In case it wasn’t obvious from the headlines and body count, New York is currently suffering more severely from the coronavirus epidemic than almost anywhere else.

The city and its surrounding suburbs are experiencing infection and death rates as high as any on the planet — outstripping even those of Italy’s Lombardy region, formerly the chief object of the world’s horror and pity.

Already, more than 10,000 residents of the five boroughs have lost their lives, counting both confirmed and presumed fatalities — and although new hospitalizations have slowed, hundreds more still succumb every day. It’s not quite the worst-case scenario envisioned by some experts, but it’s catastrophic all the same.

Getting to the bottom of why things went so badly wrong will be crucial to the city’s future. The answers are not as obvious as they might seem.

Many fingers are being pointed at Mayor de Blasio, Gov. Cuomo and President Trump for initially pooh-poohing the threat and hesitating to take precautionary steps — such as banning mass gatherings, closing schools and businesses, issuing stay-at-home orders and requiring the use of face masks.

Certainly, with the benefit of hindsight, they could and should have acted sooner. But the shutdown itself, which is unprecedented, is causing real harms of its own. And it’s not clear that the delays alone explain why things went so badly for New York.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, for example, has been credited for issuing his stay-at-home order relatively early, on March 19, when his state had 1,000 cases and 19 deaths. Cuomo followed suit the next day, but by that time New York had 4,000 cases and 30 deaths.

However, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis did not issue his stay-at-home order until April 1, by which time his state had more than 7,000 cases and 100 deaths. As of April 13, Florida’s mortality rate of 23 deaths per million residents was higher than California at 18. But both were a mere fraction of New York State’s rate of 554 deaths per million.

Another much-cited factor is New York’s population density, an obvious suspect. It’s hard if not impossible to practice social distancing in large apartment buildings, crowded sidewalks and packed subway cars.

This is an especially existential argument, because it goes after the city’s identity as a jostling, teeming metropolis. A New York City without crowds and subways would not be New York City at all.

Yet only a handful of urban areas worldwide, such as Madrid and the Lombardy region of Italy, have seen outbreaks as deadly as New York’s. Seoul, a tightly packed city of skyscrapers and subways, has recorded fewer than 1,000 deaths, as have Chicago and Philadelphia. Tokyo and Singapore have reported fewer than 100 fatalities each, and Hong Kong less than 10.

Korean authorities resorted to video and telephone surveillance to control that country’s outbreak, tactics that might offend American sensibilities, not to mention infringe on constitutional rights. Yet Seoul’s relatively low death toll shows that good infection control is achievable even in a dense, urban setting.

This is not to deny that crowded subways and bumbling politicians deserve a share of blame for New York’s grim outcome. They obviously do. But those factors alone do not fully explain what happened.

This raises the question of what else went wrong. Is there something different about New York’s infrastructure, its health-care system or its public policy? Could it be related to the nature of its economy, demographics or culture?

Or is the strain of virus afflicting this part of the country — which apparently arrived via Europe — particularly infectious or lethal?

“If we don’t learn the lessons from this situation, then all of this will have been in vain,” Cuomo said at Wednesday’s daily briefing.

Once the immediate crisis is past, nothing will be more important than getting to the bottom of this mystery. New Yorkers and other armchair epidemiologists should suppress their preconceived ideas, follow the facts, and prepare to be surprised.

© 2020 New York Daily News

About the Author

Bill Hammond

As the Empire Center’s senior fellow for health policy, Bill Hammond tracks fast-moving developments in New York’s massive health care industry, with a focus on how decisions made in Albany and Washington affect the well-being of patients, providers, taxpayers and the state’s economy.

Read more by Bill Hammond

You may also like

How a Blast From the Past Could Save NYC Again

Forty-five years ago this month, then-Gov. Hugh L. Carey and the state Legislature passed a landmark law, the Financial Emergency Act, designed to rescue Gotham from imminent bankruptcy. Read More

The Numbers Debunk Cuomo’s SALT Gripes

For the better part of three years now, Gov. Cuomo has been pounding SALT — the federal income-tax deduction for state and local taxes. Read More

Experts Weigh in on How to Save New York City Post-Coronavirus

"With massive budget deficits looming, Mayor de Blasio’s post-pandemic plan boils down to hoping for a stopgap federal bailout and asking Albany for permission to issue billions in deficit bonds. This won’t solve the problem. New York needed a much leaner, more efficient public sector even before the novel coronavirus blew a hole in its tax base." Read More

The Fear Behind City Union’s Strike Threat

Polling this month showed that two-thirds of the nation’s teachers would prefer to stay out of the classroom this fall, and teachers unions across America are poised to keep schools from reopening. The unions say the safety of their members is their top concern, yet, truth is, their bottom lines are just as critical. That’s because the pandemic represents their biggest financial threat since teachers won the right to stop paying them. Read More

Tax Day 2.0 Marks the End of NY’s Economic Expansion

New York’s slow reopening has begun just in time for a virtual April 15 — Tax Day 2.0, pushed back three months by the novel-coronavirus pandemic. In a way, it’s the end of an era: The tax returns due to be filed on Wednesday will report incomes earned in 2019, the close of a decade-long economic expansion. Read More

Say Yes to Long Island City Development: NYC Must Salvage the Plots Intended for Amazon’s Second HQ

Predicting doom and gloom for New York is all the rage. While we do face difficult fiscal choices for the next several years, those with skin in the game are contradicting this “death of New York” narrative — and offering a way out. Developers across the city are asking communities for nothing more than regulatory permission to add jobs, mixed-income housing and new high-quality public spaces. Yet just this week, Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer denounced a multi-billion dollar investment in offices and homes in Long Island City — shortly after denouncing 2,700 new mixed-income homes in Astoria. Read More

Instead of Facing Fiscal Crises, NYC, State are Burying Their Heads in the Sand

The headlines surrounding this week’s New York City budget naturally focused on #DefundthePolice demands. But for all its larger potential implications for New Yorkers’ security and quality of life, the partially illusory $1 billion “cut” in the New York Police Department budget was a sideshow in fiscal terms. Read More

A Corona Commission for New York

New York is finally ahead of the coronavirus, but its outbreak stands as a world-wide horror story. A sophisticated city was caught unprepared and suffered some of the worst levels of infection and death. The need for an investigation is clear. The harder question is who can credibly take the lead. Read More

Subscribe

Sign up to receive updates about Empire Center research, news and events in your email.

CONTACT INFORMATION

Empire Center for Public Policy
30 South Pearl St.
Suite 1210
Albany, NY 12207

Phone: 518-434-3100
Fax: 518-434-3130
E-Mail: info@empirecenter.org

About

The Empire Center is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank located in Albany, New York. Our mission is to make New York a better place to live and work by promoting public policy reforms grounded in free-market principles, personal responsibility, and the ideals of effective and accountable government.