Exactly one year ago today, on the morning of March 3, 2020, my cell phone buzzed with a call from a colleague in New York City government. “What’s up?” I asked. In a subdued, slightly stunned tone, she delivered the news: a New Rochelle resident, who worked in Manhattan, had tested positive for coronavirus. Until that moment, the virus had seemed a remote problem. Suddenly it was here. In New Rochelle. And just like that, our little corner of the world changed dramatically . . . with the rest of American soon to follow.
Since then, what was once unimaginable has settled into routine. We’ve gotten used to keeping our distance and wearing masks, made the shift to virtual meetings and social engagements, and become sophisticated consumers of epidemiological data and public health guidance. We have even learned to carry on, most of us, in the face of a staggering, soul-crushing death toll: 515,710 and counting, too big to grasp.
So it can be difficult now to recall the chaotic and frightening quality of those first days, when everything was still unfamiliar. The precautionary quarantine of hundreds of families, the creation of the “containment zone,” the arrival of the National Guard, the shortages of hand sanitizer and toilet paper, the frantic scramble for tests, the swirling uncertainties about schooling, the abrupt closure of businesses, the chilling need for mobile morgues. Real life playing out like the script of an apocalyptic movie. And most surreal and improbable of all: playing out here in our own hometown, thrust into the spotlight, the first place in the nation to confront a community outbreak.
This one-year anniversary is prompting many people to take stock. The following is my small contribution to the larger, communal exercise of sorting out and recording remembrances, as we piece together from our different vantage points the experience and meaning of the past year, and then consider our path forward. My dominant feeling is one of gratitude for the things we all got right together, but I am compelled to begin first with a critical assessment of what I got wrong.
At the pandemic’s onset, I simultaneously overestimated and underestimated the challenge, showing both too much and too little imagination.
What if essential supply chains break down? What if there are food riots? What if the virus sweeps through our essential workforce? These were the sorts of dark questions that literally kept me awake at night as the crisis began — fears about local civic breakdown that were reinforced by news from beyond our municipal borders, where, for a while, everything seemed to be in free fall: the stock market collapsing, a second great depression looming, hospitals on the cusp of being overwhelmed. As awful as the past year has been, we can thank goodness none of the worst-case scenarios came to pass. Civil society held.
But I also figured, in a kind of muddled contradiction, that we’d get back to normal(ish) in a matter of weeks, as the virus somehow burned itself out. The sheer duration of the pandemic — its stubborn persistence, its capacity to alter life fundamentally, for month upon month, stretching now into a year and beyond — was simply beyond my comprehension.
For the most part, these sorts of private misperceptions didn’t manifest in public statements, but there were unfortunate exceptions. I cringe when I think of a press event that the County Executive and I held on March 5th to urge residents to dine out at local restaurants. Trying to set an example of confidence in the face of crisis, we gathered around packed tables, all maskless, sharing dishes and conversation, as the cameras rolled. “If you’re healthy, carry on with your life,” was our basic message. This advice aged poorly, to put it mildly.
The “containment zone” is another instructive example of policy that looks dubious in hindsight. It was intended to prevent the virus from spreading out of its presumed toehold in the Wykagyl neighborhood, as though we were dealing with an isolated kitchen fire that could be knocked down with a hand extinguisher. We know now that there were already some 10,000 other cases in the New York area, circulating without detection, so any measure focused specifically on New Rochelle had no chance whatsoever of success; the fire was already way past the kitchen, raging through the walls and ducts. Sure enough, within a week, all of our local restrictions were overtaken and exceeded by Statewide standards.
An anecdote I haven’t previously shared illustrates the improvisational quality of those early days and of the “containment zone” in particular. The State first suggested an area with a two-mile radius. We pointed out that this would sweep in many institutions quite removed from the presumed outbreak area, a wider net than the State wanted. Okay, came the response, what about one mile? Equally arbitrary, but maybe better. This back-and-forth was up against the clock — with a press conference from the Governor only minutes away. The City’s planners, who would ordinarily be the right folks for any geographic analysis, were out of the office at an event, so I sat at my desk, with a ruler, a pencil, and a map of New Rochelle, scribbling a rough circle, trying feverishly to figure out what would fall within the new boundary. Was Ward School in or out? How about Barnard? And then time was up. There was the Governor on TV, announcing the containment zone. In the hours and days to follow, we would all defend the policy, including me at the City’s own press conference that same afternoon, the most pressure-filled experience of my entire service as Mayor. I still believe strongly that it was important for those of us in leadership positions to speak with a clear, consistent, confident voice — plus, in fairness, the idea of restricting large gatherings had real merit, and the details got straightened out soon enough. But at the moment of the announcement, I remember looking down at my ridiculous, crudely-drawn diagram, and thinking: this is nuts.
Fortunately, with time, knowledge, and experience, decision-making improved, and the State and County proved to be focused and effective crisis managers. I paid frequent visits to the de facto command center at 145 Huguenot Street, where I observed sleepless professionals applying themselves with the utmost intensity to an emergent and expanding challenge of overwhelming dimensions, often surviving, as I semi-joked to a reporter, only on coffee, M&Ms, and adrenaline, and giving the sense, at once alarming and reassuring, that the weight and attention of a fully mobilized government was bent entirely on our little city. Their early and successful efforts, evident in accomplishments like the quick standing-up of the Glen Island testing center, deserve to be remembered with admiration.
For its part, the City, lacking a public health apparatus, played more of a supporting role, but I think we played it well — public communications that were informative and reassuring, appearances on national and international media that demonstrated competence and resisted the false narrative of New Rochelle as plague ship, guidance for residents sometimes bewildered by fast-changing circumstances and requirements, and constant dialogue with regional authorities and hospital administrators to provide the best understanding of local conditions, as well as advocacy for local needs.
Most importantly, initial errors were counterbalanced by something outside the direction of any individual leader: the character of our community as a whole. And here is where the story takes a really positive turn. Not-for-profit agencies extending themselves beyond precedent to address human needs, front-line health care workers and First Responders bearing the brunt of the crisis in heroic fashion, volunteers coming forward in impressive numbers to assist their neighbors, the house of worship at the center of the first outbreak exemplifying courage and moral leadership, developers demonstrating corporate citizenship by making significant financial contributions, entrepreneurs adjusting creatively to every obstacle and opportunity, lawn signs, banners, and ribbons displaying pride and determination. A wave of civic energy that we are now trying to mobilize on a permanent basis through our Director of Community Engagement, a role created as a result of this crisis. From the very beginning, I was inspired by and proud of the calm maturity with which the people of New Rochelle faced adversity and rose to the moment, never panicking, never turning on each other, earning in word and deed, when it counted most, the brand and hashtag #NewRoStrong.
New Rochelle’s time as an unusual outlier ended in a matter of weeks, as it became clear that this was no local crisis, and that every community would be impacted. Eventually, our early distress over a few dozen cases would come to seem almost quaint in a nation with millions of cases. And by the end of the spring, all of America would embark together on an extended, painful odyssey of ups and downs, the virus waxing and waning, restrictions coming, going, and coming again, against a backdrop of politics and science, social activism and social unrest, with every major sector of society — government, medicine, education, business — undergoing disruptive and still-unfinished changes, some of which may prove permanent. A year like no other. But New Rochelle will always have been first, and we can draw some grim satisfaction from the knowledge that we met our test with dignity and common purpose.
Now, today, we all find ourselves in a place much different from where we began — both better and worse. Better in the sense that the whole infrastructure of virus detection and response is well-established, therapeutic treatments are far more effective, the sheer psychological shock of mass disruption has worn off, and, most importantly, vaccines provide true light at the end of the tunnel. Worse in the sense that so many families are in mourning, so many businesses and livelihoods have been wrecked, and so many of the divisions and inequalities of American society have been exposed and exacerbated. This last challenge will demand continuing attention long after the virus is finally tamed, including here in New Rochelle, where the prevalence of COVID shifted from its initial locus in the north end to more densely populated areas in the city’s center and south, a preview of the upsetting racial disparities that impact infection rates, mortality, and now vaccine access and hesitancy.
And yet, looking ahead, I feel confident that New Rochelle will recover well, particularly if we can confront these inequities with honesty and persistence. Downtown development, a primary focus of municipal policy-making for a generation, kept going strong throughout the pandemic and shows no sign of slowing down. The new federal Administration is likely to deliver a package of state and local relief, which will stabilize our finances. And through it all, New Rochelle continued addressing longer-term priorities like environmental sustainability, infrastructure investment, and public safety reform, areas where we are poised to make meaningful progress. Indeed, to borrow a term from Washington, we have an opportunity to “build back better,” incorporating lessons from our COVID experience into everything from people-oriented design of streets and open spaces, to stronger collaboration between the public, private, and not-for-profit sectors, to enhanced standards for inclusive, equitable urban growth. As a whole, New Rochelle will be alright.
As individuals, however, each of us will process and move on from the past year in different ways, easier or harder depending on the burdens carried, and it’s important to look out for each other.
For me and Catie: we feel lucky that our boys have managed distance learning without much complaint, knowing that this has been such a tough challenge for many families. We lost Catie’s father during the course of the year (not from COVID) and our grief was compounded, like so many others’, by restrictions that limited Catie from being with him as much as she wanted in his final days, and yet we are also grateful that our mothers made it through without falling ill. And we are thankful for the nurturing comfort that comes with deep connection to a community.
If you and your family have been fortunate enough to escape the worst of the pandemic, I hope you have acquired through this year a fuller appreciation for life’s blessings. If you have been touched by loss, then I hope the support and love of friends and neighbors has brought healing. And if the sheer weight of isolation and uncertainty has been almost too much to bear, then I hope the prospect of better days, now finally in sight, will sustain you until those days come at last.
To help commemorate New Rochelle’s COVID experience and our place in the larger national story, the City invited residents and institutions to submit photos from the past year. Many of these images are powerful — far more meaningful than any words I can muster — so please take a look at a sampling here. This video from the Journal News is also well worth viewing.
In addition, Westchester County is sponsoring a remembrance at 11:00am today, followed by a moment of silence at noon, and then a region-wide clap for health care workers at 7:00pm tonight. Let’s join these observances.
Grief and pride, weariness and determination — a strange blend of emotions, befitting a strange time. May this pandemic year find its rightful place in lasting memory, and may we together make our way to a new year of recovery, health, love, and joy.