By January 26, the world had 2,014 reported cases of the coronavirus, with the vast majority in China but 29 in ten other countries, including two in the United States. An unknowable but significant number of asymptomatic carriers were traveling around the world, unwittingly spreading it further. The opportunity to contain the virus in Wuhan or within China had long since passed, hindered by the Chinese government’s false public statements that human-to-human transmission wasn’t occurring.
Two days earlier, New York City officials laid out their preparedness plans, accurately assessing that the city’s international travel hub and large population made the coronavirus’s arrival just about inevitable. Mayor Bill de Blasio declared, “We have to act on the assumption that there will unfortunately be cases sooner rather than later in New York City. . . . We are working from the assumption that it’s a profound challenge. There’s no one here who is minimizing it.”
But de Blasio also said, “What we do know, to date, is that only through prolonged exposure can someone contract this virus. It is not a situation as with some other diseases where a single contact would be enough.”
This was the first of many times that city officials unknowingly shared information about the coronavirus that was not accurate, and they encouraged city residents to continue activities that probably continued the spread of the virus. With New York City now the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States, the decisions and statements by city officials from late January to early March have an unnerving sense of whistling past the graveyard, with well-meaning but bad advice exacerbating the coming deluge.
“The de Blasio administration is prepared for the likelihood of the novel coronavirus in New York City,” Dr. Raul Perea-Henze, the city’s deputy mayor for health and human services, said on January 24. “We urge all New Yorkers to continue to pursue their everyday activities and routines, but to remain aware of the facts about coronavirus. Those with a travel history should see a doctor at the first sign of any flu-like symptoms.”
The coronavirus had been circulating in Wuhan since at least early December. The last direct flight from Wuhan, China, to John F. Kennedy Airport had landed January 23.
On January 26, New York City’s health commissioner, Dr. Oxiris Barbot, warned, “It’s inevitable that we will have someone who is positive with coronavirus.” She also said, “We are encouraging New Yorkers to go about their everyday lives and suggest practicing everyday precautions that we do through the flu season.” She added that those “who had recently traveled from Wuhan were not being urged to self-quarantine or avoid large public gatherings.”
New York City officials were not alone in their assessment. Most U.S. government figures underestimated the enormity of the threat that coronavirus presented. On January 22, President Trump had made his first public comment about the coronavirus, during an interview on CNBC, making it sound like no threat at all:
Joe Kernen: Are there worries about a pandemic at this point?
President Trump: No. Not at all. And — we’re — we have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.
That day the Chinese government announced sweeping quarantine measures for Wuhan that effectively shut the city down. Some American lawmakers might have concluded that the fact that an authoritarian regime, not known for its concern for human life or public health, had taken such drastic measures with such severe economic repercussions was an indicator that the virus had to be a severe threat. But two days later, the president publicly expressed confidence in China’s handling of the virus, declaring in a tweet, “China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!”
But elsewhere in the country, other Americans were already grasping the scale of the threat. In late January, five radiologists and doctors at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City began their work as part of an international team making the first study of computed tomography scans — more commonly known as CT scans — of lungs of coronavirus patients in China.
The study, published on February 4, concluded that the CT scans for COVID-19 had many similar features to SARS and MERS, and that “experience from those epidemics may be helpful in managing the current outbreak.”
But for weeks, city officials discouraged New Yorkers from altering their routines or behaviors, before the contagiousness of the coronavirus and severity of the outbreak became painfully clear. Public officials’ insistence that life could and should go on as normal for most city residents continued all the way into mid-March — probably exacerbating an already-threatening situation.
A noteworthy point in Mayor de Blasio’s comments on this day was his recognition that the world’s understanding about the coronavirus was probably hindered by the Chinese government: “What we now know is this virus was underestimated by the Chinese government. It was actually beginning to spread and was not recognized sufficiently and talked about openly. And you know, that has a lot to do with the situation in China and the way things are governed. . . . So really emphasizing to New Yorkers, it’s probably here already. That’s the sad reality. It’s probably here in the form of individuals who in the, you know, existing in individuals who have been to Wuhan or have family members who’ve been to Wuhan and have had some prolonged exposure and the symptoms.”
New York City had its first suspected case of coronavirus at Bellevue Hospital Center, in a patient who had traveled to China. However, this patient would later test negative.
Flushing, Queens canceled its annual Lunar New Year Chinese Temple Bazaar scheduled for that day. Organizers declared, “Though there have not been any reported incidents of the coronavirus in our area, Flushing Town Hall is aware of the concerns that many people in the community have about large gatherings at this time, especially because the full risks of the virus are not yet known.”
Health officials identified two more potential cases, one at Flushing Hospital Medical Center and one at New York–Presbyterian Queens. At this point, all the suspected cases in the city involved patients who had recently traveled to China. However, these and the next four suspected cases in the city subsequently tested negative.
Mayor de Blasio said in a press availability that day, “People should be very clear about what this disease is and what it isn’t, and New Yorkers, I always say, are not intimidated easily. New Yorkers should go about our lives, continue doing what we do. . . . We understand some things about this disease. As I said, others are still unclear. But what is clear is the only way you get it is with substantial contact with someone who already has it. You don’t get it from a surface. You don’t get it from glancing or very temporary contact based on what we know now.”
Health Commissioner Barbot tweeted, “As we gear up to celebrate the Lunar New Year in NYC, I want to assure New Yorkers that there is no reason for anyone to change their holiday plans, avoid the subway, or certain parts of the city because of coronavirus.”
Also on this day, the federal government took more steps to restrict those who were entering the country from the area around Wuhan, China: “[The new policy] bars foreign nationals who have been in mainland China in the past 14 days from entering the United States. American citizens who have been to Hubei province — Wuhan is the capital city of Hubei — will be taken into mandatory quarantine upon entry into the United States, or directly to a hospital if they are found to be ‘symptomatic,’” said Rick Cotton, the executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates Kennedy International, La Guardia, and Newark Liberty International airports.
China’s consul general in New York, Huang Ping, thanked the Chinese-American community and other concerned Americans on Tuesday for their aid in battling the coronavirus outbreak, and criticized what he described as “an overreaction by the American government in severely restricting travel to and from China.”
During a radio interview, Mayor de Blasio declared, “It’s two full weeks between when you might contract it and when it might show symptoms or any time within. . . . The people who would have the reason to think they have it — have those flu-like symptoms and have either been to China, particularly to the Wuhan area, or have been in close contact with people who have come back from there. So, it’s a pretty limited number of folks. But if anyone fits that description, they need to get to health care right away.” In the interview, de Blasio noted that New York City has the largest Chinese population outside of Asia.
Health Commissioner Barbot declared on Twitter, “Today our city is celebrating the Lunar New Year parade in Chinatown, a beautiful cultural tradition with a rich history in our city. I want to remind everyone to enjoy the parade and not change any plans due to misinformation spreading about coronavirus.”
Barbot appeared on the television program Inside City Hall and attempted to explain how likely an infected person is to transmit the virus: “The important thing for New Yorkers to know is that in the city currently, their risk is low and our city preparedness is high. So we know that this virus can be transmitted from one individual to another, but that it is typically people who live together. There is no risk at this point in time — we are always learning more — about having it being transmitted in casual contact. We’re telling New Yorkers, go about your lives, take the subway, go out, enjoy life, but practice everyday precautions. . . . If it were likely that it could be transmitted casually, we would be seeing a lot more cases.”
The city government attempted to purchase nearly 200,000 N95 masks, but regular vendors had already run out. Comptroller Scott Stringer granted approval for early March orders of masks and hand sanitizer.
Chinatown in New York City held its annual Lunar New Year parade. As AM New York described the scene, “Surgical masks were nearly absent from this parade as organizers, elected officials, costumed characters, and visitors alike showed none of the fear caused by news of the virus’s spread in China. Mayor Bill de Blasio and other officials jammed a stage on Hester Street on Mott Street — the heart of Chinatown.”
“We know in China, so many of our loved ones are facing the challenges of the coronavirus, but we stand together,” de Blasio said. Senator Chuck Schumer was also in attendance, and he declared, “We love the fact that so many people come from all around the globe and make our city and our country a better place.”
Councilman Mark D. Levine stated on Twitter, “In powerful show of defiance of coronavirus scare, huge crowds gathering in NYC’s Chinatown for ceremony ahead of annual Lunar New Year parade. Chants of ‘Be Strong Wuhan!’ If you are staying away, you are missing out.” At this point, it is impossible to know if any of the thousands of people in the crowd were infected with the coronavirus. If any were, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a large crowd is precisely what public health officials would later seek to discourage and prevent.
Mayor de Blasio conducted a taped interview with NBC News that ran during MSNBC’s Morning Joe. He said, “We have an extraordinary public health apparatus here in New York City . . . and what became clear to me was it was really about telling the people of our city, this is something we can handle, but you got to follow some basic rules. . . . This should not stop you from going about your life. It should not stop you from going to Chinatown and going out to eat. I am going to do that today myself.”
Later that day, New York City Council speaker Corey Johnson said, “It is important to support the Chinese community in New York City. Unfortunately many businesses and restaurants in Chinatown, Flushing, and Sunset Park are suffering because some customers are afraid of the coronavirus. But those fears are not based on facts and science. The risk of infection to New Yorkers is low. There is no need to avoid public spaces. I urge everyone to dine and shop as usual.”
In the next several days, Mayor de Blasio made fewer public appearances and statements as he experienced a bout of laryngitis.
By now, some doctors were already warning that casual contact could spread the virus. “The principal mode of transmission is still thought to be respiratory droplets, which may travel up to six feet from someone who is sneezing or coughing. . . . Close contact with an infectious person, such as shaking hands, or touching a doorknob, tabletop, or other surfaces touched by an infectious person, and then touching your nose, eyes, or mouth can also transmit the virus.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a new warning to the public, noting, “person-to-person spread of COVID-19 appears to occur mainly by respiratory transmission. How easily the virus is transmitted between persons is currently unclear.” In a press briefing, Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said that “cities and towns should plan for ‘social distancing measures,’ like dividing school classes into smaller groups of students or closing schools altogether. Meetings and conferences may have to be canceled, she said. Businesses should arrange for employees to work from home.”
But it is also worth noting that in his briefing, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, sounded concerned but not alarmed: “You need to do nothing different than you’re already doing,” but if an outbreak occurred, “these are the kinds of things you want to think of.”
Mayor de Blasio had not said much about the coronavirus for the past two weeks, but he held an update on the city’s preparation after the CDC warning. “No one should take the coronavirus situation lightly. In fact, I think the problem we’re seeing in many countries of the world is that there was not an aggressive approach and there was not transparency and there was not a willingness to fully acknowledge the danger. Here in New York City, we took the exact opposite approach.”
The mayor expressed confidence in the city’s ability to handle an influx of cases. “Right now, we have 1,200 hospital beds that we can make available immediately for any individual who is in the testing process or who tests positive and needs isolation in a hospital setting, 1,200 beds that can be brought online immediately. That is a very, very substantial capacity given what we’re seeing playing out even in some of the countries that are dealing with this crisis in a much deeper manner.” But he also added, “We have requests out for an additional minimum of 300,000 surgical masks to guarantee that these arrive in New York City promptly. We will need federal assistance, so I’m calling on the federal government to help us and all other localities to get the masks we need.” He also said the CDC testing was moving too slowly and that city hospitals should be able to process the tests at local labs. “I think the CDC is trying very hard to address this crisis. I give them credit for that. I think the phrase I used earlier, don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.”
Deanne Criswell, commissioner of the city’s Office of Emergency Management and a former FEMA official, elaborated, “We did put in the request for masks, but everybody’s putting in requests. So there’s just a long waiting list, and the only way to fulfill that is by the federal government. They have means where they can enact the Defense Production Act and get people to produce these more quickly.”
De Blasio appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe.” Only a brief portion of his interview dealt with the coronavirus preparations, but the mayor said, “We have literally 1,200 hospital beds that we can turn on if we need to if it turns into something bigger and we have every element — public health and every other element of government — out there trying to make sure that people know to get to care, and they’re making it easy for them to get to care. If we do that all over the country, I think this country is going to be good.” He then went to do a press event with ’80s rock star Billy Idol to discourage New York City drivers from idling.
Health officials confirmed two new cases of coronavirus in California and Oregon, believed to have been transmitted to people who had not traveled to other affected countries or come in close contact with anyone who had it. This suggested that asymptomatic individuals were now transferring the virus through “community spread.” A German team of doctors treating patients in Wuhan, China, wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine on February 18 that “we discovered that shedding of potentially infectious virus may occur in persons who have no fever and no signs or only minor signs of infection.”
The Food and Drug Administration declared that other labs besides their own could develop their own coronavirus tests. Mayor de Blasio and Health Commissioner Barbot issued statements welcoming the move.
Health officials announced the first confirmed case in New York, a woman who contracted the virus while in Iran.
The federal government’s perspective at that time was that asymptomatic carriers spreading the virus were possible but represented a lower-order threat. U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar said in an interview with ABC News, “With asymptomatic spreading, which we’ve seen some evidence of, but not the major driver. Dr. Fauci has said with respiratory illnesses you’ll see sometimes asymptomatic spreading, but that is very — very odd if that were to be the driver of large-scale infection.”
Governor Andrew Cuomo, Mayor de Blasio, and city health officials held a press briefing about the city’s first confirmed case. Governor Cuomo declared, “In this situation, the facts defeat fear, because the reality is reassuring. It is deep-breath time.”
Discussing the fatality rate, he said, “1.4 percent, that’s extrapolating from China and other countries. 80 percent, it’ll resolve on their own. The woman who has now tested positive, she’s at home, she’s not even in a hospital, so the perspective here is important. And the facts, once you know the facts, once you know the reality, it is reassuring, and we should relax, because that’s what’s dictated by the reality of the situation. I get the emotion, I understand; I understand the anxiety. I’m a native-born New Yorker, we live with anxiety. But the facts don’t back it up here. . . . What happened in other countries versus what happened here, we don’t even think it’s going to be as bad as it was in other countries.”
De Blasio concurred. “We have a lot of information now, information that is actually showing us things that should give us more reason to stay calm and go about our lives. . . . This is not, so far, something that you get through casual contact. There has to be some prolonged exposure. And I think it’s really important to get that information out to all New Yorkers.”
He also declared on Twitter, “I’m encouraging New Yorkers to go on with your lives and get out on the town despite Coronavirus.”
The city had its second confirmed coronavirus case, a 50-year-old man who lived in Westchester County. Tracing his travels and contacts sends investigators to “a hospital in Bronxville, N.Y., to a synagogue in nearby New Rochelle, to a law firm and a college campus in Manhattan and to Florida, where the man had visited weeks ago.”
During a press availability, the mayor declared, “So again, want to come back to this point, occasional contact, glancing contact, temporary contact, it does not, from everything we know about coronavirus, lead to transmission. It needs to be prolonged, you know, if not intimate, at least prolonged, constant contact.”
Medical investigators found nine new cases in New York, including “the Westchester man’s wife; his son, a 20-year-old college student in Manhattan; his daughter, 14; and a neighbor who drove the man to the hospital.”
Health Commissioner Bardot tells reporters, “There’s no indication that being in a car, being in the subways with someone who’s potentially sick is a risk factor, because, again, it goes back to the issue of casual contact.”
Mayor de Blasio and city officials held another briefing, and he stopped contending the virus could not be spread by casual contact. He declared, “In the case of these two individuals, neither one had a connection to the areas affected in other parts of the world. So, there no travel nexus. Neither one connected to any of the other cases we’ve seen. Our disease detectives are working with their families right away on mapping their contacts. And we’ll have more to say on that shortly, and we’ll obviously be following up with any close contacts. The community-spread issue — we are seeking a guidance from the World Health Organization and from the CDC now that it’s clearly established as a phenomenon here.”
In a dramatic shift, de Blasio declared, “What we do know is when you have a community-spread dynamic, you have to assume it could be anywhere in the city. So, we are going to work on an assumption of the intense vigilance.” Health Commissioner Bardot directed anyone arriving in the city from China, Iran, Italy, South Korea, or Japan to isolate themselves for 14 days.
New York’s City Hall secured its first order for emergency protective gear, masks, and hand sanitizer, according to the city comptroller’s office.
The mayor issued a new warning to the city: “Obviously, this is a new reality of community spread. So the fact is, even compared to a few days ago, we have a very different reality. When we began the week, our focus was on people who had traveled to affected countries overseas and those who had come in contact with people who traveled to those countries. What’s happened in just the last few days is the initiation of community spread, meaning that these cases now are coming from within our communities in an untraceable fashion.”
The mayor added, “I really believe New Yorkers are heeding these warnings and acting accordingly. I just continue to see people doing the right thing, and I appreciate that very, very much. So, I also would tell you the vast majority of places I’m going in the city, I’m seeing people going about their business.”
During a radio interview, de Blasio shifted a bit back to this previous tone on casual contact with strangers: “If someone’s on the same train car as another person, that does not, from what we know so far, create a dynamic where you have an opportunity to catch this disease. It’s just a different reality. What we’re seeing — look at what we’re seeing so far. It’s people in close contact. And again, we’ll keep updating that. But what we’ve seen so far, facts on the ground, it is people in close contact.”
At a press conference, De Blasio discouraged handshakes and demonstrated the “elbow tap” with Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro. The mayor also offered some contradictory advice on public events: “Based on the information we have today we are not, not altering our stance on public events. But we are making clear, people, I think it’s straightforward and obvious, but it bears being said in a straightforward fashion. If you are sick, you shouldn’t be going to a public event. If you are sick, you shouldn’t be going to work. If you’re sick, you shouldn’t be going on the subway. Now, if you are not sick, but you’re in that particularly vulnerable category, over 50, preexisting conditions, you should avoid unnecessary public activity.”
Beyond that recommendation, large public gatherings were still permitted.
Overseas, Italy announced its nationwide quarantine. Appearing on CNN, de Blasio said, “What I would say is we should not want to do, with all due respect to Italy, we try not to get to that level. We try and be more pinpoint in our response. Our subway is unusual because you are talking about a huge number of people packed in close. We’re trying to get folks to spread that out. So we’re saying to employers, if you can stagger work hours, that’d be helpful. If some people can telecommute and it does not disrupt business, that’s helpful. But mainly the point is go about your business. Take those basic precautions, washing your hands regularly, covering your mouth when you sneeze or cough.”
The mayor also elaborated on his reluctance to close city schools: “Vast majority of parents I’ve spoken to over the years, in any crisis, don’t want to see the schools closed. Of course, safety first, but they depend on the schools, they are a safe place for their kids, and by the way, they want their kids to keep getting educated. So to me, it’s a high bar for a closure.”
During a press conference, Mayor de Blasio said he is “telling people to not avoid restaurants, not avoid normal things that people do. . . . If you’re not sick, you should be going about your life.” (The city was four days away from the announcement that the city was closing all schools.)
But elsewhere in the press conference, explaining why the city was asking employers to stagger work hours, de Blasio said, “It’s just trying to take away the dynamics where people are on in unusually close circumstances, like a crowded New York City subway car in rush hour where, you know, God forbid, someone coughs or sneezes and can’t get their elbow up in time. You know, you could be right there in front of them. That’s a real thing.” Later the mayor added, “I remind you all, we went through Ebola, and there were people who are scared because the one patient in the Ebola — and this is an absolutely, you know, Ebola makes, if I could be so cold, coronavirus look like a walk in the park.”
That evening, the mayor issued a brief statement in response to President Trump’s address to the nation, accusing the president of “minimizing what has now become a global pandemic.”
The NBA suspended its regular season, and actor Tom Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson, announced they had tested positive for coronavirus.
Appearing on CNN, de Blasio offered some rare praise for the president: “I accept the notion of travel bans in this environment. So I disagree with President Trump on many things but actually I think the travel-ban piece of his strategy has been, in many ways, warranted. It does not replace a proactive strategy by the United States of America to address our own issues because we have our own community spread now.” He repeated that he was reluctant to close schools because so many parents cannot work with their children at home, and that for some students, school is their only source of guaranteed meals and other basic services.
During his daily press conference, the mayor said, “We receive extraordinary new information on what now literally feels like an hourly basis. . . . Literally, yesterday morning feels like a long time ago.”
New York City closed all schools. The initial announcement was that schools would be closed until April 20; the widespread expectation from city officials was that schools would remain closed until the end of the school year. Later that evening, the city announced that bars and restaurants must shut down as well, switching to only takeout and delivery.
The New York Times reported that for the past week, the mayor’s “top aides were furiously trying to change the mayor’s approach to the coronavirus outbreak. There had been arguments and shouting matches between the mayor and some of his advisers; some top health officials had even threatened to resign if he refused to accept the need to close schools and businesses, according to several people familiar with the internal discussions.”
Hours before all gyms in New York had to close, Mayor de Blasio had one final workout at the gym at his local YMCA. Even his former staffers offered scathing criticism.
Rebecca Katz, a former special adviser whom the mayor once called a metaphorical member of his family, declared, “No current or former staff member should be asked to defend this. The mayor’s actions today are inexcusable and reckless.” Jonathan Rosen, once one of de Blasio’s closest allies, called the mayor’s gym visit “pathetic, self-involved, inexcusable.”
As of the morning of Friday, March 27, New York City’s coronavirus death toll hit 365. The city’s number of confirmed cases is 23,112, jumping 3,101 cases from the day before. Makeshift morgues are set up outside the hospitals in refrigerated trailers. New York City doctors were describing the situation as “hell . . . the system is overwhelmed . . . worse than 9/11.”