April 20, 2020

SO FRIENDS IN NYC TELL ME that the lockdown is beginning to fail. People in their neighborhood — even old people — who were wearing masks a few days ago now aren’t. Long lines at soup kitchens and food pantries and check-cashing places. A generally more sad and more aggressive attitude. This is bad because NYC needs it more than anywhere else, but a month or so is really about as long as most people will comply, or even self-isolate on their own. (This is a reason for the classic two-hump pattern in epidemics). I don’t know what should be done about this, if there’s anything to do. NYC is really serious, even if you think the pandemic is overplayed elsewhere in the US. But people are people, and your public health strategy has to account for their limits.

Related: Nothing About New York’s Outbreak Was Inevitable: Politicians and pundits are acting like the city was destined for a tragedy. They’re wrong.

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. . . .

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. . . . 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.

Well, with De Blasio as mayor and Cuomo as governor, New York’s leadership is uniquely bad, so there’s that. In fact, I’d say that the disaster did become inevitable when they were elected.

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