By Eli Saperstein
New York City, one of the greatest cities in the world, is empty. It has been empty for months. People around the world have seen the “ghost town” street photos of Times Square and other landmarks. They have heard the ongoing coverage of news stories about people leaving New York City, and even New York State in large numbers since the start of the pandemic in mid-March. At first, people fled the city because infection rates were soaring, hospitalization rates went through the roof, and people left thinking they would come back “in a few weeks” when things would be back to normal, and sanity will prevail.
We were promised a return to normalcy once we “flatten the curve” as was said every day when we watched the daily news briefing from state and local officials. We remained in our homes, scared to go out, unless we heard a rumor that a particular store had the new valuable commodity — toilet paper.
We are now many months into the “New Normal”; as we prepare to leave our homes every day, we check for our wallets and purses, car keys or metro cards, and we put on our face masks. We are used to this, and frown upon those we see who are not adhering to the rules.
New York City, the once center of the universe, the beating heart of the USA, has not come back. While living conditions are stable, and we no longer bang our pots and pans at 7:00 p.m. for our brave first responders coming out of mostly empty hospitals, the city remains a dry husk of a shell.
Why are all the folks that went to the Hamptons, Florida, their second homes in New England, and elsewhere still staying away? While it is easy to blame the evening news for showing BLM riots and the boarded up storefronts of 5th Avenue, the real reason is deeper. The folks that planned on coming back “eventually” are feeling the sense of unease that we who stayed all feel, that our elected officials have moved away from being held accountable by their electorate, to a new norm of being able to make laws by executive order. We are now not in the same situation we were in March — faced with an unknown invisible terror, we gave up our rights with frightening rapidity, in a manner that has no comparison. We watched in horror as our elders were locked in nursing homes, with family and advocates not allowed to hold a dying relative’s hand. We saw extreme examples of what the government was able to do when “we the people” could no longer question an official.
We are now at the point where the virus is more understood, where we have therapeutics and a better understanding of how to care for the infected. Our government in New York though, seems to enjoy the power they wield, and find every excuse to move the goalposts and keep the fear alive. When we started the lockdown, we did this so as not to overwhelm the hospitals. Every day we were given the numbers for the past 24 hours, how many deaths, how many patients on ventilators (which we were always on the verge of running out of), how many hospitalizations, and how many new infections. Our state government relished their new found power, and got to decide what businesses were deemed essential, and what businesses would be shut down, dooming most of them to bankruptcy with the inability to afford to reopen.
We are now 300 plus days into the pandemic and the World Health Organization has stated that, “We in the World Health Organization do not advocate lockdowns as a primary means of control of this virus.” This is echoed by President Trump who said months ago that “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF.”
So why are we in New York still locked down?
New York remains in suspended animation, bleeding valuable revenues and even more valuable high net-worth individuals. Moving companies are reporting record business, UHaul companies are relocating trucks to accommodate the incredible demand of citizens fleeing a once great center of theater, gastronomy, and high society.
Why is everyone that can afford to leave, leaving?
Our state governor and mayor are not on the same page. While governments in other states are cooperating, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio decided not to cooperate with each other. Any time the mayor says something about the city unlocking or locking down something, our governor holds a press conference and says that matter is under HIS purview, and HE gets to decide. This would be comical, but peoples’ lives and livelihoods are on the line, and are being used as political pawns in the power struggle between Cuomo and de Blasio.
While disregarding the death toll in the nursing homes, Cuomo has published a book crowing about his leadership skills, and he seems to be doing everything he can to deflect from his poor performance and even worse decision-making by saying he is following the science.
This changed in the last few weeks.
Facing the prospect of losing his power as the infection rates went down, and fearing continuing questions as to his executive order condemning nursing home residents, Cuomo has further moved the goalposts, and targeted very narrow segments of society, and claiming these new issues need to be addressed before we can finally (maybe) go back to normal. The rules he created called for Red/Hot Zones with concentric circles of Orange and Yellow zones, and would allow for new closures of school and businesses he deemed non-essential, forcing businesses that finally reopened to close again. The science made no sense. Zip codes create no geographical borders, and instead of containing infection, the closures of local stores and shuls (synagogues) force the occupants to go across the street into an adjoining zip code with open stores, schools and shuls, furthering the potential for further spread.
In the past Cuomo’s leadership and his handling of the pandemic had New York showing consistently better numbers than all the surrounding states. As these hotspots began to flare, Cuomo felt the need to suppress these outbreaks by any means necessary. To go full force with this cluster initiative. After community leaders and activists questioned this new arbitrary set of rules (again, created by the continuing emergency powers and executive order), Cuomo has admitted that he is not using science as he had previously, and that he is admitted that, “it is a fear-driven response.”
“I am 100% frank and candid,” Cuomo shared. “This is not a highly nuanced, sophisticated response. This is a fear-driven response. You know, this is not a policy being written by a scalpel. This is a policy being cut by a hatchet. It is just very blunt. I did not propose this. It was proposed by the mayor in the city. I am trying to sharpen it and make it better. But it is out of fear. People see the numbers going up—‘Close everything! Close everything!’”
The maps detailing the red zones and surrounding areas were published on Monday, October 12. These zones correlated with heavily Jewish areas. Cuomo’s reasoning was that since the infection rates were not the same throughout the state, he focused exclusively on zip codes with a higher percentage of COVID-19 positive tests. While targeting very visible areas in New York City, he ignored whole counties and college areas that had much higher infection rates, as it didn’t fit his narrative.
The so-called hot-spots have cooled down. People in these areas simply didn’t test unless they felt sick. This led to artificially higher numbers. Once the citizens in the hotspots realized this, they went to get tested, and immediately dropped the numbers to where they could not be singled out as the cause of New York State’s problem.
As of October 24, the areas in the red, orange and yellow zones in the religious areas are at astonishing lows, as areas in Broome County, Steuben County and Chemung counties continue to skyrocket. You do not hear about this on the news, as it doesn’t seem to matter to the governor, as it does not let him and de Blasio exert power where it is visible and matters — New York City.
Living in New York has become increasingly difficult for everyone since March. We “tough New Yorkers” rose and overcame the challenge of being the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are now leaving our bunkers and see everywhere else start to open, everyone else resuming daily life while in New York we are told to obey more and more laws — not created by science, but of an admittedly fear based response. This is growing tiresome. What is worse is the comments made by Mayor Bill de Blasio, comments explicitly targeting the Jewish community as being the cause of rising infections, and (for now) being the sole obstacle against reopening. That may well be justifiable in the past, when the infection percentage rate was five times that of the rest of New York, but it is not the case now, and not helping the already tense situation in any constructive way. Creating a slideshow with pictures of the Jewish people congregating might be justifiable, but the photo used on a new briefing was from 2006, and from an event taking place in Orange County — not New York. This blatant antisemitic leaning of the governor and mayor was further brought into focus and questioned as there were no photos of other gatherings like BLM marches, and other areas in New York City with higher infection rates that are not being targeted.
It has been only eight months, but New York is now on life support. All the life experiences that were here: theatre, the arts, the food, the people are all gone. By going remote, we have learned we can do our work from a home in a more rural area, where the government really does not care to micromanage how you pray, how close you walk to your neighbor, and where people get to exercise good judgement and weigh the risks of how they wish to live.
Real estate in New York City — will it ever recover? Will people need to travel two hours each way every day to work seven hours at a desk with a computer setup and email/slack that is remarkably similar to the setup they have at home? Do we need to fill out a form on our tax return and pay more of our income for the privilege of working in the city? It seems a lot of people are rethinking their fixation with New York City, and the style of governance in our city and state is not helping its revival.
R.I.P. NYC, your elected officials have finally sedated the “city that never sleeps.”