On Sunday, New York had 605 new coronavirus cases. Florida had 9,344 new cases — more than 15 times as many. California had 6,074 new cases — 10 times as many. Both Florida and California have now overtaken New York for total number of cases, although New York still leads, by far, in the total number of deaths. Its grim death toll — 32,689 and counting — should serve as a caution against celebration. New York is hardly a model; the real models are countries such as South Korea (299 total deaths) and Australia (161 total deaths).
But our misfortune was primarily not of our own devising. New York City paid a heavy price for being the most dynamic and densely populated city in the country — the No. 1 travel destination for foreign travelers in North America. Covid-19 spread far and wide before anyone knew what was really happening. As of late June, about 1 in 4 of those tested for covid-19 antibodies in New York City tested positive. To add to our misfortune, we are located in the United States of Trump rather than in a rational place such as Canada or Europe. There has been no national lockdown, no national mask mandate, no national testing-and-tracing program. States such as New York have been on their own.
Given those constraints, I’d say New York has done a laudable job of dealing with the worst public health emergency in a century. We have emulated the example of developed countries, such as Italy, France and Spain, that managed to get their pandemics under control — while the rest of the country is emulating developing countries such as Brazil, South Africa and India, where the disease continues to rampage out of control.
There is no secret about New York’s recent success: It is a product of social distancing, mask-wearing and testing. In every store you enter, everyone is masked. If the rest of the country followed our example, it could swiftly get the coronavirus under control. But it hasn’t, because in the red states there is far more suspicion of government and of science than in our liberal metropolis.
New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) has made his share of blunders, including the decision to return patients with covid-19 to nursing homes, but he has gotten the big things right. He has mandated masks, he has told the truth, and he has been properly cautious about reopening. Even now, restaurants and bars in New York City are closed for indoor dining and drinking. Movie theaters and gyms are shuttered entirely. Perhaps because we have been hit so hard and scarred so deeply, we treat the coronavirus as a merciless foe worthy of respect.
In the rest of the country, far too many people are only now awakening from an inexcusable slumber to a danger they should have seen months ago. There are way too many people such as Arkansas state Sen. Jason Rapert — a Republican, of course — who spent months railing against “draconian” mask mandates and shutdowns before contracting covid-19 himself. Red-staters should have learned from New York’s example, but somehow they must have assumed that the plague would spare them. Perhaps because they imagine themselves to be more virtuous than we sinful, big-city globalists? Now, we watch what is happening in the Sun Belt with the same horror and pity that the Sun Belt once felt while watching what was happening in New York.
The problem, from our perspective, is that no city is truly an island. Even Manhattan, which actually is an island, remains connected to the rest of the country. You can freely fly to New York from Miami or Houston, and, while you are supposed to quarantine, there is no enforcement mechanism (unlike in Hong Kong or Seoul) to make sure you do so. Meanwhile, testing times in New York are getting longer, in part, because national laboratories are slammed by spiking caseloads in the rest of the country. And the start of the school year is approaching. Can we avoid the example of Israel, which seemed to get the virus under control, only to lose control when schools opened?
Another cause for concern is the eventual change of seasons. New York City is livable now because we can eat at outdoor restaurants and exercise in the parks. What happens if winter arrives and there is still no vaccine widely available? Millions of apartment dwellers depend on our communal space far more than suburbanites do. New York will be truly unbearable if we are shut in at home again. Our reprieve from the misery of the spring may only be temporary — but we will enjoy the summer of subsiding danger while it lasts.