A Year You’ll Never Forget: Patch Looks Back At 2020 In NYC

Matt Troutman

NEW YORK CITY — New Yorkers won’t ever forget 2020, as hard as they try.

A once-in-a-century pandemic, a reckoning over race and policing, massive economic disruption and a contentious presidential election all unfolded over 2020. The year likely will be remembered as turning point in American and world history.

And New York City found itself at the heart of all of it.

So take a stroll down an extra-prickly memory lane with Patch.

January and February: The Before Times

A man trapped in a van that flipped over on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway on Jan. 6 found himself face-to-face with an unexpected rescuer: Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Yes, 2020 in New York City kicked off with a sense of the absurd. And also, perhaps, a harbinger of what was to come.

Cuomo cut the man’s seatbelt and helped pull him from the van before it tipped, and the city moved on. Squatters threw feces out of windows, Mayor Bill de Blasio only paid $9,000 in property taxes and protesters on Jan. 30 descended into subways to protest plans to put more NYPD officers in MTA stations.

All the while whispers grew louder about a new coronavirus from China.

De Blasio on Jan. 24 said the virus likely would come to the city “sooner rather than later.”

On Jan. 29, the city’s then-health commissioner Oxiris Barbot not only said the virus would come sooner than later, she hoped it would.

"Having that person diagnosed can help New Yorkers breathe a sigh of relief," she said. "The unknown is what drives people's fears."

Barbot told New Yorkers to carry on with their lives. They did — riding subways, eating inside restaurants and going to classrooms.

Doing things they’d abruptly stop in little more than a month.

March and April: Coronavirus Strikes

March 1.

That’s the day a 39-year-old health care worker who recently traveled to Iran became the first confirmed COVID-19 case in New York City.

The virus had likely been in the city for weeks, if not a month of more, by that point. It quickly spread, in any case.

On March 11, New York City marked a single COVID-19 death — its first.

By March 13, positive tests surpassed 1,000 and within days of that schools, restaurants and more closed.

A week later on March 20, Mayor Bill de Blasio declared New York City the nation's "epicenter" of the coronavirus crisis.

The state's "PAUSE" stay-at-home order went into effect on March 22, when there were 24,000 positive cases, according to the city's data. More than 200 people had already died by that point.

The neighborhood epicenter in the city was Corona, Queens — an almost-unbelievable fact revealed April 1 when city officials finally released local coronavirus data.

But workers at Elmhurst Hospital already knew that. They’d found themselves inundated and overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. The hospital was, as many put it, the “epicenter of the epicenter.”

Deaths continued to climb until April 8, the single-worst day of the pandemic in the city, when 813 people died.

Bodies wait in an overflow room at the Gerard Neufeld funeral home on April 22 in Elmhurst. The funeral home, which is close to Elmhurst Hospital, often had to take the phone off the hook as it rang continually. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Bodies wait in an overflow room at the Gerard Neufeld funeral home on April 22 in Elmhurst. The funeral home, which is close to Elmhurst Hospital, often had to take the phone off the hook as it rang continually. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

It’s what Gov. Andrew Cuomo labeled the peak of the state's coronavirus "mountain." Cuomo had started daily briefings on the pandemic that became must-see-TV — a mix of cold hard facts and warm personal anecdotes.

He read off the number of dead every day, declaring they were “in our thoughts and prayers.”

The numbers could be numbing, but New Yorkers knew the people and stories behind every coronavirus statistic. They knew the beloved local bakery owner whose community couldn't be by his bedside as he died; they grieved from afar as their loved ones passed away in nursing homes and on hospital ventilators; and they carried on altered, distanced versions of everyday city life, from drag shows to birthdays to protect those around them.

"Doing this once in life is enough," Cuomo said during a later briefing in which he unveiled a scale model of New York's curve sculpted into a literal representation of a mountain. "We don't need to climb another mountain."

Life started a slow creep back to relative normal as cases declined through April, but the pandemic had exposed long-covered wounds.

Midtown’s streets near Times Square stood empty on April 12 at the height of the pandemic. (Matt Troutman/Patch)
Midtown’s streets near Times Square stood empty on April 12 at the height of the pandemic. (Matt Troutman/Patch)

May and June: Protests

“Social distancing” quickly became a phrase on every New Yorker’s lips through March and April. It and the quickly-ubiquitous mask became two successful weapons in the city’s fight against the coronavirus.

Sweeping government orders mandated masks in stores and subways, and also limited gatherings. But as the weather became nicer in early and mid-May, more and more crowds popped up over the city.

Partiers were spotted drinking in the Upper East Side, among other places. Orthodox Jewish gatherings in Brooklyn garnered headlines since the pandemic’s early days.

Officials started cracking down.

The problem — as depicted vividly in a spate of controversial videos showing maskless NYPD officers aggressively enforcing the rules — is that enforcement disproportionately fell on Black and Brown city dwellers. At one point, only one white person in Brooklyn was arrested on a social distancing violation out of 40 arrests.

De Blasio denied it was return to the racially-fraught — at best — stop-and-frisk policy, but he eventually took NYPD officers off the social distancing enforcement beat.

It turned out to be a mere sampler of a racial reckoning to come.

On May 25, a Minneapolis police officer knelt down on George Floyd’s neck. Floyd, a Black man, could be heard on a video gasping: “I can’t breathe.”

Floyd died, and within days New York City erupted in protests.

A once-peaceful rally on May 29 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn erupted into violence as police and protesters clashed.

Protesters rally around Barclays Center on May 29. The protest began peacefully but clashes between demonstrators and police escalated to destruction. (Matt Troutman/Patch)
Protesters rally around Barclays Center on May 29. The protest began peacefully but clashes between demonstrators and police escalated to destruction. (Matt Troutman/Patch)

NYPD officers pepper sprayed the crowd, used batons against demonstrators and conducted scores of arrests, while protesters lit fires and conducted a free-wheeling march of destruction through surrounding neighborhoods.

At least one police van was set on fire, a NYPD officer was filmed violently shoving a woman to the groundand walking away, among many other violent scenes throughout the day and night.

The following nights were marked by wider protests and conflicts. On May 30 and June 1, looters ransacked parts of Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and the Bronx.

The destructive scenes prompted Mayor Bill de Blasio to declare a curfew and were repeated for months on conservative news outlets. But the looting and destruction all but stopped after those nights — the protesters were overwhelming peaceful as they marched demanding police reform.

NYPD officers themselves often were not. Night after night, cops were spotted acting aggressively toward protesters and “kettling” them into tight spaces.

De Blasio defended police actions — and was memorably booed at a George Floyd memorial in Brooklyn — but also promised reforms. Those culminated in a much-disputed $1 billion “cut” from the NYPD in the city’s budget passed late June 30.

For the protesters who dubbed themselves “Occupy City Hall” and gathered around governmental buildings, it failed to meet their demand to “defund the police.” Police unions and conservatives claimed it was a return to the “bad old days.”

If no one was happy with that, they could at least welcome New York City’s gradual reopening.

July and August: Reopening

New York City’s landscape literally changed over the summer.

A citywide “Open Streets” program half-heartedly kicked off in April as a way to give New Yorkers extra space to socially distance and exercise. But as warmer weather returned, the program expanded to neighborhood after neighborhood.

By July, there were more than 70 miles of open streets — an achievement that fell short of advocates’ hopes but still welcomed by New Yorkers who increasingly turned to walking and bicycles.

And they were also paired with widespread outdoor dining.

Coronavirus restrictions had kept indoor dining in the city off the table starting in the spring. But the city’s Open Restaurants program, which began in June and quickly reached more than 10,000 restaurants by July, allowed eateries to serve patrons outdoors.

Mayor Bill de Blasio in early August declared the successful program would return in 2021 — and later declared it would be year-round and permanent.

The program proved a lifeline for restaurants, which continue to be devastated by coronavirus closures. Indeed, indoor dining in New York City was delayed as the city progressed through a four-stage reopening.

The city hit the fourth and final stage in July, which meant life had returned to a relative, but still altered normal. Not even Tropical Storm Isaias — the biggest storm to hit the city since Superstorm Sandy in 2012 — slowed the reopening when it hit Aug. 4, knocking down thousands of trees and leaving some New Yorkers without power for a week.

Workers in the reopening started to return to offices, gyms reopened and, most controversially, officials drew up plans to open doors to schools.

September and October: ‘Red Zones’

Students, teachers and parents across New York City had their lives upended in March as schools shut down and “remote learning” became the new reality.

De Blasio, as September neared, declared New York City would bring students back to classrooms. The ambitious goal would make the city the largest school district in the country to bring back in-person learning.

But it wasn’t a smooth road.

The reopening was twice delayed amid concerns over safety, preparation and staffing issues. Students finally went back to classrooms in three phases starting in late September. On Oct. 1, de Blasio declared victory.

"We did it, New York City," he said.

Elementary school students were welcomed back to P.S. 188 as the city's public schools opened for in-person learning on Sept. 29. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Elementary school students were welcomed back to P.S. 188 as the city's public schools opened for in-person learning on Sept. 29. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The moment of triumph was short-lived — the city’s low coronavirus levels that made the reopening possible were starting to tick up.

On Sept. 22, de Blasio warned of coronavirus clusters spotted in six neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens. One cluster in Midwood had a positivity rate of 4.71 percent at a time the citywide average stood at 0.75 percent.

For the days afterward, the city watched coronavirus rates in a growing number of “cluster” ZIP codes. De Blasio presented a plan to begin localized closures in those ZIP codes, but Cuomo had his own strategy: color-coded, tiered zones.

Cuomo on Oct. 6 outlined plans to place the clusters in Brooklyn and Queens under yellow, orange and red “zones” of increasing restrictions. The plan shuttered schools and halted indoor dining, which had just returned on Sept. 30, in the most-affected zones.

Fears of wider closures started to resurface as the city and nation reached another turning point.

November and December: The Second Wave and Vaccine

Excitement and not a little apprehension was palpable as New Yorkers lined up, sometimes for hours in the rain, to cast their votes early in the 2020 presidential election.

More than 1 million early votes were cast during nine days of early voting that began in late October. New Yorkers overwhelmingly chose Democratic candidate Joe Biden over President Donald Trump, who bad mouthed and threatened his home city through the campaign before his administration declared it an “anarchist jurisdiction.”

Election Day on Nov. 3 passed without a clear Electoral College winner — despite Trump’s false claims otherwise — and New Yorkers waited for days to see who won.

When projections that Biden won went out Nov. 7, the city erupted into spontaneous cheers and celebrations. Many, if not most, New Yorkers felt as if a weight was lifted — a welcome sensation after a year of misery.


But 2020 wasn’t over.

Within a week of those celebrations, the city’s parents, students and teachers waited to see if the city’s coronavirus positivity rate would hit 3 percent — the threshold to automatically close schools.

On Nov. 18, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced all public schools would shut down and switch to remote learning. The development was a blow to the city’s ambitious school reopening plan and a sign that the coronavirus pandemic wasn’t over.

Cuomo in November shifted the state’s toward hospitals, warned of further shutdowns and practically begged New Yorkers to avoid travel for Thanksgiving, Christmas and other holidays.

De Blasio did as well. And both the mayor and governor, who spent much of 2020 bickering,joined forces to press Congress for a stimulus that could buoy local governments like New York City’s that were devastated by the pandemic.

Hizzoner warned of mass layoffs of city workers. MTA officials issued dire projections that subway and bus service could be cut dramatically without aid.

And coronavirus rates in the city ticked above 5 percent by December as officials weighed potentially-devastating new restrictions.

It appeared the much-feared “second wave” hit New York City.

December wasn’t all doom and gloom — in fact, hope for the New Year arrived in trucks from Kalamazoo, Michigan. They carried the first doses of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine.

Sandra Lindsay, a critical care nurse in Queens, on Dec. 14 became the first New Yorker, perhaps even the first American, to receive the vaccine.

"I feel like healing is coming," Lindsay said. "I hope this marks the beginning of the end of a very painful time in our history."

Sandra Lindsay, left, a nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, is inoculated with the COVID-19 vaccine by Dr. Michelle Chester on Dec. 14 in Queens. (Mark Lennihan/Getty Images)
Sandra Lindsay, left, a nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, is inoculated with the COVID-19 vaccine by Dr. Michelle Chester on Dec. 14 in Queens. (Mark Lennihan/Getty Images)

More and more health care workers and nursing home residents received doses of the Pfizer vaccine, and another developed by Moderna, as the year drew to a close.

De Blasio called Lindsay’s vaccination a “shot of hope.” We’ll see if the hope carries into 2021.

This article originally appeared on the New York City Patch