New Yorkers will awake Friday to find the coronavirus has left their famously bustling city with no big gatherings, and a populace unnerved by an ever-worsening crisis.
A dizzying series of temporary coronavirus-related closures announced Thursday included some of the city’s cultural jewels.
Restaurants, subway cars and sidewalks were noticeably emptier. Without a flake of snow, the city began to take on the thinned-out look it gets after winter blizzards, with people telecommuting to work or avoiding public places. Colleges across the city were closed or having students attend class online.
The virus, as of Thursday afternoon, had been confirmed in more than 320 people in New York state, including 95 in the city, and had caused one death in the metropolitan area.
But after weeks of assuring residents that fear of the virus had outstripped the actual danger, New York’s governor and mayor abruptly shifted course.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Thursday that in an attempt to stop the virus from spreading, gatherings with more than 500 people would temporarily be banned in the state, starting in most places at 5 p.m. Friday.
Many gatherings in smaller event spaces would have to cut capacity in half.
The restrictions, imposed by an emergency order, don’t apply to schools, hospitals, nursing homes, shopping malls and mass transit, and there were exceptions for other types of businesses.
People are also still free to go to work. Mayor Bill de Blasio, while pointing out the outbreak could last six months or longer, counseled against giving up.
“I think it is dangerous to stop living life. You know, this is a crisis, but it is a crisis that will one day end … We gotta keep living life,” he said “People, you know, cannot get to a point of hopelessness.”
Yet it was clear the slowdown would be painful for a city that relies on the economic engines of tourism, entertainment and Wall Street.
Restaurants around the city are reporting drop-offs of 20-80% over the last week, particularly in the tourist-friendly areas, said Andrew Rigie, the executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance.
David Turk, who owns a Manhattan catering business, said the fallout for him started a week ago. First, one big event was nixed. Within a week, everything booked through May was either canceled or postponed.
Turk remembers the dark days after 9/11, but “that had a beginning and an end to it. This has no foreseeable end to it,” he said. “It’s the uncertainty that’s really driving the fear for a lot of us running small business.”
Throughout the day Thursday, New Yorkers’ sense of unease was compounded by false rumors, spread on social media, that an even larger clampdown was in the works, involving mass quarantines, bans on private vehicles and a cancellation of train service.
“It’s just not true,” Cuomo said on 1010 WINS radio in the early evening. “This is all crazy rumors now. Anxiety is high, I understand it. People are nervous about the coronavirus. But no, subways are not closing down. Roads are not closing. New York City is not closing down.”
Parents citywide fretted about whether New York City’s public school system, with its 1.2 million pupils, might be shut down, as happened in nearby New Rochelle, a suburb that has been an epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S.
De Blasio said he hopes to avoid a closure of either the schools or mass transit. He said health care workers and first responders on the front lines of the crisis would face hurdles in getting to work without the transit system and with children home from school.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover.
Still, the total number of people with the illness in the city is unknown due to the relative scarcity of tests. And for some, the danger is all too real.
The institutional closings come amid signs that New Yorkers are acting on their own to avoid crowds. Ridership on the subway and commuter rail lines has plunged, state officials said.