New Yorkers—and Tourists— Brace for Impact as Cuomo Says Spread of Virus is Inevitable

A tourist enjoys Times Square while wearing a mask to protect against coronavirus/ Photo by Tuanh Dam

Erin Harvey lounged on the red steps in Time Square, her hands curled around a pink can of Bubly grapefruit water and her legs stretched out in front of her.

The Milwaukee native soaked up the sunshine as the wind blew through her short blonde hair. Harvey, here in the city on vacation, flew in Monday morning, braving the crowds at the airport and the masses in Time Square despite New York’s first confirmed case of coronavirus, which was made public on Sunday night. A second case was confirmed on Tuesday.

More than 85 people in the United States have been diagnosed with coronavirus and there have been six confirmed deaths in Washington state this week. But Harvey isn’t panicking.

“Now’s not the time to worry about it,” Harvey said, pushing her glasses up her nose. “I’ll just wash my hands more.”

Harvey isn’t the only one taking precautions though after Gov. Andrew Cuomo confirmed on Sunday that a Manhattan woman has the virus. A second man, a lawyer in his 50s from Westchester, has also contracted the coronavirus, authorities confirmed on Tuesday.

Vendors selling hats and t-shirts said they had baby wipes in their bags to use while they work, while other tourists, weaving through the crowds with their suitcases, pulled down their surgical masks to take pictures. But for the most part, workers along Times Square said, everything was normal.

Two young women working at the Strand Book Store kiosk in Times Square said that businesses had been the same over the last few months and there was still a line at the TKTS booth Tuesday afternoon. Food carts still pumped out hot dogs and pretzels to eagerly awaiting customers.

Still, the news of  confirmed cases in New York City has people on edge. The infected woman, a health-care worker in her 30s, had traveled to Iran and is now being isolated in her home, Cuomo said.

“Community spread is going to be real. That is inevitable,” Cuomo said.

Mayor Bill de Blasio released a statement on Twitter Monday morning with more details. The city was closely monitoring people the woman had been in contact with, he tweeted, and added that the woman did not use public transit after returning to New York.

On the subway to and from Times Square Monday afternoon, people were seen taking precautionary measures. Art vendors wore face masks as they talked to customers on the sidewalk, as did many subway passengers. Parents could be heard reminding children to wash their hands and scolded them when they touched their faces, and little rubber hand sanitizers were visibly clipped to many belt loops and bag straps. Stepping into the station, the smell of rubbing alcohol permeated the air.

At a press conference with Mayor de Blasio on Monday, Governor Cuomo said that the city would implement new cleaning protocols in particularly crowded areas. The goal, he said, was to limit the spread of coronavirus.

“That’s all this is about, reducing the spread, not eliminating the spread,” Cuomo said.

Patrick Foss, who was traveling with Harvey, said that he wasn’t scared because he read an article that compared the coronavirus to the flu. The New York Times article, he said, detailed how both illnesses had a similar infection rate.

The Times reported that New England Journal of Medicine estimated that the coronavirus carried a death rate of 1.4 percent and could be lower if “mild or symptom-free cases” that weren’t detected were factored in. 

An editorial by several doctors, the Times wrote, found that the “true death rate could turn out to be similar to that of a severe seasonal flu, below 1 percent.”

“We’ll be careful,” Foss said, as he and Harvey stood up. “But we’re not letting fear control everything.”

On MSNBC, just after the announcement of a second confirmed case in New York on Tuesday, Governor Cuomo said he believed that people were more afraid of the virus than they should be. The city, he said, had better healthcare than most other places.

““It’s not as bad as the hysteria would suggest that it is,” Cuomo said.