New York’s Pandemic by Zip Code

(originally published in The Investigative Journal 5/1/20
Looking back from what seems the end of this particular COVID-19 outbreak in New York City, my small circle of friends has talked more of revelations than of sorrows.

The revelations are along the lines of appreciating the quiet or the absence of cars, or less superficially, about enjoying the eclipse of New York’s status- conscious display culture. One friend, Steve, speaks of how people re-discover their common humanity at moments like this, which reminds him of 9/11. Some have felt the presence of the homeless – and the need to do something to help them – more acutely.

“Besides being worried about my husband,” says Sirin, the wife of an ER doctor, “it’s been a time of silver linings. I’d only been a full-time parent on the weekends. I’ve really learned about my children.” I also hear other mothers complain how tired they are of being with them all day long. And with schools functioning only by distance learning until end of term in June, there is still a long summer to get through.

The regrets and anxieties I hear are mainly financial: no one knows what will happen. Most people I know earn too much to be eligible for Trump’s stimulus payment but some small business owners are applying for government help. Friends who work for big corporations are still working from home and those that don’t have children often love it. (I’ve been self-employed for thirty years and agree!)

I should note for non-US readers that policies on stay at home orders are set by each of the 50 states. This crisis has empowered governors and drawn attention to how much the states differ from one another. I don’t think any state has issued shelter in place orders as strict as those in France or Italy, and in New York there is nothing to prevent you from walking around all day, other than the cold weather. I walk, run or bike every day, but then I’ve been getting a lot of exercise all my life. I don’t understand people who are afraid to go outside: that seems like magical thinking rather than science. You aren’t likely to bump into someone who is coughing into your face.

It’s human nature to look for the silver lining, even if it feels unseemly, and I hasten to say that neither I nor my friends here know anyone who died. In fact, I know only three or four in New York who had or think they had the virus, all now recovered. And I number two ER physicians among my friends – both safe.

My European friends – some in hot spots like Milan and Parma – know many people who have died and are surprised I don’t. I think the explanation is this: in the US, this disease disproportionately affects two types of people: highly globalized frequent flyers (think academics and politicians) and highly mobile -of-necessity working poor.

New York is very segregated economically, and COVID-19 cases are much higher in poorer ZIP (post) codes, concentrated in outer reaches of Brooklyn and Queens. The numbers are lower in well off Manhattan and Brooklyn ZIP codes, although the chart needs to be used with caution as it is not calibrated according to the population of the zip code.

People who are less well-off are more likely to take public transportation, and to take it for an hour each way rather than ten minutes. Fewer have the luxury of an office job that can be done from home. While most are not on the front lines in the same way our health care professionals are, they are also taking risks. (Some are those food store workers without whom we would have no supermarkets.) And in this part of the country, poorer people are more likely to be obese, smokers, have hypertension or diabetes, or have other risk factors.

The other category of people who get the virus includes academics like my friend Bronwyn and her husband. “My building (faculty housing) had five cases”, she told me. Both she and her husband recovered fully. Another friend, Clara, thinks she had it; she’s a very mobile international artist – and a heavy smoker. Sophie, a high profile academic and think tank fellow, is pretty sure she had it. Both Clara and Sophie still struggle with feeling winded.

I speak of “my stovepipe” because the pandemic has rendered us Manhattanites local. There have always been tired cliches about downtowners who won’t go north of 14th Street and Upper East Siders who won’t go downtown. Now it’s actually true of most of us.

If you don’t own a car or want to avoid any ride shares or public transportation, for safety reasons, you’re pretty much confined to where you can walk, run or bike. (The subways are reportedly almost empty but more dangerous than before, with a huge increase in robberies, most likely the poor robbing the slightly less poor.

Couples and families are locked down together. But many New Yorkers who live alone, like me, are thrown back upon neighborhood friends for safe distance visits.

My neighborhood, the West Village, is a low-rise, low population density part of Manhattan – 75 to 99 people per acre as opposed to 150 or more on the Upper East Side and Upper West Side. It’s known for its expensive housing stock, heavy on brownstones, and for upscale restaurants and shops, now all shut. There are few massive high rises where the virus can lurk in elevator banks or lobbies, though there are old fashioned tenement buildings with a small internal corridor between outside and inside doors where some believe the virus can be trapped in the air.

The West Village is a place where you can take a walk without bumping into other people or even seeing very many of them, and now local streets are increasingly deserted, which is good for socially distant walking in daytime but a bit scary at night, now that it’s mainly homeless people on the street.

I call friends in Brooklyn as though it were a different country. As perhaps it is: a longtime friend in Williamsburg, Darcy, told me there were pickup yoga classes in McClaren Park. But Williamsburg is neighborly and small. I haven’t seen classes on the more impersonal West Side’s Hudson River Park, just a lot of runners and bikers and some very impressive improvised workouts.

Many New Yorkers around my age – 61 – have been through something like this before.

“I’ve lived through 15 natural disasters or periods of civil unrest”, Caroline says. She’s 62 and grew up in Florida with hurricanes and lived through riots and earthquakes and floods in Los Angeles, then 9/11 and Superstorm Sandy in Tribeca. Sandy flooded her building; she’s learned the power can stay off for surprisingly long.

Other friends have been in post 9/11 war zones as soldiers, journalists, aid workers or businesspeople. We’re not so surprised when things stop working. I still make myself an espresso the night before to stash in the refrigerator, in case the power doesn’t come on in the morning. But it does. There are no food shortages here, I find hand sanitizer too disgusting to use, and there is toilet paper in abundance, thank you very much.

It’s not too inconvenient here. And it’s refreshingly low key. Maybe this is my age speaking? If I were 30, I’d be missing the bars and live music venues, but I’m not. With no restaurants, parties or benefits, there is nowhere to show off wealth or a sense of style – and the silver lining is that there’s nowhere to feel bad about one’s lack of style or money. (I’m sure there’s more of this in the Hamptons, though.) There’s no FOMO. My married friend Paul, who claims he doesn’t get invited to many parties, observes that his usual sense of social isolation is now shared. “Since there are no parties to be invited to, you don’t have to feel like a loser.” He spends more time than before with his young son.

Lots of my friends left the city in mid-March; non-essential businesses were closed 29 March.

Many of the well-off, or friends of the well-off, have fled to their country houses, or friends’ places, “upstate” or in the Hamptons. (I know two escapees in Palm Beach as well.) Some of these retreats are basic, some are lavish, but their distance from the density of New York feels comforting – and the stockpiled provisions. “We have $1000 worth of non-perishable food on hand,” said Sirin from upstate. “The only thing I miss is sushi.” I asked if any of her neighbors worried about a breakdown of civil order. “No. Everyone up here has guns.” How reassuring.

The exodus from New York has in turn opened up highly desirable housesitting opportunities for lucky friends of the rich, who find themselves living well for nothing. I know one. And I know some people with more than one empty house.

What’s not limited to certain zip codes or tax brackets is concern for one’s livelihood. New York City is expensive, and even friends with high incomes are worried. Most everyone I know is a knowledge worker of some sort who can work from home or already did. And some of us are still busy. But not all.

My friend Lizzy runs a small fashion business and is now facing a new world. There’s also Darcy, a self-made real estate entrepreneur in Williamsburg; all eight of her commercial tenants are closed and have already said they can’t make rent. “And most storefronts here are restaurants which is a difficult business at any time. Many aren’t coming back. A lot of them are very large. Which businesses are going to move into all those empty restaurant storefronts?” Steve isn’t working because he’s a union electrician on films and commercials. How long will that industry not function? On a more positive note, Caleb, an art dealer, says clients are inquiring about art works, perhaps because some of them finally have time on their hands. But so far no sales.

More broadly, the economic damage is more visible day by day. I was wondering if my local overpriced cheese store might have a sale – after all not many of us need $30 a pound cheese to eat by ourselves. Instead, it closed temporarily. Takeout places that used to be open until 9 or 10 close at 5 or 7, contributing to the deserted streets after dark. Restaurants that promised a re-opening are now “available for rent”.

The issue of reopening sooner versus later has become horribly politicized, with Republicans following Trump in seeking speedy reopening and Democrats opposing. As a Never Trump Republican turned uncomfortable Democrat, I just wish that people who would follow science rather than ideology.

What lies ahead? Most people I know are waiting rather passively for Governor Cuomo to put forth concrete re-opening plans, though some are trying to figure out how to position their businesses for a new environment. No one I know thinks that re-opening nail or hair salons is a major goal – and several women I know have started to dye their hair at home. It seems absurd to risk one’s life for vanity.

That said, I badly miss going to the gym.

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