As New Rochelle’s public health crisis approaches the four-week mark, all of us are struggling to make sense of an unprecedented challenge and to put our local experience in some meaningful context. I write today to offer my own personal observations about where our community stands, in the hope that these comments — organized under the four main points below — might be helpful as you process your own thoughts.
This is Tough . . .
On March 10th, Governor Cuomo announced the nation’s first “containment zone” in New Rochelle. Although often exaggerated in media accounts, the zone was accurately judged to be a forceful response to an emerging hotspot of COVID-19. Just one week later, each and every one of the zone’s restrictions was overtaken and exceeded by new statewide standards. In effect, all of New York had become a containment zone, with all of America not far behind. There is no better illustration of the whiplash speed with which the virus has upended every public health goal, assumption, and expectation, making aggressive action look mild in a matter of days, as we strive to keep up with the virus’ relentless pace.
Few of us had even heard the term “social distancing” until a couple of weeks ago; now it rules our lives, forcing us to operate under awkward limitations that would have been nearly unimaginable at the outset of this crisis. The disruption of our personal interactions is matched by an equivalent disruption of our institutions — the closure of schools, businesses, and houses of worship, which has had a profound effect on the rhythm of our city, with far-ranging social and economic implications, particularly for our most vulnerable residents.
And all of us have had moments when it has felt as though we had stumbled on to the set of a movie. For me, it is surreal to wander through a nearly empty City Hall, or see Police in protective gear stationed at the perimeter of Glen Island, or learn the names of friends and colleagues who have tested positive. I have had many sleepless nights, thinking through contingencies that, even if not probable, now seem all too plausible.
Keep in mind, these are the burdens carried by those of us who are healthy. For those who are ill and their families, especially those hospitalized, the burdens are exponentially heavier. And there are some in our city already mourning the loss of loved ones. There will be more.
There is no minimizing this challenge. It is unprecedented in its scale and probable duration. It has expanded with astonishing rapidity. And it will be hard in ways that can be only dimly predicted.
. . . But We Are Tougher
Yet if the virus is tough, we have proven ourselves to be tougher. In the face of extraordinary pressure, and in the glare of the national spotlight, New Rochelle’s social infrastructure has held firm.
• Local not-for-profits and community agencies immediately mobilized to serve as organizational hubs for the distribution of food and supplies.
• Our School District worked with impressive speed to establish a program of distance learning for youngsters and of child care for essential workers.
• City Council Members stepped up to identify and address needs in their districts, with a special focus on food security and language-barriers.
• Downtown developers offered generous financial assistance, recognizing their stake in our future.
• Municipal managers reconceived their roles and responsibilities to maintain essential services within a radically altered work context.
• First Responders, DPW workers, and health care professionals discharged their duties under conditions that required special dedication and bravery.
• A local manufacturer shifted gears to produce much-needed face shields for our local hospital.
And then there were individual gestures of wisdom and kindness – smaller, but often moving: the Rabbi of the synagogue at the center of the initial outbreak, who had himself contracted the virus, writing movingly to his congregants about the moral obligation to honor their quarantine; and the local Girl Scout troop hanging ribbons throughout the “zone” in support of neighbors.
In every direction, we are experiencing an organic outpouring of volunteerism and civic pride, as residents seek ways to pitch in, from offering professional services, to donating supplies, to buying gift certificates in support of struggling restaurants and businesses.
Of course, this is only the beginning. Bigger tests are coming, and we must continue mobilizing our internal resources on a sustained basis. New Rochelle has partnered with Volunteer New York! to bring on a full-time Director of Community Engagement with the mission of sustaining and strengthening our social infrastructure – giving strategic focus, direction, and support to the inspiring efforts already underway. Our success on this front will do much to determine what sort of city emerges on the other side of the crisis.
There is Reason for Cautious Optimism . . .
New Rochelle’s early adoption of social distancing measures makes our community a leading indicator of whether these measures are effective.
The preliminary signs are positive. With each passing day, New Rochelle declines as a percentage of COVID-19 cases in the region, and the rate of increase in New Rochelle seems to be moderating. When public health experts speak of “flattening the curve,” this is exactly what they mean: not an actual decrease in cases (at least not yet), but rather a rate of increase that can be managed by our health care system without overwhelming the supply of beds and ventilators.
It was hard for our city to endure restrictions that, for a time, seemed to be uniquely imposed upon us, and no community likes to be falsely depicted as a sort of hellscape or plague ship. Having been thrust into this very difficult position ahead of others, the people of New Rochelle can now take some satisfaction and even pride in confronting the first stage of the challenge well.
. . . But Underline “Cautious”
All that said, it is entirely premature to celebrate. The preliminary data are filled with uncertainties and subject to multiple interpretations. Does a higher number mean more cases or just better detection of existing cases? Nobody knows. How many carriers are asymptomatic and not even seeking to be tested? Nobody knows. Furthermore, the figures aggregated by municipality are running perpetually behind the reporting of positive tests to individuals, meaning that our local “number” is always several days behind reality.
As I write, there are 264 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in New Rochelle, but it would not shock me if some day in the near future this number suddenly spiked by a hundred or more. That would not necessarily indicate some fresh community outbreak, but rather a change in data collection methodology to catch up with the facts on the ground. And, of course, even applying the rosiest interpretation to the figures, a long road still lies ahead.
At a time when everyone is eager for clarity, there is a natural tendency to overreact to every bit of data and to invent trends within mere statistical noise. We should all do our best to resist this impulse, and those of us in leadership positions should take special care to explain honestly what we know and what we don’t know.
Let me close these personal observations in even more personal terms by saying how deeply grateful Catie and I have been for the many friends who have offered moral support, wisdom, and perspective in recent days. Even hunkered down now and separated physically, many of us feel in spirit more connected than ever before, blessed to live among neighbors capable of such strength in the face of adversity, and prepared to sustain each other through the challenges still to come. We’ll get through this together. #NewRoStrong
Following below is today’s public health update, just sent citywide via robocall. I’ve also added a personal comment at the end of this post, which I encourage you to read.
This is Mayor Noam Bramson, with an update for today, March 26. Here’s what’s new:
The containment zone specific to New Rochelle has been lifted as of yesterday. However, statewide rules that limit gatherings and close non-essential businesses remain in effect here and throughout New York. We continue urging all residents to stay home and practice personal distancing to the greatest degree possible.
By now, you should have received your Census invitation in the mail. Even in the middle of a pandemic, the Census is important and a reminder that we all count. Since most of us are staying close to home anyway, this is a good time to fill out your Census, either online or by phone.
As reported previously, alternate side of the street parking restrictions are suspended citywide until further notice, and metered parking remains free.
Additional information, including updates from prior messages, is always available at newrochelleny.com/coronavirus, and you can press 1 to learn how to receive this message in Spanish.
Thank you to the many organizations and individuals throughout New Rochelle who are meeting this unprecedented challenge with strength, calm, and support for all of our neighbors. We can be proud that New Rochelle is setting a positive example for communities everywhere.
Now for my personal comment:
The lifting of the New Rochelle containment zone has stimulated a public and media discussion about whether the early restrictions implemented here in our city were effective. The preliminary data are encouraging: with each passing day, New Rochelle accounts for a smaller share of COVID-19 cases in the region, and there is reason to be hopeful that the rate of spread in our community has moderated. Having been thrust into the national spotlight, the people of New Rochelle can now take some satisfaction and even pride in confronting the early stage of this challenge well. But I advise strongly against premature celebration. The municipally-aggregated totals are filled with uncertainties, can be interpreted in multiple ways, and lag behind the statewide count. Furthermore, even if our rate of increase in slowing, confirmed positive cases continue to rise. Optimism should be carefully tempered by caution, and by our clear understanding that a long road remains ahead.
My grad school friend Chris Riback hosted this half-hour podcast about New Rochelle’s experience with the coronavirus. Worth a listen for an insider view of how local government approaches an unprecedented and fast-moving challenge. Plus Chris has a lot of nice (and accurate) things to say about New Rochelle.
In the face of an unprecedented challenge, we can be proud of the many community organizations and volunteers that have stepped up to address human needs in New Rochelle. As this public health (and economic) crisis unfolds, our strong social infrastructure will be more important than ever.
That’s why New Rochelle is announcing today a partnership with Volunteer New York to bring on a full-time Director of Community Engagement. In the days and weeks ahead, we will evaluate service needs and capacity, enhance communication among agencies, and work to provide each of us with the tools and options to make a positive difference for our neighbors. Watch this video for more. And feel free to share ideas by emailing NewRoStrong@newrochelleny.com.
Following is the latest public health update, just sent citywide by robocall:
This is Mayor Noam Bramson, with an update for today, March 20. Here’s what’s new:
At the Governor’s direction, all non-essential businesses will close by the end of the weekend until further notice. By contrast, markets, groceries, pharmacies, gas stations, and other essential businesses will continue operating, as will restaurants for takeout and delivery service. For a full list, visit the State’s website at esd.ny.gov.
If you were tested for the virus at Glen Island, you can now get your own test results more quickly by following instructions on the County website at: health.westchestergov.com.
Parks will remain open only for solitary recreation, such as walking and hiking. But starting tomorrow morning, playgrounds will be closed, and fields will remain closed for any group sports and activities.
Now, a reminder about previous messages:
Social distancing is effective in slowing the spread of the virus, so let’s each do our part, especially to protect the most vulnerable residents. We continue urging all residents to stay home as much as possible and limit physical interactions with others.
City Hall remains closed to the public, but all essential municipal services, including sanitation, will be maintained. Some City departments can still be reached by phone and many services can be accessed online.
This is an unprecedented challenge, but we can face it together by staying informed, using common sense, and supporting our neighbors.
Thank you for listening. We’ll keep you updated. And additional information is always available at newrochelleny.com/coronavirus.
To meet the unprecedented challenge of a global pandemic, it is essential for our entire community to come together, including the investors and builders who have a direct stake in New Rochelle’s future. So I am very pleased that RXR, New Rochelle’s master downtown developer, has announced a $1 million contribution to help our community address the urgent needs associated with the coronavirus. It’s an outstanding example of corporate citizenship, and establishes a framework through which other partners can make their own contributions. More details to come in the days ahead. In the meantime, there’s additional information in this press release.
Throughout the present public health crisis, Governor Andrew Cuomo has demonstrated remarkable leadership. His daily press conferences have been calm, measured, fact-based, and full of relevant context. From a New Rochelle perspective, I am particularly grateful to the Governor and his team for their devotion of attention and resources to our local needs. During today’s press conference, the Governor also offered some very welcome clarification on the meaning of the New Rochelle “containment zone,” which has been widely misunderstood. That section of the Governor’s comments begins at about 30:55 in this video. Each and every one of the restrictions within our “containment zone” has since been overtaken and exceeded by even more stringent (and necessary) standards applied statewide. In a sense, all of New York is now a containment zone, and all of America is almost sure to follow.
Here is today’s public health update, just sent citywide by robocall:
This is Mayor Noam Bramson, with a public health update for March 18.
We continue urging all residents to stay home to the greatest degree possible and keep interactions with others to a bare minimum. Social distancing is effective in slowing the spread of the virus, so let’s each do our part, especially to protect our most vulnerable residents.
As you know, restaurants are now closed for dine-in service throughout New York State. However, we can still support our local restaurant community by ordering takeout or delivery, and by buying gift cards for future use.
Westchester County has issued a call for retired or currently non-working nurses to assist with public health needs. Those interested in serving in this capacity should contact Lindsay Jackson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As previously reported:
City Hall is now closed to the public, but all essential municipal services, including sanitation, will be maintained. Some City departments can still be reached by phone and many services can be accessed online.
Testing for coronavirus continues to ramp up. To request a test, call the State hotline at 888-364-3065.
And if any business refuses to deliver to your home in New Rochelle, please contact the Westchester County Consumer Protection Department by calling 914-995-2155 or sending an email to email@example.com.
There is additional information at newrochelleny.com/coronavirus, and more updates will follow as needed.
Let’s all continue staying informed, engaged, and responsible, so that our community can meet this challenge together.
Thank you for listening.
Restaurants throughout New York State are closed for dine-in service — an important public health measure to limit the spread of COVID-19. But, even while practicing social distancing, we can still support our local restaurant community by ordering takeout and delivery, or by buying gift cards for future use. Here’s more information.
Extensive coverage of the coronavirus pandemic last night on MSNBC, including a segment focusing on New Rochelle. Watch here.