My days have been spent inside mostly. But when I’m out for my daily walk, I delight in seeing flowers in the park by my apartment. Some are wild, a rarity for New York. Others have been planted by the city, a vital sign of life before the coronavirus. In the last couple of days on these walks, I’ve been listening to an old antiwar song by Pete Seeger called “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” It’s about the cycle of life under war and how the only constant, the only thing we will always have to rely on, are flowers. It’s a terribly sad song, but it has brought me much comfort as we fight something of a war in my hometown. The song goes: “Where have all the flowers gone? / Young girls have picked them, every one / Where have all the young girls gone? / They’ve gone to husbands, every one / Where have all the husbands gone? / They’ve gone for soldiers, every one / Where have all the husbands gone? / They’ve gone to graveyards, every one / Where have all the graveyards gone? / They’ve gone to flowers, every one.”
Last Friday, my friend Matt found himself in a situation many are in these days: The mother of a good friend passed away from complications of COVID-19, and though she lives close by, he couldn’t see her. There would be no drive or train ride to New Jersey from Matt’s home in downtown New York City to visit with his friend for shiva, the Jewish mourning ritual. He wouldn’t attend an in-person funeral, either. “How are people to memorialize when the options are Zoom-based funeral services and shivas?,” Matt pondered on our phone call last Monday. “The rituals of mourning are impeded by social distance.” Collective mourning has moved from homes, funeral parlors, and grave sites to video chats like Zoom. So, in lieu of hugs, or anxiously made baked goods we’d normally drop off, we send flowers.
Well, sort of.
Since the novel coronavirus has ravaged the New York metro area claiming more than 10,000 lives, buying flowers has become a difficult endeavor for those seeking to support local businesses: most local flower shops, considered nonessential businesses, are closed. “I did a little research on Yelp in the town where my friend lives, the day her mom passed away,” said Matt. No shops were open, so he turned to 1-800-Flowers, a popular digital- and tele-flower distributor. “I was eager to send her flowers,” he said and 1-800-Flowers, which had been aggressively marketed to him on Google and Yelp, was the quickest option.
I called seven highly rated independent mom-and-pop flower shops in Queens, the borough with the most reported coronavirus cases and deaths in New York City, and none of them were open. A day later, Roosevelt Flowers called me back, and Veronica Arteaga, an employee, told me that since wholesale distributors in Queens and the Bronx had shuttered their doors after Governor Cuomo’s stop-work order, Roosevelt Flowers had also stopped doing business. “We were doing deliveries two weeks ago, but we had to stop,” she said. For a few days after they closed their store, they were still doing funerals, but then they had to stop that, too.
Despite difficulties — New York’s Flower District and wholesale markets remain shuttered — some local shops are opening up for deliveries. On April 13, Constantine Stamos, a co-owner of the Upper East Side’s Jerome Florists, opened his family’s store for deliveries for the first time since the crisis began. Stamos, a classic outsize and gregarious New Yorker — he told me that he’s “the most erudite man in flowers” — said that it was imperative their store continue selling flowers. “Our dad came to the United States in 1910, a poor boy from Greece.” His father, Stamos said, first picked up pins in a bowling alley, and after he saved enough money, opened Jerome Florists the year the stock market crashed, an eerily parallel moment. “Because flowers were inexpensive, it was one of the few commodities people could afford,” he told me. “We’ll be damned if we do anything to let it close. So yes, there has been influenza, stock crashes, and war,” but Stamos is determined to keep his father’s business open. “We don’t care. If you do the right thing, you are able to surmount these problems.” Stamos said that, while they generally rely on the Flower District to purchase their product, they are receiving some shipments from the Netherlands (where one grower destroyed 200,000 stems after orders declined due to the coronavirus). For a while, Stamos said, some cargo was coming from Italy, another COVID-19 hot spot. Now, the store is getting shipments in from South America. “There are differences in terms of selection,” he said. “We don’t have the selection we did when things were normal.”
The digital flower space doesn’t appear to be as hard hit as local florists are, but they too have had to make adjustments. One company, UrbanStems, has closed facilities in New York City and Washington, D.C., and implemented a 10-person limit to help maintain social distancing in its Maryland location which generally holds 20 workers. But “people are still buying flowers,” said its CEO Seth Goldman. “It’s an opportunity to connect.” While Goldman said the company doesn’t provide a service that is as “essential as food and water,” flowers are “essential for people’s psyches during these difficult times.” And people’s purchases are certainly reflecting these difficult times: The company, according to a spokesperson, is seeing more than 200 percent year-over-year increase in “condolence” and “miss” sentiments. Goldman also said that, while the company has seen an increase in demand for flowers, it doesn’t know if that speaks to an increase in the overall industry.
UrbanStems’s supply has not been as affected as it has for local flower shops, because it gets most of its flowers from Ecuador and Colombia. Goldman said the company has been working with its sources to maintain the health and safety of their workers while still trying to keep farms afloat. He added that flowers are essential to Ecuador and Colombia’s economies, which have now been hit hard by the loss of events like weddings and major supermarket buyers.
1-800-Flowers has also not been hamstrung by local Flower District closures. “When this initially happened, our sympathy business was impacted,” said a spokesperson for the company. “However, people have since found other ways to express their condolences — sending flowers to homes or buying food gifts (which we also offer).” 1-800-Flowers saw an increase in floral gifts being sent “just because.” The company said it is offering “broad relief” for local florists, which includes a fee waiver to its membership fees for its wholesale business and a payment plan that allows florists to get paid 10 days earlier.
Flowers, like Pete Seeger intimated, are still (by hook or by crook) finding their way to us during this particularly acute attack on human life. Toward the end of our conversation about his local flower shop, true to his vow of erudition, Stamos quoted from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, saying, “Beauty will save the world.” He went on, “The aesthetic beauty, the beauty of all senses. Everybody wants beauty and peace. Flowers are one way of achieving that.”