Podcast podcast
Apr 01 2020

Seth Barron and Nicole Gelinas discuss the latest developments in New York City’s fight against the coronavirus, the impact of the city’s lockdown on future growth, and the response of state and local leaders.

As New York continues under lockdown, the effects of the coronavirus outbreak are becoming evident: the city’s death toll has passed 1,000, with more than 40,000 confirmed cases. In addition to health-care professionals, essential public employees like the city’s transit workers and NYPD officers are falling ill at a troubling rate. Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo have responded to the crisis with varying degrees of effectiveness, but the outbreak has revealed a lack of preparedness for a public-health emergency of this scale.

To follow City Journal’s ongoing coverage of the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on New York, the United States, and the world, click here.

Audio Transcript

Seth Barron: Hello and welcome to 10 Blocks, the podcast of City Journal. This is Seth Barron, your host for today. I'm the associate editor at City Journal and I'm joined by Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor at City Journal. Hi, Nicole.

Nicole Gelinas: Hi, Seth.

Seth Barron: We're going to talk today, following up on our podcast of two weeks ago, about the situation in New York City as we enter our second or third week of PAUSE or lockdown and try to figure out where we're headed. What's your take on things, Nicole?

Nicole Gelinas: Well, my take is that we have settled down into this lockdown for the most part. It was extended both at the state and the federal level last week really until the end of April. So we are certainly not done with this. I think the hope would be that at least soon we would see the end point of the lockdown and hopefully reached the peak of infections, the peak of hospitalizations and see these numbers start to come down a bit gradually over the next few weeks just as we've hopefully seen happen in Northern Italy. And then start to think about how does the city get back to something resembling a normal, but obviously still a very acute emergency situation with almost 11,000 people hospitalized in New York state. That's up 15% from yesterday, over 2,700 people in intensive care and unfortunately a continuing increase in the death toll. The death toll has tripled over four days in New York State, mostly in, in New York City. So a great human toll here and for those enough, fortunate enough to have escaped the human toll so far, a big change in our day to day lives. How about yourself, Seth?

Seth Barron: Well, yeah, I mean look, things are definitely looking pretty grim for New York city and state at the same time. You know, and I know I don't want to sound Pollyanna about this, there are mathematically some indications that we may be close to turning a corner on the spread of new infections. Now this kind of makes sense if we've been in virtual lockdown for a couple of weeks now. Now, I'm not saying it's been perfect, at least in Manhattan, it seems to be pretty effective. I mean, it makes sense that the number of transmissions, new infections would be radically suppressed.

Nicole Gelinas: Right. It would seem that at this point with restaurants, close bars, close, very little foot traffic up there, even not as many people in the park. Of course it hasn't been as nice and as warm out as it was last week. So one would think the method of transmission now would be among family members who really can't quarantined themselves from each other in small apartments and possibly still an issue on the subways where even though subway ridership is down by 90%, because the MTA has cut service and in turn they've cut service because there are so many crew members who were out sick. We've unfortunately had seven subway workers die of coronavirus in just the past five days. So we still have some crowded trains out there of people trying to get to work and grocery stores as home health aides.

Seth Barron: And iatrogenic transmission, like in the hospitals. Doctors and nurses, other healthcare workers getting it too. But if you look at, here's this information that the department of health put out the New York City Emergency Department surveillance data, and if you, it has a chart influenza-like illness and pneumonia, ER department visits by age group. And it breaks it down since the beginning of the year. And yes, of course, starting around the 1st of March, there's a huge uptick, but then the last few days there has been a drop off. So that's new people coming to the hospital, coming to the ER with a flu-like, or a respiratory emergency, it has started to decline. Statewide hospitalizations are up. But if you look at just the city, it does seem as though new hospitalizations while they're still occurring, the rate is not accelerating.

Nicole Gelinas: Well, hopefully that, that will be a trend and maybe we'll see that.

Seth Barron: Right. I mean just to, you know, um, bring up the numbers yesterday, sorry, Monday at 4:30 PM, the department of health reported 7,741 ever hospitalized cases, and the day before, Sunday night, they'd reported I think about 7,400. So that indicates that three or 400 new hospitalizations occurred, which is still a lot of people, but it's lower than what it had been. So we may have reached an inflection point, not to say that we aren't still having more cases and more people getting sick, but it's slowing down, perhaps. Now at the same time, it does seem as though at this point we could expect deaths to increase because we're seeing people got sick, say three weeks ago before the lockdown, now they're reaching the end stage of their disease. Like people who are vulnerable, older people with serious health issues. And so we're going to see a lot of people dying this week and it's a horrible situation. It's a terrible tragedy. Things are going to be bad the next week or two, but one hopes that there's a light at the end of the tunnel and that, that, that we will emerge from this if we can maintain the lockdown. Do you get the sense that social distancing is being observed?

Nicole Gelinas: I think so. There were some problems yesterday when too many people went out to see the hospital ship docking over on the West Side. And there were some pictures of people obviously not standing six-feet away from each other. But other than that, the streets are certainly very quiet. And if you do happen to take a short walk around Midtown here, everybody seems to be observing. Not to follow too quickly behind people not to creep up on them. They'd seem to be observing this six-foot rule. And another thing is more and more people are, were, are wearing masks. I mean, it sounds kind of funny, but just as a sort of like amusing vignette of day to day life, like our superintendent of our building coming to work, essential employee and he made a mask out of just a couple old t-shirts and he's been wearing it. And so with the changing CDC instructions on this, I think we'll see more and more of the people who are venturing out on the street wearing some kind of facial protection as you wrote the other day. I mean, even imperfect protection is better than nothing. And a lot of people with time on their hands going on the internet learning base, very basic sewing techniques and rudimentary mass making to get you around for a few days. How are things down in the village? Are there fewer people? More people?

Seth Barron: I mean, it's totally dead. It's very peaceful. You can hear the birds singing and you know, at the same time it's a little creepy. Eerie.

Nicole Gelinas: One of the things I've observed both in going down into the Columbus Circle subway station last Thursday and just walking around every couple of days is the lack of foot traffic. It makes the people who are mentally ill and homeless out on the street, understandably even more disturbed and confused. And there's there, there are a fewer people out on the street that seems like people who might stay in a homeless shelter at night. They're not even bothering to go out and try to sit on the sidewalk and ask for money just because there's just no office foot traffic, no tourist foot traffic. But the people who are still out there, those are the ones that really just have no mental or physical resources. And so at the same thing on the subway, people lying on the platform and there's been some videos of people obviously without any resources lying on the subway trains. And so I think that's something city really needs to be thinking about is people who obviously cannot care for themselves or are left out there in essentially an abandoned city.

Seth Barron: Well, it's hard to know what exactly, what kind of resources the city can employ. A lot of social distancing is based on peer pressure and civic mindedness. So how do you convince people who, maybe are mentally disturbed or just extremely antisocial to begin with to observe a quarantine, a voluntary isolation regime? The city has been cracking down on cases of just regular people who aren't observing social isolation. Like, you know, I don't know if you saw, but they went and removed all the basketball hoops from the basketball courts because people were going out and playing basketball. And as the weather turns warmer in April, I think it's going to be harder and harder to keep people staying inside when it's a beautiful spring day. But then at the same time, like for instance, a friend of mine was walking, was in central Brooklyn the other day. He said, people are not observing social isolation at all. Like there were groups of people hanging out, people talking. So what do you do? I mean the NYPD can issue fines, but clearly they're not going to be arresting people for being out on the street.

Nicole Gelinas: Right. And if you issue a fine there, police are not going to be issuing a fine from six feet away from the person. So you're just introducing more problems. If that were to continue, I think the city would have to say, okay, you pretty much can't leave your house. Close the parks down. But yes, it's sort of the honor system at the moment and it seems to be working here in, in Midtown, but perhaps not in other parts of the city,

Seth Barron: I saw that the city got a Cardi B, the singer to, they had all these YouTube videos of her encouraging people in English and Spanish to go and participate in the Census. Now that's great. But I mean, it seems like they really need is someone like Cardi B or other celebrities to be telling people, stay inside. This is really important at this moment.

Nicole Gelinas: Yeah. And speaking of the Census, I mean I don't have any data on this, but anecdotally, many people who live or lived in this building have left too. I've seen probably four or five moving trucks out there and none today, but there was one yesterday and there was two over the weekend. People seem to have just packed up all their stuff from the 70 unit apartment building and and left seemingly for good. I wonder how that will affect the census and where will those people report that they are living? In other words, some people have said, well, okay, you could still do your census online, but if they are reporting that they're not living in New York city anymore, that's going to have a big impact on the census. Even if they decide, okay, in six months we're going to come back and live in New York city again, same thing with at least thousands, probably tens of thousands of people who have taken flights to Florida who have gone out to long Island, who have gone to stay with relatives in a less dense part of the country. Where are those people going to report that they're living, if they report anything at all? So one wonders if we will have to delay the census just to get an accurate count, whether the count is down or up. What? But with everything in flux, it's kind of like trying to take the census when people are fleeing a burning building.

Seth Barron: Right. It's a good point. I mean 10 years ago with this, when they did the census, people were very upset and said the New York city was getting under counted. And I know this time they've really been putting a lot, they put city money into hiring census counters. But you know, if there's a pandemic you can't very well go door to door and hope to get an accurate count. It seems like some kind of delay on the census might make sense. But this kind of raises a larger question, which is, well, you know, where is the population of Manhattan and New York City going? And we've already lost people in the last couple of years. I don't know if we're going to see a mass exodus, but with jobs cratering and rent's still very high. Do you expect people, maybe young professional types who've moved here in the last three to five years, they don't really have a lot of roots here necessarily. But they make a fair amount of money. Are they gonna decamp?

Nicole Gelinas: I think it's a real risk and I think the city government and state government need to keep in mind as we go through what is most likely billions of dollars, if not tens of billions of dollars in budget cuts. You cannot cut the things that keep your taxpayers here. Um, we like P and also we've, we're already seeing over the past few years with the decrease in federal taxes and you can no longer deduct as much of your state and local taxes from your federal taxes if you make over a certain amount. People with second homes, you know, if you've got a second home in Florida, Arizona, South Carolina, basically all those people right now are at their second home. And so is there a risk that a lot of those people just won't come back? Especially with if arts institutions are slow to reopen and come back. I mean that's a big amenity. Keeping people with a little bit of money to spend here is, is policing going to be weaker? Our basic public services, you know, if you have kids in the school system, are classes going to be overcrowded? And a couple of years, like I think we have to keep in mind this is a real tipping point that if you've already fled and you're staying somewhere else, we really need to give people a good reason to come back and stay back. And so it's not, it's not that like the city. I mean there are obviously gonna make a lot of mistakes, but we just don't have a lot of room for error here.

Seth Barron: So you mentioned that you're, you know, we're going to have billions, possibly tens of billions of dollars in cuts. You sent me some budget information the other day and I was trying to get a grasp of it. What, where, where our city revenues headed and what is, what are the budgetary implications going to be? I mean, they're working on the next year's budget now.

Nicole Gelinas: Yup. The mayor put out his budget close to six weeks ago. So if you look at how much money the city government spends, and this is, this does not include state and federal money just out of city tax revenues. When de Blasio came into office, the city spent about $52 billion in city tax revenue, city fee revenues and so forth. That was the last budget that the Bloomberg administration put together. This year, the year that is supposed to start on July 1st, the city would be spending about $71 billion. So we're, we're close to a $20 billion increase. Justin city funded spending over the past seven years. That's so it's a big, big increase. So the good news is that there should be a lot of new stuff that we can, that we can cut back. You know, things like a lot of civilians hired for various uniformed agencies. A lot of like, an environment where we could start a lot of new initiatives that may not be really critical right now. Out of a 300,000-strong workforce seven years ago, we now have 330,000 people. Now a lot of those are pre-K teachers. It's highly unlikely and probably not desirable for us to cancel the pre-K program. But they're in hiring like for example, thousands of administrators at the department of education. Do we really need all of this office staff? Not that you want anyone else to be laid off in this environment, but in, in terms of the fact that the mayor increased spending so much, there's a lot of easier stuff to cut there before we get to like basic policing and fire and, and class size.

Seth Barron: So what kind of cuts do you think are actually on the table? I mean, has, has this come up? Have, has the council addressed this stuff?

Nicole Gelinas: I think not so far. No. And I don't blame the council speaker for not putting anything together quite yet. I mean, I know that they're in the middle of an acute emergency. They're trying to get food to food pantries and everything else. But I think as we get closer to digital July, for example, should we have a pay freeze public sector wages right now or about 30 billion? They're supposed to go up to closer to 33 billion a year over the next five years. Are we going to have to just freeze public sector wages? I think that's really something to think about, because that means you can avoid some layoffs. So I think that's one of the things. And then I think, you know, just like we talked about last week the capital budget, I mean, we have to really look and see which of these projects like Riker's Island can be delayed if not made significantly smaller in scope.

Seth Barron: So speaking of Rikers Island right now, there's, um, I mean, Riker's Island appears to be in a utter crisis mode, like true meltdown because coronavirus is spreading rapidly among the, the detainees there, many of whom are kept essentially in dormitory style you know, accommodations. If you want to put it with like 40, 40 people in a room obviously it's very hard to do social distancing in jail. So now the city is, I guess they just released another 400 people. They're trying to figure out who they can let out. But the, the, the five district attorneys wrote a stern letter saying, you know, you're letting people out kind of, um, very haphazardly and it seems like there's some dangerous characters just getting turned loose. Um, you know, in a way that seems like a perverse, a dream come true for the defense bar who's been clamoring for decarceration for a long time. What's the upshot of all of this?

Nicole Gelinas: Yeah, I mean, the city's jail population is now below 5,000 for the first time, since after world war two. I mean, we're not even talking about, you know, the height of incarceration. And in 1990 anymore, when, when we had 22,000 people in jail, we're talking an era where we had a very, very low crime. And the city did release someone last week who was accused of viciously murdering his girlfriend. He allegedly has a pattern of abuse toward women. And now this is also an issue of the guy who has been sitting there with no trial for almost two years in what seems like a pretty straight forward case at a murder that basically occurred in public. And so I think this really concentrates a lot of the problems that have been chronic throughout the criminal justice system. You know, why do people sit for years with no trial?

Why? Why are the DA's so slow to prosecute these cases and get people off Rikers, get them into prison if they're convicted and if they're acquitted, let them go out on their way to, to freedom. Another person who was, he's the prime suspect now in setting the fire on the subway that killed the subway. Motorman Garrett Goble, 36-year-old subway motorman last week. The suspect in this case was already arrested twice this, this month. If for a property damage and criminal mischief, then he was allowed to go without a bail. And so that exacerbated the tragic week that the transit workers were having already a death had nothing to do really with Corona virus that should've been prevented. Now, should we have jails where people are, are packed in like this? Where did the jails and the guards and the other corrections workers are at grave risk?

This just goes to the fact that the city has gotten away with dilapidated jail buildings on Rikers Island for decades. Trailers that were never meant to be for permanent use, aging infrastructure. And instead of fixing up Rikers Island and building better jail buildings and doing this gradually, they've kind of like continued this fantasy that we can build for four jails and four separate boroughs. We need to build humane jails, even just from the public health perspective, but let's get serious about actually doing this on Riker's Island and get something modest but actually doable so that we can see some, some results in the next few months and next couple of years. I mean, if we can build emergency hospitals that can form to hospital standards and just a couple of weeks, we should be able to build a semblance of better jails and then build on that for the long term.

Seth Barron: On another topic, everybody's been kind of ganging up on Mayor de Blasio and giving Governor Cuomo a lot of praise. Perhaps both of these polls are somewhat undeserved or unmerited. What's your opinion of the city's response preparedness, and the states's, regarding the outbreak?

Nicole Gelinas: The city was obviously not prepared in some basic ways. It’s clear we should have had much better stockpiles of masks. I mean, masks, like, as you say, this is not ventilators. Like why not have millions of masks in a warehouse somewhere? They're doing better on sourcing new things right now. But yeah, I think there was some real lack of preparedness on the sort of basic cheaper supply issue there. And the mayor, like, like our colleague Alex Armlovich wrote this week in the Daily News. Even basic things that don't cost a lot of money and aren't that difficult to do, like just closing off some of the avenues in New York City so that people can walk in the middle of the street and not have to be near other people. They've been really like a miserly in doing that. IN, Manhattan we just have a couple blocks of Park Avenue, like the America be doing a lot more on that front. Just to keep all the people who are sort of locked down, give them a better exercise option. And then like just stupid stuff. Like he went out to Brooklyn to walk in the park over the weekend. I mean, police officers have to drive him to Brooklyn from Gracie mansion. One in 30 police officers has tested positive for the virus. So that seems like a non-essential trip that should've been avoided. And I would ask you the same question. I mean, what do you think of the leadership and also going forward, we have a mayoral election and a little bit more than a year. And what should we be looking for or thinking about in our mayoral candidates?

Seth Barron: Well, regarding preparedness, you know, I have a piece I'm coming out in City Journal or should be out by the time this podcast is up. I'm looking at this question because you know, ever since Hurricane Sandy, the city and the state have been very keen on the question of preparedness, like civilian preparedness. And they've encouraged everyone to assemble a go bag, like kind of a bug out kit. Um, and they say, you know, put perishable, you know, put a water in there and you know, granola bars and get your medication and a first aid kit. And among the items that they encourage people to get our face masks and hand sanitizer. Now, I think that's great that the city is essentially encouraging this prepper mindset. But at the same time, like yeah, like you said, it kind of seems like it would have been a no brainer for, for New York city to stockpile masks, hand sanitizer at least enough to get it through the first week or two of a major crisis.

But we've seen to de Blasio on TV literally calling for the nationalization of American industry to produce more hand sanitizer. It seems like he could have maybe done a better drug given the tens of billions of dollars he spent on all kinds of initiatives. And you know, his whole obsession with climate change and the climate emergency and resiliency. But then to drop the ball on something that's, I mean honestly getting, getting a stockpile of, of, of, of masks and hand sanitizer, that's a municipal function. That's, that's not really a federal function. Sure. If there's a major emergency, you need help.

Nicole Gelinas: I was just going to say, maybe this is just hindsight cause, I guess, I wasn't saying this either a month ago, when the federal government was still allowing global flights to come in and they said, if you're coming, you know, if you're an American, you're coming first from China and then from Italy, then basically from anywhere you should quarantined yourself for two weeks once you get home. Well, no one thought about how are these people going to get home from the airport. I mean a lot of them ordered Uber's and lifts to get them home. So you have the Uber, Lyft driver, no protection. I mean Uber, like a lot of entities has kind of gotten wise to this over the past few days. So they're trying to provide supplies, but of course very slow and they're now competing for a scarce resource. But you have a public health risk to the Uber driver who then sees many other customers throughout the course of the day with no partition, no mask, no gloves. So that's kinda like you're sharing a ride. You're not, I mean, sharing in the sense that you're in the car with another human being, that you could have the virus or the driver could have the virus. And so there's potential for four communities spread there. You know, still not something that they have resolved in this, I mean, the bus passengers now or getting on in the back of the bus, but you really don't have that option with an Uber and Lyft ride.

Seth Barron: Yeah, it's, it's kind of amazing how many, how many weak links there are in our whole system and how just how impoverished our response was at the beginning. I don't want to like totally bury de Blasio over this, although he certainly made some major gaffes in the last few weeks. And the masks and so forth, I think, does fall on him. But, you know, clearly this is a systemic issue. Nicole, it's been wonderful talking to you. I think you and I have hashed out a lot. And I hope our listeners found it valuable. If you like what you heard, why not, go and leave a positive review. Five stars on iTunes. You can check us out on Twitter at @CityJournal. Thanks so much for tuning in and you'll hear from us next week. Nicole, thanks for joining us.

Photo: Willowpix/iStock

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