Mixed reviews in Westchester County for the government’s handling of the Covid-19 outbreak.
When my wife and I quit Brooklyn 15 years ago to start a family in the suburbs, we were seeking a kind of refuge. The 9/11 attacks were still a recent memory. We wanted more living space and foliage, along with more safety. Apparently, so did a lot of other people. Our destination was sprawling Westchester County, just north of the Bronx, and it was full of New York City transplants. We bought our first house from one.
But the past two weeks have been a reminder that refuge can be illusory. In the early days of the coronavirus crisis, Westchester was the epicenter of the outbreak in New York. One of the state’s first confirmed cases, announced on March 3, was a 50-year-old lawyer who lives in the city of New Rochelle. A week later, the number of cases there had grown to more than 100, which prompted Gov. Andrew Cuomo to announce the creation of a “containment area” within a 1-mile radius of the man’s synagogue. The governor also called in the National Guard to assist in sanitizing efforts. The goal was to slow spread of the virus and calm fears, but it also stoked confusion.
Our friend Anna, a wife and mother of two young boys who doesn’t attend the synagogue but lives blocks away from it, told me that the self-quarantining already happening was sufficient and that she feels Mr. Cuomo overreacted. “There was panic. People were scared,” she recalled. “The governor said we’re starting a containment zone and sending in the National Guard.” She received dozens of text messages from people asking what was going on. Her mother, who lives nearby, was worried about leaving the house. Anna didn’t know if her husband, who was at work in Manhattan, would be permitted to come home that evening.
“We were blindsided by it,” she said. There was no information provided beforehand. Nobody knew what it meant to live in a containment zone. “It wasn’t until the next day that we got more details. We started getting emails and robocalls from the city explaining that we could come and go, but schools in the zone would be closed and there was a ban on large gatherings. But it was stuff that was already happening or was going to happen shortly anyway.”
Since the governor’s announcement, package delivery has been spotty, and some restaurants have refused to deliver food to the neighborhood. Nail salons, dry cleaners and the local Chase branch were closed for cleaning. Nevertheless, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases has continued to grow, though that may be a result of more people being tested, not evidence that containment zones and self-quarantining are ineffective.
Whatever Anna’s problems, however, they don’t compare with what some of our other friends are enduring. Elsewhere in Westchester, we know a couple with a son in the eighth grade who came downstairs for breakfast two weeks ago and said the last thing any parent wants to hear right now: “Mom, I feel warm.” The next day, he was still running a temperature and had developed a sore throat and bad cough. The pediatrician said to take him to the emergency room, where he was admitted and tested positive, as have more than 40 other people so far at his school. The following day, the county sent three people in hazmat suits to their home, where the rest of the family was also tested and later cleared. But no one may leave the house, and they had to sign an affidavit promising to stay indoors. The son, meanwhile, was put in his bedroom and given exclusive use of a bathroom.
“He’s in total isolation,” the mother told me. “We leave a tray of food outside his door and then walk away. Someone said to me, ‘I can’t believe you haven’t hugged your sick child in two weeks.’ But we can’t be within 6 feet of him. And the rest of us are using paper plates and plastic utensils, since we were told that washing and reusing dishes wasn’t ideal.”
And she was willing to cut state and local officials some slack. “It was bumpy in the beginning because we were one of the earlier cases,” she said. “There were 1-800 numbers out there, but depending on which one you called, you were getting different information. But I think it’s improving.”
When I asked her to grade Washington’s response to the outbreak, she replied that it was the last thing on her mind. “The federal level has no real impact on us. For me, the question of what should be done is a mayoral and state-level decision. I’m not waiting for Trump to say bars should be shut down, or X, Y and Z should close.”
The good news is that her son is on the mend. She’ll be hugging him real soon.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images