Eight Days in the New Capital of Corona

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NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 30: The USNS Comfort hospital ship travels up the Hudson River as it heads to Pier 90 on March 30, 2020 seen from Battery Park in New York City. The Comfort, a floating hospital in the form of a Navy ship, is equipped to take in patients within 24 hours but will not be treating people with COVID-19. The ship's 1,000 beds and 12 operation rooms will help ease the pressure on New York hospitals, many of which are now overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Not a soul to be seen on Wall Street, cafés closing down in Brooklyn and a field hospital in Central Park: New York City is in the grips of coronavirus. Notes from a week that changed the city.

By Marc Pitzke

A ghost train, virtually empty, screeches and rattles its way through the tunnel from Brooklyn to Manhattan. On the benches inside lie four homeless people, covered in coats and blankets. They cough every so often, though their eyes remain shut. It is shortly before 1 p.m., and besides the four men, there are just two other passengers in the car, a woman and a man, huddled together. Both are wearing latex gloves but only the woman is wearing a face mask.

For well over a week now, New York City has been the epicenter of the worldwide coronavirus pandemic. More than 67,500 people have become infected with virus and over 2,470 have died as a result, more than in all of Germany. At the order of the New York governor, most stores and companies have closed down while people have been urged to remain at home unless their work is essential. As a result, entire boroughs of the biggest city in the United States, with its population of 8.5 million, have screeched to a halt.

The A Train and the other subway lines have now primarily become a refuge for those patients nobody wants. Homeless people, presumably sick, can be found in every car and on every platform, eyed warily by the few commuters who still have to use the subway.

I, too, am wearing a mask, scratchy and acrid smelling. I found it tucked away in my wardrobe, most stores having long since sold out of masks. I have lived in this city for 27 years and was here for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the great 2003 blackout, the financial crisis and hurricanes Irene and Sandy. All of those disasters brought New Yorkers closer together. We hugged, helped and carried on with our lives as best we could.

This crisis, though, seems different. The virus has forced the city into hiding, coerced us to isolate ourselves. New York has become a city of bunkers.

Francisco Moya is standing in the parking lot out front of Elmhurst Hospital, glasses perched over his face mask, a flat cap on his head. “Welcome to Ground Zero,” he says.

Moya is a member of the New York City Council, representing a district in Queens, and was born in Elmhurst Hospital, an uninviting hulk with posters of smiling children plastered over some of its windows. It is now where several of Moya’s neighbors have already died. “What we are experiencing,” he says, “is the future of the rest of this country.”

Moya’s comments come during a week in which the virus strengthened its stranglehold on New York City. As the A Train grows increasingly empty, the intensive care units have filled up. That’s how it starts.

Wednesday, March 25: 20,011 infected, 280 dead

Despite the ominous numbers, the coronavirus still hasn’t registered with all New Yorkers. Some streets are still busy and the parks quite crowded.

Then a headline appears on the New York Times website: “13 Deaths in a Day: An ‘Apocalyptic’ Coronavirus Surge at an N.Y.C. Hospital.” The reference is to Elmhurst Hospital, the place where Francisco Moya came into the world. A doctor has provided the newspaper with videos and images from inside the hospital. “I want people to know that this is bad,” she says in one of those clips. “People are dying. We don’t have the tools that we need.” It is the first time that New Yorkers have been able to see the situation for themselves, to see what’s happening on the inside.

For Moya, the report confirms what he has been hearing and seeing on the streets of Queens for many days. Just yesterday, he delivered 750 face masks to the hospital, on top of the 1,000 provided the day before that. They were donated by Queensboro FC, a local soccer team.

Moya pulls out his smartphone and films the line of sick people waiting to get tested, a line that has been getting longer by the day. At the back entrance, where he delivers the donated masks, a refrigerator truck has parked. Normally, it transports frozen meat, but it has now been transformed into a makeshift morgue.

Moya’s parents are from Ecuador and he still lives in the same house he grew up in, just 10 minutes from the hospital. His mother is 76 and his father 77. Moya has quarantined them to prevent them from getting infected, and he has been warning for days that the situation will only get worse. He also wrote an open letter to U.S. President Donald Trump, which remains unanswered. For quite some time, many people didn’t want to believe what he was reporting from Queens.

The Elmhurst neighborhood of Queens, 10 kilometers (just over 6 miles) east of Manhattan, is one of the most diverse in the entire country. More than 130 languages are spoken here, and two-thirds of the residents are immigrants. The neighborhood next door is ironically named Corona – not for the virus, of course, but allegedly after a former construction company in the area that had a crown in its logo.

“Eighty percent of the people that are contracting the virus here are Latinos,” says Moya. “Many of them are undocumented. They are in the hospitality industry. They’re bicycle delivery guys. They live in overcrowded dwellings with multiple people, or in basements.”

Most of the patients that end up at Elmhurst Hospital don’t have insurance. The medical center began seeing its first patients with coronavirus symptoms in early March – and since then, it has been like a war zone inside.

Donna Gordon, my partner’s older sister, calls. She, too, hasn’t been feeling well since last week.

Thursday, March 26: 23,112 infected, 365 dead

Donna has set up two folding chairs in the stairwell for us to sit on, while she sinks onto a plastic stool in her doorway, three meters (around 10 feet) away. “Thank you for the salami,” she says though her mask and stretches out her hands – covered in latex gloves – to take the bag from the deli on the corner.

Donna is 64 and lives alone in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights. Her parents immigrated to the U.S. from the West Indies, but Donna was born in New York. She has seen a lot, but says she has never experienced a catastrophe like this before. And now, she herself has become part of it.

It began with a fever. First it was 37.4 degrees Celsius (99.3 degrees Fahrenheit), then 38.9. It fell to 36.7, before spiking again to 38.7. Donna meticulously records her temperatures in her diary. She says she was having trouble sleeping because of aches and pains and ultimately, she called 911.

The paramedics showed up in full protective gear, including masks, gloves and rubber boots. Once she got to the hospital, she was asked a seemingly endless number of questions: Did she have a cough? Aches and pains? Headaches? Then X-rays were taken of her lungs.

“You have the corona,” a doctor told her succinctly, before sending her home with Tylenol. “You aren’t sick enough to stay here.” She was told to quarantine herself and call if her condition worsened. A second visit to the clinic — a late-night trip Donna made by bus — produced the same results. “I’m an old, black lady,” she says. “To them, I’m probably not worthy enough.”

So here she is, sitting in her doorway, thankful for the visit. In addition to the face mask, she is wearing a straw hat and sunglasses, which cover her tired eyes. Her grandchildren are taking care of the shopping for her, but today, she has a craving for salami.

We biked over to Donna’s place to avoid the subway, and on the way, we stopped by Brown Butter, our favorite local café, where we witnessed another dramatic aspect of the crisis. It is still open, but only for takeout orders. The chairs are stacked on the tables. “It’s such a shame,” says café owner Myriam Nicolas. She is hunched over her iPad, filling out the endless online forms she must submit to receive a corona loan. Small businesses can obtain up to $75,000 in assistance.

Nicolas came to the U.S. as a 10-year-old from Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti. She has been running the café for the last two years and also owns a cupcake bakery nearby, which is famous for its “Haitian Chocolate,” a spicy cocoa. “I want to keep the café open so my staff still has a place of employment,” she says. There are eight of them, working at the counter or in the kitchen, which is hardly larger than a closet. Her rent is $4,200 a month, though it remains unclear if she will have to pay it this month. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has said that evictions would be suspended for 90 days.

More bad news via text message. Nashom Wooden, an old friend of my partner’s, has died. Nashom was 50 years old, a former nightlife icon and life itself. He is the first death in our circle.

And the names of the victims keep getting more familiar. The playwright Terrence McNally, a man many of my friends knew – as was the actor Mark Blum, known from “Law & Order” and other TV series. And Eddie, who once ran the door of a number of downtown clubs I used to visit.

One death makes the headlines: Kious Kelly, a 48-year-old nurse at Mount Sinai Hospital. In February, he took care of Sal, an acquaintance of mine who was suffering from a herniated disk. Kelly is allegedly the first nurse to succumb to the virus. “He always made it a point to tell me it was going to be OK,” Sal writes.

Friday, March 27: 25,399 infected, 450 dead

The coronavirus pandemic is “a moment that is going to change the nation,” proclaims Governor Andrew Cuomo during his daily press conference. “This is a moment that forges character, forges people, changes people, makes them stronger, makes them weaker.”

Not long later, we’re taking a walk through Manhattan. The Financial District is completely empty despite it being lunchtime on a weekday. Usually, the Wall Street area is crammed with bankers and tourists, but now, the office buildings look like a movie set, all sharp angles and dark shadows. Every now and then, a delivery guy buzzes past.

Luis Vazquez is walking his dog, a Tibetan terrier named Fiesta. Vazquez is 60 years old and lives near Wall Street in a restored Art Deco building from the 1920s. Ever since the big banks moved to Midtown, the Financial District has become one of the trendiest residential areas in Manhattan. For the last 11 years, Vazquez has run a neighborhood blog and he also networks people and businesses via Facebook. He is essentially the Financial District’s unofficial mayor and one of the last who is still holding down the fort, with the well-to-do having relocated to the countryside or to their homes in the Hamptons. “I’d say about a third of them appear to have fled,” Vazquez says. “I decided to stay here because I thought my place was here.”

Vazquez was born in the Bronx, grew up in Queens and then moved to Manhattan. Of himself, he says: “I am the American Dream.” He now works as a real estate agent for high-end properties – and he has experience with crises. When the power shut off in 2012 due to Hurricane Sandy, his building was the only one in the neighborhood with a working generator. Just like then, he is doing his best to help locals in need today. He cooks for people in his building, helps them with their shopping and keeps track of which shops are open.

He walks Fiesta to a little park in the shadow of the New York branch of the Federal Reserve. The Fed has thrown trillions of dollars at the stumbling U.S. economy, in addition to purchasing bonds and supplying aid money. A significant portion of that vast sum is being managed behind these fortress-like walls looking out on a labradoodle answering the call of nature.

Twenty-four meters below us is a three-story bunker guarding the largest gold reserves in the world – a bit of financial security should everything else fail. “The currency of last resort,” as Goldman Sachs writes to its clients this week. The New York Stock Exchange has also continued operations. The trading floor has, of course, shut down, but business continues, with all the buying and selling of stocks now handled electronically, having migrated to home offices.

Vazquez has to head home for a video call with a client. “The business,” he says, “can’t come to a stop.”

From Wall Street, we make our way over to the new World Trade Center, which grew out of the ruins of the old one .Even in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks it wasn’t as quiet here as it is now. Back then, you could still hear a constant chirping from the alarms of buried firefighters. Now, it’s the complete silence that weighs heavy.

Saturday, March 28: 30,766 infected, 672 dead

Jonathan Sale looks forward to the evenings. At exactly 7 p.m., he and his neighbors climb out onto their fire escapes, balconies and rooftops to applaud the doctors, nurses and medical workers in the area.

Sale is an actor and bartender – a tattooed, muscular New Yorker of many talents. The spontaneous concerts of cheer and applause are his rare moments of contact with the outside world. He and his seven-year-old son sit on the fifth-floor fire escape, he tells me over the phone. “It’s really moving and nice to look out and see all those other faces,” he says.

Sale, 46, is from Richmond, Virginia, and lived in San Francisco before coming to New York. He has had supporting roles in all kinds of television hit series, including “Law & Order,” “The Good Fight” and “Person of Interest.” When the virus came, he was doing voiceovers for a Spanish Netflix show and mixing drinks at the W Hotel at night. He lost both jobs overnight. Now, he and his son are in voluntary quarantine in their one-bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side because they are afraid of becoming infected. He has begun having his groceries delivered.

They still have a good time, he says. He is helping his son with math, music and art and in return, his son cut his hair, with Sale now having a close-cropped head. A new look for the apocalypse? Why not?

“I love the solidarity here,” Sale says. “We come here because we’re meant for something bigger, something tougher. Everybody is trying to get ahead of the next guy. But if we can’t get up, we all look to each other and go: Oh come on, let’s do this thing together. That makes us strong.”

He tries to stay positive, but the two fields in which he works – hospitality and the arts – are both suffering terribly. All 41 Broadway theaters have shut their doors, with 31 shows and musicals forced to close, including hits like “The Lion King,” “Hamilton” and “Moulin Rouge.” The theaters here have never been closed for a longer stretch than now. Even after 9/11, the lights on Broadway came back on after two days. This time around, producers fear revenue losses of at least $100 million.

Isaac Itsarah only began his job as a costume designer on Broadway in October. “Suddenly, I’m unemployed again,” says Itsarah, a fashion designer from Thailand who has lived in New York for 10 years.

I have known Isaac for years, having run into him at dinners and parties every now and then. These days, he is spending his time in his Bronx apartment, sometimes heading out to the park for a bit of fresh air. “I’m about 30 percent OK,” he says, adding that he frequently feels lonely and is sometimes haunted by fear at night.

Itsarah worked for the costume studio of the renowned film and theater designer Eric Winterling, helping with client relations, choosing fabrics, assisting at fittings. He tailored costumes for Sarah Jessica Parker’s Broadway show that was supposed to open in March and did the same for the Britney Spears musical “Once Upon a One More Time,” still in rehearsals. All projects, though, have been suspended, leaving Itsarah to wonder: “Even if I will work again one day, what will happen with Broadway?”

In the afternoon, I drop by Brown Butter, where I find a tired-looking Myriam Nicolas. She has decided to close the café. Yesterday, she says, a customer coughed on the woman working at the counter. “I’m no longer ready to take the risk and to endanger my staff,” Nicolas says.

Sunday, March 29: 33,768 infected, 776 dead

Kit Hourig, 33, is running late as she turns onto Third Avenue with her bicycle. Normally, there is quite a bit of traffic in the East Village, but on this day, an icy wind blows down empty streets.

Hourig is wrapped in a jacket, scarf, hat and warm boots, in addition to a white mask and a blue courier bag. She is one of the “Corona Couriers,” a group of volunteers inspired by delivery companies in the Chinese city of Wuhan. They offer their services on social media platforms and take care of the shopping for seniors, the sick, the handicapped and others who shouldn’t – or choose not to – go out. Hourig looks like she’s dressed for a mountain expedition.

She locks up her bike and crosses the street to the Westside Market, where boxes of apples and pears are piled outside. Inside, she swipes her latex-clad fingers across the screen of her smartphone to find the list: half a chicken with vegetables, couscous, ginger, yoghurt. It’s her first time in this shop. “Where are the mushrooms?” she calls out. Hourig lives in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Fort Greene. When she lost her job as a welder due to the pandemic, she donated her N95 face masks to a hospital, filled out a claim for unemployment benefits and jumped on her bike. There are around 320 Corona Couriers currently riding through the five boroughs of New York.

Crises tend to bring out the best and the worst in people. In New York, the best so far has the upper hand.

Monday, March 30: 38,087 infected, 914 dead

Overnight, a field hospital has been set up in Central Park, a dozen white tents within eyesight of the mansions on Fifth Avenue. The hospital has 68 beds and was financed by Samaritan’s Purse, an organization led by the homophobic televangelist Franklin Graham. In times of need, you can’t be picky about who is providing the help.

An additional field hospital with 1,000 beds is being set up in the Javits Center, Manhattan’s convention venue, where Hillary Clinton’s election party-turned-political wake took place in 2016.

In the morning, the Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort sails into New York Harbor, on orders from the president. The Comfort has 1,000 beds and 12 operating rooms. But watching it come in evokes memories of another disaster. In January 2010, following the devastating earthquake in Haiti, the USNS Comfort anchored off Port-au-Prince to treat the wounded. I spent some time onboard and saw how U.S. military doctors struggled to save the lives of injured and maimed Haitians – and how they wept when a patient didn’t make it. Now, they are trying to save their own compatriots.

I decide to take a last walk through neighborhoods where I once lived – East Village, West Village, Chelsea. They are barely recognizable. I pass by bars, restaurants and cafés, but everything is locked up and completely silent. The stage is still there, but the actors are missing. Only birds are chirping.

On West 12th Street, an older couple approaches, holding hands. Through their masks, they call out: “Stay strong!”

I stop in front of a luxury condo building. This used to be the location of St. Vincent’s Hospital, which was right in the thick of the fight against AIDS. Dying patients were placed in isolation here. They were treated like lepers, rejected by society. Today, we are all lepers.

A refrigerator truck parks across the street.

Tuesday, March 31: 43,139 infected, 1,096 dead

Donna calls. We have kept in touch by telephone for the last several days. Yesterday, she started feeling worse, but didn’t want to go back to the hospital and decided to stay in bed instead. Today, though, she feels a bit better. I hear similar stories from two friends who are in hospital. The symptoms seem to come in waves.

Our private lives shrink down to a tiny corner of Brooklyn. In the evening, Trump’s face flickers across our TV screen. The man who early on compared the coronavirus to the common flu now says it could kill 100,000 people in the U.S., and that’s the best-case scenario. Worst case: more than 240,000.

Wednesday, April 1: 47,440 infected, 1,374 dead

Demetrio Muñoz, an old friend of mine, calls. When I first met him, he was a med student, but for the last two years he has been working as a resident doctor, recently at NYP/Weill Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan. We speak regularly these days. A week ago, he told me the emergency room was full with COVID-19 patients, and since then, his calls have become more anxious, and once, he cries. He used to be in the military, I’ve never seen him this way.

Life in the city has come to an almost complete standstill, with avenues empty of traffic and skyscrapers piercing the sky like ruins after end times. New York has become a ghost town. Down the street from us, a sign hangs on the basketball court where the kids used to play: “Fields are closed to group play.”

In the early afternoon, we knock on the door of Myriam’s cupcake shop. We find her packing up boxes. Along with her café, she has now had to close down her bakery. We buy the last two pieces of chocolate-caramel cake.

“I’m not watching the news anymore,” she says. “Let me know when this is over.”

Der Spiegel

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