Coping with a second wave

Phyo That stands outside Oceanic Boil on Oct. 13 as he tries to attract customers to the Jackson Heights Cajun restaurant. Photo credits: Danielle Sinay

After a summer when New York City had seemingly gotten COVID-19 under control, outbreaks in Brooklyn and Queens have put the city back on edge. NNY fanned out across four boroughs to talk to New Yorkers about how they are coping with a possible second wave.

Shivering in the rain outside Oceanic Boil, a Cajun restaurant in Jackson Heights, Phyo That, 25, was doing his best to bring in customers, holding a menu and welcoming passersby. New restrictions on restaurants in the area imposed because of a worsening outbreak of the coronavirus have forced Oceanic Boil to limit its seating. Business was slow on a recent Tuesday, with all four outside tables empty.

“Everyone’s worried about the second wave,” That said. “Everyone’s afraid.” 

That anxiety is hitting business owners who have endured one shock after another since March, and it is putting affected neighborhoods on edge, with residents uncertain how long the new restrictions may last or how severe they may become.  

On Oct. 6, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the Cluster Action Initiative, a plan intended to contain fresh coronavirus outbreaks in New York at the neighborhood level, after the city’s daily case count surged to 801, the highest since May 26. The new outbreaks have to be stopped “sooner rather than later,” said Denis Nash, an epidemiologist at the CUNY School of Public Health.

Gov. Cuomo’s plan labels some areas of New York City as yellow, orange, or red zones, depending on the intensity of the coronavirus spread. The colors correspond with different restrictions affecting businesses, mass gatherings, places of worship, restaurants and schools.

In red areas, schools and non-essential businesses are now closed. Dining is allowed for takeout only and places of worship can operate at a maximum capacity of 10 people. Mass gatherings are prohibited. In orange zones, schools, indoor dining and high-risk non-essential businesses shut down, and gatherings are also limited to a maximum of 10 people. In yellow zones, schools, indoor dining, and non-essential businesses remain open, but face new limitations; religious services, for example, are limited to 50 percent of a building’s capacity.

Sen Pei, a research scientist who models diseases at Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University thinks the New York response is a “smart move.” He added, “If you don’t do that, and the infection spreads to other neighborhoods, this would be really difficult to control unless you implement a very strict broad lockdown that will come with a high economic cost and other types of costs.”

On the ground in the restricted areas, however, those costs are already being felt, at least temporarily.

READ: Our interactive timleine of New York City and its repsonse to COVID-19 since January

“I didn’t sink yet”

Emanuele Lombardo gets ready to open his Bay Ridge restaurant on a rainy Tuesday morning. Photo credits: Danielle Sinay

On a recent Tuesday morning in Bay Ridge, Leonor Tofino set up a white tent outside her restaurant, Las Margaritas, and prepared the outdoor seating area. Inside, the Mexican restaurant was ready for Halloween — a menacing jack-o-lantern draped in black crepe hovered over empty tables, separated by sheets of plexiglass. 

Because Las Margaritas is located in a yellow zone, only a few blocks from red and orange areas, it isn’t clear how many customers will see Tofino’s Halloween touches. The restaurant must now limit indoor dining while waiting to learn how long the restrictions will last and whether they will tighten further. 

“It’s so sad for the city,” Tofino said. “The city that never sleeps is sleeping,” she said.

Joe Guo, 36, owns and operates a 99 cent store nearby. Ever since the first wave of the virus, Guo has not earned any profits, he said, making just enough to cover rent and expenses. 

“We are worried,” Guo said while sitting at the store’s counter with his cat, Princess. “We want to close but we need to pay the rent.” He said he was forced to lay off his employees earlier in the year.  

A second wave of infections could jeopardize the survival of other Bay Ridge small businesses. 

“We work for ourselves,” said Anthony Pericone, 56, whose daughter owns Anthony’s Butcher and Deli, which is considered an essential business. “The city doesn’t help us.”  

Even businesses with loyal customers are struggling to stay afloat, such as Lombardo’s pizzeria in Bay Ridge. Owner Emanuele Lombardo, 38, was laughing with a friend as he opened up his shop on Tuesday, but grew quieter as he discussed the impacts the pandemic has had on his restaurant. 

“Thank God I have a little following, it keeps me above water,” he said. “Nobody’s OK. We’re surviving. I’m on a float you know, I’m in the middle of the ocean on a float. My head’s above water. I didn’t sink yet.”

Lombardo says that while he does “tons of takeout,” many of his regular customers, especially older clients, do not feel comfortable dining in person yet, even though the restaurant sanitizes constantly and all staff use masks and gloves. 

When he’s not running the pizzeria, Lombardo rushes home to help his five-year-old son with school; the boy is attending kindergarten remotely. 

“He’s stuck at home, so to get him to sit in front of the computer is chaos,” he said. “So I go crazy.”

Everybody should have the choice

In Borough Park, Brooklyn, where large crowds recently protested the new shutdowns after the city designated the area a red zone, tension remains between residents who support the new public health measures and those who do not. 

People are “mostly complying” with the enhanced rules, said Margaret Antoniak, an employee at Cracovia Deli Import, “but I still see a lot of people in Borough Park just not complying.” On Tuesday morning, a city inspector came into her store to check on adherence to COVID-19 regulations. “They’re being helpful in guiding us,” she said. “We definitely want to go in the right direction.”

Borough Park has had a positive COVID test rate of 6.21 percent in the last four weeks, more than four times New York City’s recent rate. It’s also a neighborhood with one of the lowest rates of testing in the city — just over five thousand per 100,000, less than half the rate in Morningside Heights and just above Richmond Hill in Queens, the least tested area in the city with just above four thousand per 100,000. 

 Regardless, many residents in Borough Park do not support the restrictions. “Everybody should have the choice to do what they want,” said Mazal Bergel, 67, owner of Orchidea, a Kosher restaurant located on 12th Avenue. Because of the restrictions, Bergel’s restaurant is only open for takeout, and she said business is very slow. “They’re killing us,” she said of the government restrictions.

On Oct. 7, hundreds of members of the Orthodox Jewish community in Borough Park protested Gov. Cuomo’s restrictions, chanting “Jewish Lives Matter” and burning masks. In an open letter to Gov. Cuomo, local religious leaders argued they had not been included in discussions and that the governor had unfairly singled out their community.

In a phone interview, Rabbi Moshe Snow, who leads the Young Israel Beth El of Borough Park, said he had not received “any communication from any elected officials at all,” but would like an opportunity to talk with the mayor or the governor, to try to negotiate reasonable arrangements for worship and gatherings by his congregation. No more than ten people may gather for religious services under New York’s red zone rules, and yet, Snow said, “There’s so much room, it’s like, even if we were socially distanced at 60 feet apart, we will be able to have many, many more than ten.” In an Oct. 8 news conference, Mayor Bill de Blasio said his office had been engaging in dialogue with community leaders “for weeks.”

Still, Snow said he did not think anybody in his congregation took part in the recent protests. “The Torah is a Torah of pleasantness, and therefore we should approach this —  even if difficult — with a certain pleasantness and understanding that our responses should not be of a radical nature,” he said. 

“Our operating costs are exactly the same”

Jimmy Ciszerna runs an arepa cart in Jackson Heights, a yellow zone, but isn’t concerned about a second wave. Photo Credits: Miles Cohen

Just a few weeks ago, Natalia Duque opened up limited seating at her business, the Barriles Restaurant & Sports Bar, on 37th Avenue in Jackson Heights, in one of the city’s yellow zones. Now her plans for recovery are in flux. 

“We are being attacked on so many levels,” Duque said.

She has no idea when she might be able to use her bar’s full, large indoor dining space again. In the meantime, a space designed for 137 customers has had to get by serving only 34 — and that was before the recent renewed limitations.

“We also have to pay as though we are using the full space, our operating costs are exactly the same. Nothing has gone down,” she said. She could create an outdoor space of comparable size “but it’s going to cost me twenty or thirty grand,” she said. “Where am I getting all this money from?”

For Mohammed Mia, 51, the pandemic presented a business opportunity. He opened his pizza shop, “New York Pizza,” just one week ago.

“Now that everyone’s gonna stay home, it’s a great time for delivery,” he said. In reality, the store has been “dead” so far, he admitted. But as he didn’t open with any indoor seating, the latest dining restrictions aren’t affecting him much. 

Corbin Dental’s assistant, Deyrica Martines, believes New York is prepared for a second wave, should it intensify. The first time around, she said, “We didn’t really know what we were up against. We were up against possibly the flu, possibly a cold — everybody had a lot of questions,” she said. 

In Jackson Heights, a neighborhood filled with first-generation Americans who get their information from diverse sources, not everyone is up-to-date on New York’s latest rule changes. Jimmy Ciszerna, 35, who is from Chile, runs an arepa cart in the area. He said he wasn’t concerned about a second wave of coronavirus because “I haven’t seen anything.” He added, “This is the first time that I’ve heard this is a yellow zone.”

It’s going to take a lot of cooperation” 

Soundview, in the Bronx, is miles away from the nearest restricted zip code. But its residents are still wary of another experience like they endured between March and May, when the neighborhood was among the hardest hit by the coronavirus in all of New York City. 

“If it happens here, and they have to shut down, then we’re prepared to do that,” says Avena Roman, parent coordinator P.S. 107, who is taking painstaking measures along with her faculty to maintain health protocols and keep the school open. 

She appreciates the work being done by everyone involved in getting schools like hers to reopen, but is skeptical of what might happen if the city school system is forced to go online again. She worries some students who lack resources for remote learning could fall behind.

“Maybe in Manhattan there’s a bunch of people who already have tons of computers, and they have internet service. Whereas a community like ours, we don’t have that kind of luxury.” 

For NYU students like Matthew Plourd in Greenwich Village, internet service is indeed not a problem, but getting other students to keep socially distant and follow health protocols is.    

“I hope that schools in New York will take the well being of their students and faculty into account when making decisions into the near future about whether or not to keep us here or not,” he said.   

Plourd is optimistic about the city’s handling of a second outbreak, but notes that it will require cooperation between the governor’s and mayor’s offices and extra effort on the government’s end to work with communities who are already facing economic hardship and being asked to bear the burden of new shutdowns. 

“It’s going to take a lot of cooperation that isn’t currently there right now,” he said.

“I don’t know if I can do it again”

A customer stands in front of Anthony’s Butcher and Deli in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. To the right, a poster advertises the deli’s Thanksgiving specials, even as deli workers are uncertain about how the virus will affect their holiday sales. Photo Credits: Miles Cohen

For those both in and outside of recently restricted neighborhoods, a resurgent COVID rate has plunged the city into a renewed state of uncertainty as the temperature drops and the days shorten. Nash, the epidemiologist, is encouraged by the city’s testing and tracking capabilities, and noted that the recent outbreaks have not been accompanied by spikes in hospitalizations and deaths. “I don’t think we’re going to go back to a situation like we were last spring,” he said. 

A severe second wave could deprive the city of many of the small businesses that have been fighting through the summer to stay open and viable, such as Anthony’s Butcher and Deli of Bay Ridge. Pericone, 56, is already anxious about an uncertain Thanksgiving. 

“We’re worried about what to order now because we know [the coronavirus situation] is going to change,” he said. “Holidays aren’t the same with the virus.”  

There are plenty who dread the possibility of another citywide shutdown — more prolonged isolation and economic hardship, this time with none of the novelty that helped some New Yorkers cope when stuck at home the first time. Faye Marcellus, 33, a Gamestop employee in a yellow zone section of Flatbush, said she’s learned she needs “to come here and talk to people. I don’t have kids or anything. I just have a dog and he doesn’t talk back.” If a spreading virus brings another lockdown, she said, “I don’t know if I can do it again.”

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