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Why A Virus Focused On New York

New York National Guard preparing the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center to become a 2,000 bed field hospital.
Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, New York City, April 2, 2020. Photo by by Major Patrick Cordova,
courtesy The National Guard.

Nobody set out to have New York City become the nation’s hardest-hit community in the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is no accident, either.

We know enough about how the new coronavirus works to understand why the five boroughs and the surrounding metropolitan area offered the perfect environment for the disease to fester undetected until it exploded into a mass casualty incident. New York and New Jersey, whose statistics ought to be viewed together as essentially one event, accounted for close to half of all U.S. confirmed cases and deaths at this writing.

We also know enough to doubt the accuracy, if not the sincerity, of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s oft-repeated assertion that New York is the “canary in a coal mine,” whose fate is destined to be repeated in many other parts of the country. No part of the United States is going to be immune from COVID-19, and other places will experience substantial sickness and loss of life. But some of New York’s features set it apart.

Most New Yorkers do not live in standalone homes or row houses with private entrances. A majority of New Yorkers live in apartments. Some are modern high-rises with doormen and multiple elevators, while others are prewar antiques that often have no more than a single, tiny and slow-moving cab to service all their floors. In the outer boroughs, many four- and five-floor buildings have no elevator at all. This is usually an inconvenience, though it qualifies as a feature under the current circumstances.

Many of the New Yorkers living in these buildings crowd together to get to work – or they did until roughly the third week of March, when everyone suddenly realized how contagious the new virus is and Cuomo ordered most business to close. Until then, New Yorkers commuted in crowded buses or subway cars. In the farther regions of the five boroughs, they often needed both to get to jobs in “the city,” local shorthand for downtown and midtown Manhattan. Farther still, in the suburbs, commuter trains took the place of the subways for those workers with jobs near Grand Central Station or Pennsylvania Station. Other suburbanites needed to transfer from those commuter trains to the subways every morning and reverse the process every night.

Once they reached their office buildings, New Yorkers packed themselves into elevators at least four times a day, counting trips to the street to get lunch. They may have eaten that lunch at a restaurant with tables set much closer together than in other cities. Or they could have procured it by standing in line at a crowded takeout joint or sidewalk pushcart. At the beginning and end of the workday, everyone navigated thronged streets to reach their subway or train stations – except the New Jerseyans, many of whom crowded into the Port Authority Bus Terminal instead.

The home to which many workers finally returned in the evening was a comically tiny apartment equipped with what real estate agents like to call a “galley” kitchen. (I wondered whether these cramped, narrow affairs are so called because they look like they belong on a boat, or maybe because “galley” sounds better than “alley,” which is what they resemble. My city-dwelling colleague and editor, Amy Laburda, drew my attention to this article that indicates the term was in fact borrowed from railroad cars.) In poor and working-class neighborhoods, these cramped apartments often house large families. In some cases, they may even hold several families.

Absent a lockdown, “social distancing” is a relative term – nowhere in this country more so than in New York City.

A month or so ago, most people still believed that you needed to be in close personal contact with a sick individual to catch the virus. We were told that frequent hand-washing while we were well, and staying home if we got sick, would be enough to keep COVID-19 under control. It wasn’t true anywhere, but especially not in the New York metropolitan area.

There are other American cities that share some of these attributes, but none to the same extent or on the same scale. Boston and Chicago are probably the closest comparisons. San Francisco, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. are more distant analogs.

New York’s outbreak is best understood by looking at the metropolitan area as a whole. Outside the city, Long Island is now the hardest-hit region in New York state. It is closely tied to the city via its commuters, who usually travel by rail and oft-gridlocked highways. Long Island is also a second-home location for many city residents. Westchester County, which was an early locus of infection, is a bedroom suburb with similarly close ties to the city.

And just across the Hudson River lies New Jersey, which entered this week as the second-hardest-hit state behind New York. Most of New Jersey’s infections are in the northeast corner of the state, the region most closely tied to Manhattan, and also the most urbanized. The ties are so close that on Monday Gov. Phil Murphy announced that President Donald Trump had agreed to make the U.S. Navy hospital ship Comfort, currently docked on the Hudson in Manhattan, available to New Jersey residents as well.

There have been other hot spots of infection across the nation, and there will likely be more. Nursing homes and similar elder care facilities have been a big problem from Puget Sound to Biscayne Bay. New Orleans and neighboring parts of Louisiana fell into crisis after Mardi Gras packed the French Quarter’s narrow streets. Despite being America’s car capital, Detroit has an impoverished population that is ironically dependent on a bus system; it is another emerging problem area. So, too, are the poorer neighborhoods in Chicago.

Although they are now suffering and will suffer more, many of those places will benefit from lessons learned in New York’s battle against the virus, as well as from the success of earlier actions in Washington state and California to contain the spread.

Los Angeles is California’s coronavirus capital, but on a scale that is dwarfed by New York’s. Southern Californians have a different lifestyle. They get to work mainly by car, though some get there by bicycle, scooter or Rollerblade. One or two of them may walk, and a similar number ride the subway. Angelenos live in detached homes or apartments in low-rise structures. They work, for the most part, in smaller offices or studios, situated in smaller buildings. They shop in more spacious supermarkets. Only the Los Angeles nightlife and entertainment scenes are similar to New York’s.

Elsewhere, as I recently observed in this space, houses of worship can be a problem if they are not subject to general crowd-control ordinances. Some already have been. It is hard to defend against this sort of policymaking Achilles’ heel, except when the population voluntarily remains in isolation as much as possible.

There are some encouraging early signs that some of the worst-hit places are beginning to get on top of the problem. Italy, Spain, and even New York and New Jersey have begun to see some early benefits from the lockdowns ordered several weeks ago.

Those lockdowns are coming at a fearsome economic cost that disproportionately affects the least prosperous. We cannot sustain them forever. But calls for an early relaxation of the lockdowns are seriously misguided and ultimately counterproductive. Relaxing the pandemic-fighting efforts too soon will not just lead to a likely resurgence of the disease; it is likely to lead to the largest resurgence in the same places that are suffering the worst effects right now, because the underlying conditions will be no different. Herd immunity is real. But we need to acquire it at a pace in balance with the resources available to identify, isolate and treat those who fall ill or are exposed to the virus, before a vaccine ultimately ends the new coronavirus threat for good.

There are only a couple of things worse than the price, in money and lives, that fighting COVID-19 is exacting from us now. One is the price it would demand if we did not fight back at all. The other would be paying that price and then frittering away the benefits so that we have to pay it more than once.

New Yorkers are accustomed to paying more and getting less for it than other Americans. This time, in particular, we all should insist that they get the full benefits of the ultimate victory that is costing them so much.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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