How Labeling COVID19 A ‘New York Disease’ Doomed America

The Pandemic Is Made Worse By Americans’ Dismissive Attitude Toward Major Cities Like New York

California and Florida will likely pass New York in terms of number of infections next week, and now would be a good time to talk about how part of the national fuckup was dismissing #COVID as a “New York disease” by blaming density for the Spring epidemic.

Blaming New York City’s density for its COVID19 outbreak left the rest of the country with a false sense of security that helped lead to the current outbreak in the South and West. Photo by Nick Rafter

Certainly New York’s dense population didn’t help the situation – and by the way, the same experts we trust now originally blamed “density” for New York’s outbreak, but here’s the thing; the experts were wrong to primarily blame density or in failing to recognize the same density issue exist across the country. It wasn’t *just* the subways or crowded office spaces that led to the spread – in fact, it might not have been that primarily at all – it was also crowded households, where large families live amongst each other without a way to isolate, and this a common problem across the America, and across the world.

New York’s hardest hit county, per capita (cases by 1,000 people) was Rockland – a suburban/exurban county. Density wasn’t the issue there. In fact, of the top five counties with the highest infection rate per capita, three were suburban (Rockland, Westchester, Nassau), a fourth was Staten Island, the lease dense of the five boroughs that make up New York City.

Only The Bronx was among the top 5 hardest hit counties per capita. The most densely populated county in the ENTIRE country – Manhattan – was 11th behind…Sullivan County in the Catskills, with a population density 1/5000th that of Manhattan.

The issue isn’t density so much as living conditions. Rockland is home to large population of Hasidic Jewish (which could also explain some of the issues in Israel, currently gripped by a second wave) and Hispanic residents, who live in big multi-generational households. This caused tremendous amounts of family spread. Similar problems ocurred in The Bronx and Nassau County.

There is nothing wrong with living in multigenerational households – both my parents grew up in one – and they’re especially common in Rockland and Westchester and Nassau, where houses tend to be large. Thanks to them though, thousands upon thousands got sick simply by staying home. The Bronx and Northern Queens, both hard hit areas with ~50% seropositive rates (percentage who had antibodies), are populated with families, especially immigrant families, who live in crowded living conditions due to the cost of living in New York State. It is impossible to self-isolate in these conditions.

In fact, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Rockland County has the largest average household size in the state after rural and sparsely populated Hamilton County in the Adirondacks (population only 5,000 people). With an average household size of 3.14 people, more people on average live under the same roof that all of New York City’s five boroughs.

New York Counties with
highest infection rates
Cases per 1,000Average Size of HouseholdPop Density
(per sq mi)
Rockland4,0903.14 persons 1,895
Westchester3,5092.74 persons 2,109
Bronx3,2422.78 persons 35,000
Nassau 3,0153.00 persons 4,766
Richmond (Staten Island)2,8812.78 persons 8,164
Queens2,7942.80 persons20,465
Orange2,7312.85 persons 444
Suffolk2,7312.96 persons 1,637
Kings (Brooklyn)2,2312.75 persons 36,732
Sullivan1,6982.50 persons 14
New York (Manhattan)1,6692.00 persons 66,940
Rockland County, New York, despite being a suburban county with a dramatically lower population density than New York City and other suburban counties, had the largest COVID19 case load per capita, proving “density” wasn’t the issue with New York’s epidemic and leading the rest of the country into a false sense of security. Stats from U.S. Census Bureau 2019 estimates

But those conditions don’t just exist in New York State. They exist in communities all across the country, especially low-income and immigrant communities where depressed wages force families to live together in conditions that are impossible for effective quarantine. They exist among meat-packing plant workers and agricultural workers in South Dakota, Iowa, South Texas and California. It exists in South and Central Florida, which has some of the most densely-populated communities outside of the Northeast. It exists in rural communities in Mormon Utah and Native American tribes. In fact, one reason Manhattan and San Francisco hasn’t been hit so hard is there despite being densely-populated, there are many small households, single people or couples who live in studios or one bedrooms, making household isolation of the sick workable.

BoroughAverage Household SizePop Density
(per sq mi)
CountyAverage Household SizePop Density
(per sq mi)
Queens2.8020,465Hildago, TX (McAllen)3.55363
Bronx2.7835,000Imperial, Calif.3.3334
Staten Island2.788,164Miami-Dade, Fla.3.073,639
Brooklyn2.5036,732Maricopa, AZ (Phoenix)3.001,357
Manhattan2.0066,940Yakima, WA2.963,385
The average size of households in the five boroughs of New York City, left, compared with the average household size for current COVID19 hotspots, right. These counties, thought far less densely populated, have larger household sizes on average than any of New York City’s five boroughs and many suburbs. Stats from U.S. Census Bureau 2019 estimates
CountyAverage Household SizePop Density (per sq mi)
Ada, ID (Boise)2.60447
Marion, AL2.57298
Lavaca, TX2.4420
Lee, FL (Fort Myers)2.35943
Hot Springs, AR2.12992
Some more rural “conservative” counties that are now currently COVID19 hotspots have household sizes on par with New York City – and larger than Manhattan – despite much lower density.

Americans have always treated New York like it was another country, culturally disconnected from the whole of America. Its problems were unique. Terrorism was a “New York problem” because of its status as a global financial and political center. Crime was a “New York problem” because there’s poverty and immigrants and minorities and “bleeding-heart liberals.” Poverty was a “New York problem” because of the cost of living. Disease was a “New York problems” because of squalor in subways and apartments. Cultural depictions of New York as dirty, grimy, rat-infested and crowded place allowed America to dismiss COVID-19 as a problem that could only inflict that city and nowhere else.

My take is that it comes from the fact that so much of America is populated by people who once lived in New York, and when they left thought they had left whatever cultural and sociological attributes they assigned to New York City life behind. They rationalize their leaving New York by creating this caricature as a dystopian hellhole that has turned into a delusion, and it left them naive about how big a risk a virus like COVID-19 was to every community, including theirs. New York City was not the only place hit hard in the Spring; New Orleans; Detroit; suburban Boston; Albany, Georgia and Vail, Colorado were all non-dense places that had big outbreaks in March and April.

Cultural depictions of New York as dirty, grimy, rat-infested and crowded place allowed America to dismiss COVID-19 as a problem that could only inflict that city and nowhere else

In August, 2015, I was vacationing in Key West, Florida where I met a family with the surname Sutphin who were from Alabama. The patriarch of the family, upon hearing I was from Queens, New York, noted that his family originally came from there and there was a street named for their ancestors – Sutphin Boulevard – which is a major street in Jamaica, Queens and the main subway station connecting to JFK Airport. He added that his family had long left New York and that now it what “like going to a foreign country” to go New York City.

“The rest of the country doesn’t live like you guys,” he said to me. I was mildly offended, but I smiled and walked away.

Yet this is the attitude many Americans had about COVID-19 while it raged in New York. A dirty, filthy, rat-infested city of immigrants and minorities; of course this virus thrives there. It won’t thrive here, we’re not New York. Indeed that was the sentiment a friend of mine, a nurse at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx, who went to Alabama and Arizona in June to help fight COVID-19 there, heard often. “This won’t happen here, it won’t get worse, this is not New York.”

Racism played a role here too. A significant number of Americans believe that disease ran rampant among “foreigners,” a view even the man who holds the presidency adheres to, Early in the pandemic, Asian-Americans, especially Chinese-Americans, faced a large amount of hate from other Americans because of fears that they were trafficking the virus, and that continued even though neighborhoods in NYC with a large Chinese-American population like Chinatown in Manhattan; Flushing in Queens and Sunset Park in Brooklyn saw lower infection rates than the city average. Americans outside New York definitely felt their lack of contact with foreigners and their perception of living in a more sanitized, rigid and culturally homogenous environment would protect them from COVID-19.

Now the chickens have come home to roost for the rest of America. Maybe if this pandemic had hit Florida or Texas first, we’d be in a far different position as a nation. We always learn the hard way, and it always feels like New Yorkers are the ones who stand by, shake their heads and say “we told you so.”

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