Remembering March 2020 In NYC: When The “Before Times” Came To An End

The first known case of COVID-19 in New York State was reported one year ago today, when it was publicly announced that a Manhattan woman was found to be infected with the virus.

The March 1st case set off a month with an exponential increase in infections that would soon lead to a relentless blare of sirens through the city and a wave of death that would later be called the city’s worst mass fatality event in modern history. During that first month alone, 2,600 New Yorkers died, as coronavirus quietly flourished throughout the city. We would eventually learn the germ had been circulating since late January, after unknowingly spilling over from Europe. Today, more than 29,000 people have died from COVID-19 in New York City, still one of the hardest hit areas in the nation. The death toll disproportionately impacted Black and Latino city residents, who died from COVID-19 at around twice the rate of white residents.

The beginning of what would be a long-term, brutal economic fallout was felt almost immediately, and it mobilized New Yorkers eager to help each other carry on and to fill the gaps created by the federal government.

One year later, we take a look back at what happened in March 2020.

Early Uncertainty, With Hand Sanitizer Suddenly In Short Supply

In early March, COVID-19 was here, but life was business as usual. During that first week, Mayor Bill de Blasio had urged New Yorkers to keep riding the subways, while many of us turned to just washing our hands more thoroughly.

Demand for hand sanitizer surged, and so did the price gouging. We wondered about how our pets would fare.

Few wore face masks, since it was against the recommendations of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci, who cited the low number of supplies for frontline health care workers and the depletion of the national stockpile. One train operator said he was discouraged from wearing a mask to avoid panicking subway riders, a rule the union instructed workers to ignore.

Mayor de Blasio worked to increase testing capacity—from dozens to hundreds per day after he had called on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to approve testing methods developed by private entities to increase capacity.

Finally, on March 7th, Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a “state of emergency.” A day later, the state had more than 100 cases.

The second known case of COVID-19 in the state was detected in a man from Westchester, who was hospitalized in New York City. His synagogue was shut down, and Cuomo implemented a “containment zone” in New Rochelle starting March 12th. National Guard members voiced anxieties over being deployed into this suburban hot zone, as disease detectives chased down his close contacts.

A War Over Words

Cases continued to rise, but mass lockdown restrictions would not take hold until late March. For nearly two weeks, de Blasio would urge New Yorkers to continue on with their regular lives unless they’re sick or vulnerable. Restaurants started to close or reduce hours because of a lack of foot traffic.

The St. Patrick’s Day Parade was canceled March 11th, after several major cities around the country made the same move—coinciding with a bizarre Cuomo press briefing featuring his own very bad Irish accent. The governor shut down Broadway theaters on March 12th. The NBA halted its season. Essential workers fought for better sick leave benefits, which eventually happened on March 18th. College students demanded campus closures.

“We want people still to go on about their lives,” de Blasio told reporters March 13th. That night, an 82-year-old woman died from COVID-19, the first in the state.

March 15th was a turning point. New York was sitting in an odd limbo of business as usual—and about to face a wave of draconian rules to curb the outbreak. People were still going out to bars, but with an unenforceable 50% capacity. Bars and clubs had been bustling the night before. De Blasio relented to mounting calls to close schools and sent 1.1 million students into remote learning, calling it an “extraordinary painful decision.”

Eleventh-hour travel restrictions for Europe, issued under President Donald Trump’s administration, sent a swarm of people to airports, including JFK. Looking back, those packed crowds of maskless people indoors might have further fueled the spread both here and abroad. And at the day’s end, the mayor announced restaurants would only be allowed to offer takeout and delivery. Only five people had died from coronavirus in New York City at that moment.

Two days later, de Blasio said a “shelter-in-place” order was “on the table” after San Francisco had issued a lockdown, which started a war over words with Cuomo on how to characterize such a stay-at-home policy. The sparring lasted three days before the governor, opposed to how “shelter-in-place” evoked a mentality from the Cold War, would ultimately place the state on “PAUSE.” All non-essential workers would be required to stay home except for essential activities, like a walk in the park or to pick up groceries and medicine. By month’s end, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers were laid off. Subway ridership plummeted, spurring a financial crisis for the agency.

On the anniversary of the first case, de Blasio listed the state’s delay on shelter in place as one of three “difference makers” that could have changed the outcome for the city. He added that the absence of testing and a lack of national leadership also harmed the city’s chances of containing the virus.

Confronting A Crisis

By March 19th, de Blasio and Cuomo feared a total collapse of the hospital system, and the leaders said they would need thousands of ventilators to manage. During the mayor’s first virtual briefing, he prepared New Yorkers for a “blunt truth” of the city’s needs: 3 million N95 masks, 50 million surgical masks, 15,000 ventilators.

Healthcare workers did not have adequate personal protective equipment. They wore garbage bags as gowns and reused masks. Coronavirus spread through Rikers Island. Calls to 911 were the highest they had ever been in the city. The mayor declared NYC the “epicenter” of the pandemic.

A longtime NBC News journalist died, and so did a Brownsville high school principal. Brooklyn native and former drag queen Mona Foot died from coronavirus. New Yorkers mourned. By the end of the month, around 2,600 people had died, and the CDC weighed whether the public should begin wearing masks.

As the traumatic month drew to a close, New Yorkers began leaning out their windows and standing outside their homes every night at 7 p.m. to cheer for essential workers. And children began drawing rainbows on pieces of paper to hang on the windows of their homes, as a way of reaching out to each other from behind the barriers of isolation.

One year later, more than 1.9 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered citywide. A third vaccine option from Johnson & Johnson is expected to start rolling out this week. Some experts say summer could bring change. Many months lay ahead in this pandemic. Herd immunity is far off and variants of COVID-19 still loom—but reflecting on last March can seed hope because of what we’ve endured so far.

With Gothamist and WNYC staff.

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