Metropolis

Nothing About New York’s Outbreak Was Inevitable

Politicians and pundits are acting like the city was destined for a tragedy. They’re wrong.

A girl and her father, wearing masks, walk across a crosswalk with other people.
People walk in the Corona neighborhood of Queens, New York, on April 14.
Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images

Slate is making its coronavirus coverage free for all readers. Subscribe to support our journalism. Start your free trial.

Seven weeks after its first recorded coronavirus case, New York has become the global center of the pandemic. In New York City, a staggering 1 in 800 residents has died from the disease, which continues to kill hundreds of New Yorkers a day.

New York City is sick, and journalists, pundits, and politicians have made a diagnosis: The city’s exceptional density is the problem. That is certainly the self-serving conclusion of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. It’s a convenient bit of fatalism for a man presiding over a catastrophe.

At the core of this theory is the idea that New York City is just different. New Yorkers live their lives in close proximity. They share laundromats, lobbies, elevators, subway trains, and crowded sidewalks. No U.S. city has more inhabitants per square mile or higher rates of public transit use. The coronavirus was destiny. “It seems highly unlikely that any response by the state or city could have fully stopped the pandemic,” the New York Times wrote earlier this month. Joel Kotkin, an urban affairs commentator whose crocodile tears for New York would fill a backyard swimming pool, could barely contain his glee at the prospect that New Yorkers might finally pack up for the Dallas suburbs.

Like any misdiagnosis, this one will make it harder to find the cure.

A cursory look at a map shows that New York City’s coronavirus cases aren’t correlated with neighborhood density at all. Staten Island, the city’s least crowded borough, has the highest positive test rate of the five boroughs. Manhattan, the city’s densest borough, has its lowest.

Nor are deaths correlated with public transit use. The epidemic began in the city’s northern suburbs. The city’s per capita fatalities are identical to those in neighboring Nassau County, home of Levittown, a typical suburban county with a household income twice that of New York City.

True, New York City apartments are crowded. The share of housing units with more than one occupant per room is almost 10 percent. But that number is 13 percent in the city of Los Angeles. As a metro area, New York isn’t even in the top 15 U.S. cities for overcrowding. It’s not even the American city with the most apartments per capita (Miami) or immigrants (also Miami), to take two other characteristics that critics say might be associated with coronavirus infections.

New York City has a lot of restaurants per capita, places where people gather with strangers every night. But not as many as San Francisco, which, though it ranks second in the U.S. for both residential density and transit use, had just 20 COVID-19 deaths as of Friday.

If you expand your comparison internationally, New York City looks less exceptional still. It is not as dense or transit-dependent as, say, Paris (which has less than half of New York’s fatality rate) or Seoul, South Korea, where the pandemic has been all but controlled.

So what is it about New York City that made it a hot spot? Right now, it looks like the most exceptional thing about New York is its leaders’ belief that the city is unique. This presumption served first as a reassurance that New York would not follow Lombardy’s example, and later as the reason why it had.

Cuomo used the former logic on March 2, arguing, “When you’re saying, what happened in other countries versus what happened here, we don’t even think it’s going to be as bad as it was in other countries.” It’s a familiar idea: New York is what it is, whether it’s budgeting for subways or picking up garbage, and will take no lessons.

Once New York had followed—and surpassed—Lombardy’s infection rate, well, that was New York Exceptionalism too. “Given the density that we’re dealing with, it spreads very quickly,” Cuomo said three weeks later.

Exceptional things about New York: the Yankees, the Met, Brian Lehrer, Coney Island, the Brooklyn Bridge, Jackson Heights.

Unexceptional things about New York: international flights, immigrants, the fact that its residents live in apartment buildings, suffer from overcrowding as a result of high housing costs, and use public transit.

Those factors will surely prove to have hastened the spread. But they don’t explain New York’s divergence from other world cities. Tragically, what seems to have put New York on such a different trajectory from San Francisco was that its leaders were so late to shut down public life.

Research by the epidemiologists Britta and Nicholas Jewell suggests that 90 percent of COVID-19 deaths in the United States could have been prevented by enacting social distancing policies two weeks earlier than we did. Former CDC director Tom Frieden told City & State that if New York had shut things down earlier, it could have cut the death toll by as much as 80 percent. New York’s stay-at-home order began five days after California’s, and its schools were closed four days after Seattle’s. “History will be pretty critical of Cuomo and de Blasio for not taking the same decisive decisions that Mayor [London] Breed took in San Francisco,” said Dr. Michael Reid, an infectious disease specialist in San Francisco who is running that city’s contact tracing program.

Furthermore, serious outbreaks have occurred in small towns too. Rural hot spots like St. John the Baptist Parish in Louisiana and Dougherty County, Georgia, have had similar death rates to New York City. South Dakota now has one of the largest coronavirus hot spots in the country, despite Gov. Kristi Noem’s assurances that “South Dakota is not New York City.”

This recognition is not about doling out blame to New York pols for what happened in March. Washington was worse than useless, from the president to the CDC. Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio had to make difficult decisions that inflicted their own type of suffering—particularly closing the city’s public schools.

It’s about what happens next. The sooner New York can be honest about why its outbreak was so severe, the sooner leaders can figure out how to move forward. In fact, it’s a precursor to moving forward. Who will want to reopen a restaurant when political leaders still believe contagion is in the city’s DNA? And why should Washington help prop up a subway system that’s perceived to be an outsize disease vector?

It’s a tough balance: Reopening New York will be harder than reopening Vermont. The average New Yorker makes contact with 75 people a day. Proposals in California and New Jersey that restaurants operate at half-capacity will be hard to adapt to Momofuku and the Corner Bistro. And then there’s all the shared public space, from libraries to parks to the subways, that must be kept clean enough to keep the virus in check—and just as importantly, to inspire the confidence that it is. The system keeping New York City safe will need to be better than it is elsewhere. Washington will have to recognize that a New York safe from disease (like, two decades ago, a New York safe from terrorism) requires special resources. The level of everyday civic awareness will be higher for a long time.

Others have doubts about the city’s long-term future. How will tourism rebound? Will white-collar workers, accustomed to typing from their couches, still pay to cluster in Manhattan? Will Manhattan families come out of this deciding they want backyards? Will the feds provide enough aid that hard-hit cities and states don’t have to cut services to the bone? Those are good questions—but we can’t start to answer them before we reassure ourselves, and others, that New York City is not unsafe by design.

For more on the impact of COVID-19, listen to Friday’s What Next: TBD.