upholding the local economy by encouraging economic activity and ensuring that local shops and community hubs stay afloat. 

That said, New Yorkers can’t throw caution to the wind by welcoming the city’s signature shoulder-bumping crowds back in full force. If we do, we’ll be back where we were in late March — anxious, overwhelmed, and at a real risk of spreading COVID-19 throughout the city. 

“Make no mistake: this virus is still surging in parts of the country and until there is a vaccine we cannot become numb or complacent about the risks we face,” Governor Cuomo recently said after recapping the city’s progress against the pandemic. “Local governments must continue to enforce public health guidance and we all must remember to be smart — follow the guidance, wear masks, socially distance and stay New York Tough!”

But how do we do that? How can we strike a balance between encouraging economic activity and ensuring that New York’s residents are socially distanced? 

Already, some businesses have begun to brainstorm safe ways to welcome consumers into their stores. Over the last few weeks, many have put a particular emphasis on organizing space. Go to any grocery store, and you’ll see six-foot blocks spray-painted in a line that extends halfway down the block. Similar measures have been taken outside public restrooms, farmers’ markets, museums, and attractions. In an ideal world, this approach would allow consumers to navigate bustling shopping districts within invisible, six-foot bubbles of personal space. 

But one journalist for the real estate magazine Curbed suggests that while demarcating space presents the start of a solution, we should also consider how we might lay claim to time

“It’s not difficult to imagine, as temperatures rise and crowds form, that we may soon be reserving six-foot circles in the park, spots in parking lots near public beaches, or 20-minute time slots at the local splash pad or pool,” Alexandra Lange writes. “The fall will bring still more time slots — chosen, not by us, but by teachers and employers.”

Lange names her imagined approach timed ticketing. The system she outlines would call for New York’s logistical divisions to draw lines on their daily calendars as regularly as store proprietors do on the sidewalk. She notes that establishing time slots for certain kinds of road use (say, biking or bus-riding) isn’t unheard of — in the early 1900s, New York streets frequently closed for a few hours after the end of the school day to allow children to play before the evening rush. 

Already, the MTA has begun establishing a time-aware system for commuters. The department recently published a 13-point action plan that included staggering business hours, as well as dividing commuters into groups that would use public transit on different days of the week to limit crowding. 

But we can extrapolate this line of thinking beyond employees to shoppers, tourists, and other city travelers. In the future, New Yorkers might reserve a time slot to visit their favorite store, set aside a few hours to traverse a shopping district, or even claim twenty minutes to visit one of the gardens in Central Park. 

This isn’t a perfect solution. It removes spontaneity, the driver behind impulse purchases, and window-shopping. However, timed ticketing does provide a solution for safety that might, for now, help New Yorkers safely return to some semblance of normal — within a defined time slot, of course.