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