Big city, big worry

Michael Hill, Jennifer Peltz & Jim Mustian

NEW YORK (AP) — New Yorkers woke up yesterday to find the COVID-19 has left their famously bustling city with no Broadway, no basketball games, no big gatherings, and a populace unnerved by an ever-worsening crisis.

A dizzying series of temporary COVID-19-related closures announced on Thursday included some of the city’s cultural jewels: The Metropolitan Opera, Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History and Carnegie Hall.

It wasn’t just high culture. The St Patrick’s Day parade will not step off next week. Concerts were cancelled. NBA games were scuttled. CBS News, which temporarily shut down its city headquarters on Wednesday after two employees tested positive, continued to air its local Thursday night broadcast — from Los Angeles.

Restaurants, subway cars and sidewalks were noticeably emptier.

Without a flake of snow, the city began to take on the thinned-out look it gets after winter blizzards, with people telecommuting to work or avoiding public places.

A pedestrian wearing a face mask stops in Times Square, New York. PHOTOS: AP
New York City Trader Joe’s market in disarray
Shoppers wear masks while carrying their groceries out of a supermarket in the Brooklyn borough of New York. PHOTO: AP

Colleges across the city were closed or having students attend class online.

“People are scared to come outside,” said tour guide at Manhattan’s Central Park Justin Rahim. He said several of his pedicab drivers — reliant on tourists for their living — quit on Thursday to drive for Uber’s food delivery service. “It’s crazy. How am I going to survive this?” After weeks of assuring residents that fear of the virus had outstripped the actual danger, New York’s governor and mayor abruptly shifted course.

Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on Thursday that in an attempt to stop the virus from spreading, gatherings with over 500 people would temporarily be banned in the state though evening shows on Broadway were called off a day sooner. Many gatherings in smaller event spaces would have to cut capacity in half.

The restrictions, imposed by an emergency order, don’t apply to schools, hospitals, nursing homes, shopping malls and mass transit, and there were exceptions for other types of businesses.

People are also still free to go to work. Mayor Bill de Blasio, while pointing out the outbreak could last six months or longer, counselled against giving up.

“I think it is dangerous to stop living life. You know, this is a crisis, but it is a crisis that will one day end. We have got to keep living life,” he said “People, you know, cannot get to a point of hopelessness.”

Yet it was clear the slowdown would be painful for a city that relies on the economic engines of tourism, entertainment and Wall Street.

Restaurants and nightspots around the city are reporting drop-offs of 20-80 per cent over the last week, particularly in the tourist-friendly area around Times Square, said Executive Director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance Andrew Rigie.

David Turk, who owns a Manhattan catering business, said the fallout for him started a week ago. First, one big event was nixed. Within a week, everything booked through May was either cancelled or postponed.

Turk remembers the dark days after 9/11, but “that had a beginning and an end to it. This has no foreseeable end to it,” he said.

“It’s the uncertainty that’s really driving the fear for a lot of us running small business.”

Throughout the day on Thursday, New Yorkers’ sense of unease was compounded by false rumours, spread on social media, that an even larger clampdown was in the works, involving mass quarantines, bans on private vehicles and a cancellation of train service.

“It’s just not true,” Cuomo said on 1010 WINS radio in the early evening. “This is all crazy rumours now. Anxiety is high, I understand it. People are nervous about the COVID-19. But no, subways are not closing down. Roads are not closing. New York City is not closing down.”

Parents citywide fretted about whether New York City’s public school system, with its 1.2 million pupils, might be shut down, as happened in nearby New Rochelle, a suburb that has been an epicentre of the outbreak in the US.

De Blasio said he hopes to avoid a closure of either the schools or mass transit. He said healthcare workers and first responders on the front lines of the crisis would face hurdles in getting to work without the transit system and with children home from school.

For most people, the new COVID-19 causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover.

Still, the total number of people with the illness in the city is unknown due to the relative scarcity of tests. And for some, the danger is all too real.

On Tuesday, New Jersey resident and a horse trainer at Yonkers Raceway John Brennan was killed by the virus.

Two days later, a close colleague at the track, Standardbred Owners Association President Joseph Faraldo, said he was quarantined in his New York City home waiting for his own test results.

“He could have infected the entire paddock, because he had contact with everybody,” said Faraldo, who fell ill himself a week ago. He said he was tested on Wednesday at a medical facility in Queens.

“I think I was pretty lucky,” he said. “I wasn’t there more than 40 minutes. They asked a whole series of questions and I told them I was in the company of a person who had died from this. They were very nice.”

The institutional closings come amid signs that New Yorkers are acting on their own to avoid crowds. Ridership on the subway and commuter rail lines has plunged, state officials said.

At the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, security officers reported some of the sparsest crowds they’ve seen as they prepared to shutter the popular museum yesterday.

The COVID-19 dominated conversation, even out on city parks where joggers were intent on maintaining some semblance of normalcy.

Danielle Xuereb, 38, of Manhattan, had been preparing to run a half-marathon but learned it was cancelled.

“I’ve been working from home and will probably continue to and probably lay low for a week or two,” she said. “Maybe not go to my normal yoga classes. I guess my main concern is how long this will all last.”