In the days and weeks before New York City implemented a virtual shutdown in early March, city officials urged their constituents to go about their daily lives without fear — and even suggested that concerns about the burgeoning coronavirus pandemic were rooted in anti-Chinese animus.
By late January, the novel coronavirus caused the Chinese government to lock down the city of Wuhan, where the virus originated. Beijing subsequently expanded the lockdown to include much of the country. Around that time, New York mayor Bill de Blasio warned that the arrival of coronavirus in the city was inevitable.
“It’s probably here already, that’s the sad reality,” de Blasio told WCBS 880 radio on January 28. “We have to expect to see this here. What we now know is this virus was underestimated by the Chinese government.” The article in which de Blasio made his statement also carried a warning that coronavirus could be transmitted by asymptomatic individuals, a fact confirmed on January 31 by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases. That same day, acting health secretary Alex Azar declared a public health emergency and the Trump administration restricted travel from China.
But despite the dire warning from federal officials, New York City politicians urged residents not to overreact to the threat. City Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot on February 6 acknowledged that the virus could spread from person to person, but attempted to reassure residents that that type of transmission would be rare outside of households.
“The important thing for New Yorkers to know is that in the city currently, their risk is low and our city preparedness is high,” Barbot said. “We know that this virus can be transmitted from one individual to another, but that it is typically people who live together. There is no risk at this point in time…about having it being transmitted in casual contact.” Earlier in the month, Barbot encouraged residents to attend the Lunar New Year parade in Chinatown. The neighborhood had seen a sharp drop in business as the coronavirus engulfed the city of Wuhan, with China subsequently locking down much of the country.
City councilman Mark Levine, head of the City Council health committee, attended the Lunar New Year parade on February 9 and urged his constituents to join him.
“In powerful show of defiance of [the] coronavirus scare, huge crowds gathering in NYC’s Chinatown for ceremony ahead of annual Lunar New Year parade,” Levine wrote on Twitter alongside pictures of the festivities. “Chants of ‘be strong Wuhan!’ If you are staying away, you are missing out!”
By the time the Lunar New Year parade arrived, it was already clear that a humanitarian disaster had occurred in Wuhan, as evidenced by the chants at the parade.
Barbot continued through the beginning of March to reassure New Yorkers that they could carry on with their business so long as they took a few minor health precautions in the process.
“We know that there’s currently no indication that it’s easy to transmit by casual contact,” Barbot said on March 2. “We want New Yorkers to go about their daily lives, ride the subway, take the bus, go see your neighbors.” On the same day, Cuomo touted the city’s outlook toward the crisis.
“Excuse our arrogance as New Yorkers — I speak for the mayor also on this one — we think we have the best health care system on the planet right here in New York,” Cuomo said. “So, when you’re saying, what happened in other countries versus what happened here, we don’t even think it’s going to be as bad as it was in other countries.”
Meanwhile, Levine also praised the capacity of the city’s health care system to reassure residents.
“NYC has a world-class public health system, particularly in the area of infectious disease control,” Levine tweeted on March 5. “[The New York City Health Department] & agencies have been prepping for #coronavirusNYC for weeks. NYCers should take comfort in that as we face this challenge as a city.”
Levine also criticized at least one early effort to begin “social distancing” before the CDC recommended the practice. On March 5, Rutgers University Hillel published a notice advising students to reconsider inviting over or interacting with students from Yeshiva University, which had reported its first case of coronavirus. Levine wrote in a tweet that students should ignore Hillel’s advice.
“Rutgers Hillel advising the community to be ‘mindful’ when inviting Yeshiva Univ students to gatherings this weekend, with hope that people ‘make the right decision.’ This is a TOTALLY unjustified measure, not supported by health experts. It’s the kind of shunning we must avoid,” Levine wrote.
On March 2, a resident of New Rochelle, in Westchester County, just north of the city, was diagnosed with coronavirus. By the time Levine admonished Hillel, nine people in contact with the New Rochelle resident had tested positive. One New Jersey resident and one Long Island resident, neither of whom had contact with the original New Rochelle carrier, had also tested positive at the time of Levine’s tweet. Governor Cuomo announced on March 6 that 2,700 people in New York City were under precautionary quarantine, and the next day he announced a state of emergency for all of New York. Calls grew to close New York City’s public schools.
De Blasio appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on March 10 and joined President Trump in casting the coronavirus as similar to the flu.
“If you’re under 50 and you’re healthy, which is most New Yorkers, there’s very little threat here. This disease, even if you were to get it, basically acts like a common cold or flu,” de Blasio said. That same day, Cuomo deployed the National Guard to set up a “containment zone” in New Rochelle, where the coronavirus cases had ballooned into a cluster.
Over the course of the next week, resistance in City Hall to closures of businesses and schools gradually collapsed, with much of the city put on lockdown by the middle of the month. De Blasio at one point suggested the city could enact a “shelter-in-place” order similar to that of San Francisco. New York City comptroller Scott Stringer on March 17 praised de Blasio’s initiative, citing the example of San Francisco, which had ordered residents to stay home except for essential needs.
“When we look back at what we did to combat this pandemic and save lives, we won’t regret being overprepared,” Stringer wrote on Twitter.
Stringer’s mother later died after contracting coronavirus. In an interview on CNN following the death, Singer slammed the federal government’s response to the pandemic and said President Trump had “blood on his hands.”
With the city under virtual lockdown, hospitals became overloaded with coronavirus patients and healthcare workers were pleading for additional protective gear. In early April, Levine, who had earlier warned of a hyped “coronavirus scare,” wrote on Twitter that the city was preparing to temporarily bury coronavirus victims in city parks if morgues would fill to capacity.
The councilman subsequently attempted to clarify that the measure was considered a “contingency plan,” and that any “temporary interments” would take place on Hart Island in the Bronx.
By this time, although city officials had initially assured residents the government was prepared to handle the crisis, Cuomo warned that the state would not be able to deal with a larger outbreak.
“We can’t handle the worst-case scenarios,” Cuomo said on April 9.
On the West Coast of the U.S., state and local leaders in California, Oregon, and Washington have been praised for their early responses to the coronavirus in comparison to New York’s leadership. California governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency on March 4, while Cuomo announced the measure on March 6. The city of San Francisco and the entire state of Ohio closed schools on March 12 with just a handful of reported cases in either place, while New York City closed schools on March 15, when the city had reported 329 cases.
San Francisco mayor London Breed announced a shelter-in-place order for the city on March 16. New York City’s bars and restaurants were closed on March 15, however Cuomo shot down de Blasio’s March 17 call for a “shelter-in-place” order. Cuomo then instated a nearly identical measure for the entire state on March 20 that didn’t take effect until March 22, a delay that epidemiologists told the New York Times could have contributed to the disparate outcomes between New York and cities in California, although some of the disparity is surely attributable to New York’s population density and heavy reliance on public transit.
“New York City as a whole was late in social measures,” Isaac B. Weisfuse, a former New York City deputy health commissioner, told the Times. “Any after-action review of the pandemic in New York City will focus on that issue. It has become the major issue in the transmission of the virus.”
As of April 13, New York State has recorded over 190,000 cases of coronavirus. The vast majority of those cases were recorded in New York City (104,000) and in the surrounding counties and on Long Island. (By contrast, California has recorded 23,500 cases, Washington 10,500, and Oregon, which is less populated than its neighbors just 1,517.) Although Cuomo was able to declare on Monday that “the worst is over…if we continue to be smart going forward,” it is still unclear when or how the state will lift its coronavirus mitigation measures.