Officials set up a one-mile “containment zone” inside of which schools, religious events and large gatherings were closed. The National Guard was called in to help coordinate delivering meals to those in quarantine. A drive-thru coronavirus testing site was opened.
Those moves hardly seem drastic now. For New Rochelle, a suburb of New York City, the measures have been effective.
The number of new coronavirus cases has slowed since the restrictions were put in place about two weeks ago, Mayor Noam Bramson said.
“The data are sufficient to demonstrate that New Rochelle is declining as a percentage of confirmed cases in Westchester (County), which indicates that our early quarantine and social distancing measures have been effective,” he said.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has similarly praised New Rochelle’s containment area in cutting down on cases.
“You see the Westchester number is slowing,” Cuomo said Saturday. “We did a New Rochelle containment area. The numbers would suggest that that has been helpful. So I feel good about that.”
The numbers bear out that success. The first known case in New Rochelle was discovered March 2. By March 10, that number had shot up to 108 coronavirus cases, evidence of exponential growth. The containment zone was established two days later.
As of Tuesday, the New Rochelle mayor’s website said there are 225 confirmed coronavirus cases in New Rochelle. That’s an increase, yes, but a manageable one sharply lower than its earlier growth.
The New Rochelle total is a relatively small percentage of the county’s 3,891 cases, which increased by about 1,000 cases between Monday and Tuesday. And it is well below the nearly 15,000 cases in New York City, a number that is doubling about every three days, Cuomo said.
CNN medical analyst Dr. Art Caplan, the founding head of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University’s School of Medicine, said New Rochelle was an example of the effectiveness of tough containment measures.
“I think it gives us evidence that this is no time to back away from isolation and distancing,” he said. “I think this is a small experiment but a really important one to show that this is our best weapon — containment — in terms of mitigation.”
From one case to 108 in a week
The outbreak in New Rochelle began March 2 when a man in his 50s, Lawrence Garbuz, tested positive for Covid-19. Garbuz, an attorney who worked in Manhattan, was hospitalized and put on a breathing tube. His was considered the first case of community spread, meaning the source of the virus was not known.
The virus spread remarkably quickly over the following week. Officials said more than 50 coronavirus cases could be linked to Garbuz, including his wife, son, daughter, a neighbor who drove him to the hospital, and another friend and that friend’s family.
Prior to his positive test, Garbuz attended religious events at the Young Israel of New Rochelle synagogue. So on March 10, officials announced the creation of a containment zone that encircled the synagogue. They closed schools within the area, banned large gatherings and set up satellite facilities for people to get tested.
The containment area did not limit people’s movement and was more focused on gatherings and schools within the zone. It was initially billed as a two-week plan, but stricter orders applying to the entire tri-state region make that moot.
In New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, residents are under “stay-at-home” orders, all non-essential gatherings are banned and schools are closed. The federal government has activated the National Guard to New York state. And New York is setting up makeshift field hospitals to prepare for an expected shortage of hospital beds and supplies.
Garbuz, for his part, “seems to be on the road to full recovery,” his wife, Adina Lewis Garbuz, said in a Facebook post last Wednesday, her most recent update.
‘This is the new normal’
Rabbi Joshua Lookstein said the strict limits on public life in New Rochelle, where he lives with his wife and three young children, have been a struggle. He works as the head of schools at Westchester Day School, which has been closed for three weeks. The school is outside the containment zone but many students live within the zone.
“The early days, everyone still thought this could be a short-term thing,” he told CNN. “What’s changed, I think, is the realization that this is the new normal and not a passing issue.”
Like many others across the country, Lookstein has had to balance his professional work with caring for his children. He said he feels sad for them as they are unable to play with friends, attend school or even go to the playground.
“What started off with some novelty gets harder as we all settle in for the long haul. So we’re managing both of our full-time jobs and three children who really need us to be around for them to be successful,” he said.
In New Rochelle, new cases of coronavirus have slowed but not stopped. Saturday, for example, New Rochelle Superintendent of Schools Laura Feijoo said she tested positive for Covid-19 and has mild symptoms.
One reason for the slowdown is New Rochelle’s comparative lack of density. According to the 2010 Census, New Rochelle has about 7,400 people per square mile, while New York City is home to about 27,000 people per square mile.
Indeed, as a suburb outside of New York City, New Rochelle was always an odd fit as an epicenter of the coronavirus, which tends to spread in high-density places.
“New York City is the natural for it to increase because of the density,” Cuomo said last Wednesday. “Westchester was an anomaly — that whole New Rochelle situation.”
Dr. Caplan said people generally expect that an outbreak will start in dense cities, move to the suburbs and then finally to rural areas. But New Rochelle shows that any place can have an outbreak at any time — a point he said was important to consider as President Trump considers opening up parts of the American economy.
“You may think ‘I’m safe out here in Iowa or Montana or Nebraska, we don’t have that big city,’ but you never know,” Caplan said.