Watching the virus caseload creep up in New York over the past couple of weeks reminds me of the hours before Superstorm Sandy leapt ashore in 2012, when the rivers heaved and lapped at the bulkheads. We had been warned that what was coming could be disastrous, but if you watched for a while, you could convince yourself that those old slabs of concrete would be enough to protect us. Maybe the waters were already receding. Then the lowlands were drowned.
This moment of suspense gets reenacted all over the country — all over the world — with demoralizing regularity. Each time, and in each place, the threat lacks reality — until all of a sudden it doesn’t. This past spring, as the pandemic consumed New York, the rest of the country shrugged, chalking the city’s woes up to density or public transportation or liberalism or something else. Now that it’s tearing through the Midwest and Newark and Europe and starting to snarl in the city’s direction again, we are once more trying to cut deals with a force of nature.
If 20 people is too many for a house party, how about 12?
I can hug people if I know them, right? We’ve been friends for years!
Thanksgiving doesn’t count, does it?
Dr. Anthony Fauci has promised that “the cavalry is coming,” that this is the time to wear a mask, hold fast, and wait until spring. In the meantime, though, as the days grow shorter, we’re drifting into darkness. With his latest round of warnings and prohibitions, Governor Andrew Cuomo is trying to ease us into the winter. Restaurants, bars, and gyms must close at 10 p.m. — as if the virus takes an early evening nap every day. Up to ten people are allowed at an indoor gathering, even though we all know that packing the members of multiple households into a cramped apartment for hours on end now qualifies as an extremely high-risk sport. Too many Americans will get together on Thanksgiving, grateful to have survived this brutal year and hopeful about a vaccine. We are all eager for relief. But, without a doubt, many of the guests at those merry dinners will be infected, and some will die.
So, yes, we’ve been through this before, but we’ve never had a season like this. There have been cold days and rainy weeks, but when I look back on the first eight months of the pandemic, I see a soft, slowly unfurling spring, a hazy summer, and a luminous fall that culminated in an eerily glorious first half of November. During all those warm days, New York learned to be an outdoor metropolis — not quite as expertly as, say, Mexico City, but not bad for a bunch of AC addicts. I wore my hiking boots to shreds and figured out what time I could sneak into a playground childless to do pull-ups on the monkey bars before the kids arrived. My most cherished possessions were a set of $14 camp chairs that turned any patch of dust and grass into a living room.
This time, we’re facing winter without the comforts it usually brings, like culture and conviviality. I’ll keep walking and walking through the frigid months as I always have, but for the most part we’ll be retreating into our turtle shells, where frustrations and transgressions play out unobserved (except — occasionally, farcically — on Zoom). There are dangers in that, even aside from the depression and domestic violence that isolation breeds. During Italy’s draconian early lockdown at the end of this past winter, officials chased everyone indoors. Leaving home meant printing out a pass and filling in the reason for each excursion. Turns out that that’s likely counterproductive, since open air is the best antidote to close quarters, where an infection can settle in. It’s also unpalatable in America.
I am lucky; I like my home. It provides me with comfort, daylight, companionship, and safety. The windows seal tight. The water runs hot. I take none of this for granted. Dense cities like New York offer many residents a deal: Live in tight, possibly semi-squalid conditions in exchange for a cornucopia of communal experiences. In recent years, developers even turned that exchange into a selling point, offering dorm-like digs and shared amenities like dog spas and in-house breweries. But the bargain goes back far enough to have been woven into the city’s character and architecture. In the early 20th century, the wealthy and powerful understood that if the poor and powerless were going to participate in the city’s civic life, they needed to do it somewhere that wasn’t a tenement or a factory floor. New York filled the city with limestone libraries, airy train stations, religious institutions, parks, and grand public buildings. The Depression (and Robert Moses) brought playgrounds and swimming pools. Fortunes and years were spent shoring up the promise of urban life: that even the most deprived New Yorkers were welcome to join the throngs and partake in the city’s grandeur.
We’re still living off that largesse, just as we continue to rely on the foresight of the past every time we ride the subway or cross a bridge. These days, though, all those third-place locations sit dark, while we stay home and draw on different kinds of reserves: money, memory, and social capital. Isolation makes it hard to make friends, start romances, or have new experiences. Instead, we shut out the whine of wind and sirens and roll the recollections of old trips and meals around in our minds, while a freer future remains an abstraction.
The indoor season will tempt us to cheat — to negotiate with disease in ever more legalistic ways. A few weeks ago, a neighbor stepped onto an already full elevator in my building, ignoring the posted maximum of three passengers at a time. The other elevator was broken, she explained. She’d been waiting a long time. We were all wearing masks. The virus, I pointed out, doesn’t care.
Winter is an enforcement nightmare. You can make rules for restaurants, close dance clubs, and require masks in stores, but you can’t police a crowded Christmas dinner. And yet, as Cuomo pointed out over and over during his 100-plus daily briefings, no government can force people to stay healthy; that can only result from millions of individual decisions. Tweets and pleas aren’t going to cut it this time around, but there are other tools of persuasion. All through the pandemic, the city’s census office partnered with dozens of neighborhood organizations serving many immigrant groups in virtually all of New York’s languages. The result was an improbable success: a higher response rate than in 2010. Reviving that network — and rolling out a powerful fear-of-God advertising campaign of the kind that drives home the deadliness of cigarettes — might just convince 8 million New Yorkers to avoid further catastrophe. This past spring tapped vast reserves of fortitude. We’re going to need a whole lot more.