On the menu today: New York City’s coronavirus case numbers are gradually improving, but they’re still a long way from out of the woods, how the virus is creating dire days for big-city public-transportation systems, and a new study indicates that the colossal mistakes of the Big Apple in the early days of the outbreak helped set the course for the rest of the country.
The Coronavirus and the Dire Future for Big City Public Transportation
As of this writing, the most recent date where New York City’s official data gives the number of new cases is Monday, May 4, where the city had 711 new diagnosed cases of the coronavirus.
The Worldometers chart breaks down new cases by today and yesterday, but not further back.
Still, Monday’s new case total in New York City is higher than the Wednesday’s case total for Alaska, Hawaii, Vermont, Wyoming, Maine, Idaho, West Virginia, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, and New Hampshire . . . combined.
New York City’s new case total for Monday is higher than the new case total reported Wednesday in the states of Kentucky, Arkansas, Utah, New Mexico, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, Rhode Island, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Washington, Wisconsin, Kansas, Connecticut, Arizona, Louisiana, Delaware, Colorado, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, the District of Columbia, or Michigan. Only twelve states have higher number of new cases — and that includes the rest of the state of New York. Of course, some of this reflect the city’s larger and denser population — if New York City was a state, its 8.3 million residents would be around our 11th-largest — but the upshot is that while New York City is “bending the curve,” that curve still has a long way to go.
“The problem has stopped getting worse” is not the same as “the problem is solved.”
We should also note that no one would paint either New York State or the city as being a slouch when it comes to lockdowns . . . and yet they still saw the horrific and rapid spread that they did. Back on March 20, New York governor Andrew Cuomo issued new restrictions declaring, “non-essential workers should stay inside their homes at all times except for critical travel, such as going to the grocery store or pharmacy.” The lockdown will be in place until at least May 15, with subsequent extensions likely depending upon conditions in particular regions.
It took a long time for the lockdown to “bend the curve,” and somehow, people staying at home are apparently still catching the virus. Cuomo noted with surprise yesterday:
The majority of recently hospitalized coronavirus patients in New York are people who have followed the precaution of staying home, Gov. Cuomo said Wednesday.
The governor said it was “shocking” that 66 percent of new coronavirus hospitalizations are people who are either retired or unemployed and not commuting to work on a regular basis.
“This is a surprise: Overwhelmingly, the people were at home,” Cuomo said during a briefing on Long Island. “We thought maybe they were taking public transportation, and we’ve taken special precautions on public transportation, but actually no, because these people were literally at home.”
A total of 46 percent of new cases were unemployed and 37 percent were retired. Age also played a factor, the data shows that 73 percent of people being hospitalized were 51 and older, the survey found.
(Virologists strongly suspect air-conditioning and ventilation systems can spread the virus when it is airborne. Back in 2004, the World Health Organization determined that one outbreak of SARS was driven by bad plumbing, ventilation systems, and thin walls and ceilings between apartments. Maybe keeping everyone at home in apartment buildings is putting them at higher risk from their neighbors?)
Notice Cuomo’s comment about initially suspecting a connection to public transportation in the most recent cases.
Back on April 13, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher released a paper concluding, “The Subways Seeded the Massive Coronavirus Epidemic in New York City.”
The world has a lot of enthusiasts of mass transit — often environmentalists who want to reduce carbon emissions — who do not want to hear or believe that the New York City subway system could be particularly dangerous, and they argued the MIT report “fails to provide statistical evidence and ignores significant confounding factors.”
Throughout much of the early months of 2020, city officials insisted New Yorkers could not catch the virus by riding public transportation. City Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Bardot told the public February 6, “we’re telling New Yorkers, go about your lives, take the subway, go out, enjoy life, but practice everyday precautions . . . If it were likely that it could be transmitted casually, we would be seeing a lot more cases.” She repeated March 4, “there’s no indication that being in a car, being in the subways with someone who’s potentially sick is a risk factor, because, again, it goes back to the issue of casual contact.” On March 5, Mayor de Blasio specifically rode the subway to demonstrate that the system was safe. “I’m here on the subway to say to people nothing to fear, go about your lives and we will tell you if you have to change your habits but that’s not now.” The next day in a radio interview, the mayor declared, “If someone’s on the same train car as another person, that does not, from what we know so far, create a dynamic where you have an opportunity to catch this disease. It’s just a different reality.” (By March 15, the city closed all public schools.)
Yet the idea of subways being one of the main vectors of the virus’s spread makes complete sense: lots of people, often crowded together with much less than six feet separating them, breathing recirculated air, sitting in the same seats, touching the same poles and handrails and turnstiles and subway card machines. On any given weekday, between five and six million people use the city subways, with about 150,000 people entering at the Grand Central 42nd Street station alone. Yesterday, Cuomo acknowledged the obvious: There just isn’t enough room on most trains at most times for people to remain six feet apart.
The consequences of this argument will be long-lasting. Everyone knows we’re going to be living with this virus for a while; if the subways are perceived as the place you’re most likely to catch the virus, people will avoid it for at least the coming year, and maybe more. People who can afford alternative ways to get around will choose those options. The inability to get around the city safely will be one more factor driving the exodus from New York, and perhaps other large American cities. All the hassles of owning a car in the city will become much more tolerable if the alternative of public transportation might kill you. With Uber, Lyft, or a cab, you’re running the risk of being exposed to one driver and the possibility of a virus left behind the previous passengers — bad, but still not as many people as the subway at almost any time of the day.
And beyond the question of whether public transportation will have enough riders to remain financially viable, contemplate whether large metropolitan public transportation systems will be able to find workers.
A Metro Transit Authority conductor wrote in the New York Times this week: “We work at the epicenter of the epicenter, with a mortality rate substantially higher than that of first responders. Common sense tells you that subway trains and platforms are giant vectors of this virus. We breathe it in along with steel dust. As a conductor, when I stick my head out of the car to perform the required platform observation, passengers in many stations are standing 10 inches from my face. At other times, they lean into the cab to ask questions. Bus drivers, whose passengers enter right in front of them, are even worse off.”
Even worse, the transit authority’s management handled this as badly as any cynic would fear:
In mid-March, a bulletin came out mandating that conductors make an announcement every 15 minutes. Wash hands, soap and water, sanitizer, elbow-sneeze. “Together we can help keep New York safe.”
The irony was that we didn’t have soap and water. At my terminal at that time, the restrooms were closed for three days after a water main break. Most employee restrooms are in similarly bad shape. Crew rooms are packed.
The M.T.A. takes stern action against workers seen without goggles or cotton knit safety gloves. Yet we had to work without protection against the coronavirus.
At first we were warned not to wear masks. The M.T.A. said it would panic the public. It said masks were dangerous for us. Later it said we could wear masks we bought ourselves. But by then there were few masks for sale.
As New York Goes, So Goes the Country
But you don’t have to live in or close to New York City to be affected by the bad decisions of the city’s leaders:
New York City’s coronavirus outbreak grew so large by early March that the city became the primary source of new infections in the United States, new research reveals, as thousands of infected people traveled from the city and seeded outbreaks around the country.
The research indicates that a wave of infections swept from New York City through much of the country before the city began setting social distancing limits to stop the growth. That helped to fuel outbreaks in Louisiana, Texas, Arizona and as far away as the West Coast.
The findings are drawn from geneticists’ tracking signature mutations of the virus, travel histories of infected people and models of the outbreak by infectious disease experts.
“We now have enough data to feel pretty confident that New York was the primary gateway for the rest of the country,” said Nathan Grubaugh, an epidemiologist at the Yale School of Public Health.
Yesterday I noted that there’s a lot of frustration and anger in the country about the way the virus has disrupted, interrupted, and in far too many cases, ended lives, all looking for a target. From where I sit, if you want human beings to blame, the Chinese government is the entity that deserves the most blame, by a wide margin.
But if you absolutely must blame some Americans, Bill de Blasio and his team look like the fairest choice. No doubt, President Trump made all kinds of inane, inaccurate, unrealistic, and wildly overoptimistic comments in the first months of this outbreak. But at least he didn’t literally encourage people to keep spending time in one of the most contagious spots.
ADDENDUM: I know today’s news is pretty grim, but chin up: The pop-culture podcast will emerge from hibernation very shortly.