In the span of 48 hours, what began as one family’s medical crisis had spiraled well beyond their Westchester County home, shuttering Jewish schools and synagogues and crystallizing the virus’s power to propel anxiety across a region that is among the nation’s most densely populated.
While Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) urged calm, news of the virus’s latest victims spread through close-knit Orthodox communities in the family’s hometown of New Rochelle and across New York City, where pockets of Jews frequent the same kosher restaurants and attend the same schools, weddings, bar mitzvahs and funerals.
“People think it’s Armageddon and they’re never going to leave their house again,” said Josh Berkowitz, the owner of Eden Wok, a kosher Asian fusion restaurant in New Rochelle. Most of his customers are quarantined to see if they develop symptoms of the virus. His employees have been making deliveries, setting the food outside without coming into contact with the people behind the front door.
“I’m nervous as much as anyone else,” Berkowitz said. “We always sanitize and clean. We’re just being a little more diligent. Sanitizers are nowhere to be found. You can’t get them [for] miles and miles and miles, if they’re even available.”
As the number of coronavirus cases reached 11 in New York, officials sought to reassure transit riders that it remains safe to travel the region’s vast network of subway and suburban train lines. There was “no indication” that “casual contact,” such as riding a subway with someone who is sick, is “going to increase the risk to everyday New Yorkers,” said Oxiris Barbot, the city’s health commissioner.
The State University of New York and the City University of New York suspended study-abroad programs in countries including China, Italy, Japan and South Korea on Wednesday as fears mounted over the virus. Approximately 300 students, as well as staff, have been asked to return from those countries to be quarantined in “dormlike facilities on SUNY campuses” for 14 days, Cuomo said.
The governor described the coronavirus as the “flu on steroids” and urged caution.
“We have an epidemic caused by coronavirus, but we have a pandemic that is caused by fear,” he said. “The more you test, the more positive cases you will find.”
Mitchell Moss, 71, a New York University professor who lives downtown, said he recently bought 100 packets of Kleenex as a result of the virus and wipes down “every piece of equipment my hands touch” when he works out at the gym.
“New Yorkers have terrific resistance because we ride the subway every day and we’re always exposed to germs,” Moss said. “If I have to be quarantined, I’d rather be quarantined in Manhattan than anywhere else in the world.”
In Westchester, about 1,000 people have self-quarantined, officials said. The New Rochelle attorney — a 50 year-old man — remained at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan. Health officials said his condition prevented him from being interviewed to determine how he was exposed to the virus.
His wife is asymptomatic, officials said, and the couple’s two children are well enough to be quarantined with her at home.
The detectives also are monitoring seven employees and one intern at the man’s law firm, which is located near Grand Central Terminal. Five of those employees were “being tested as we speak, in the city,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday. One was tested in New Jersey. The results of those tests were pending.
The lawyer’s 20-year-old son attends Yeshiva University, Cuomo said. The student’s roommate and close friend were awaiting test results at Bellevue Hospital. The university on Wednesday canceled all classes at its Wilf Campus in Washington Heights.
Matthew Chan, the manager of Chop Chop, a kosher Chinese restaurant near campus, said business was down by 50 percent. “The students are like my family. I pray for them,” Chan said.
The lawyer’s 14-year-old daughter is a student at the SAR Academy and High School, a Jewish day school in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. The academy closed Tuesday as a precautionary measure. The Westchester Day School and the Westchester Torah Academy also temporarily shut down as a precaution, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported.
Health officials ordered Young Israel of New Rochelle, the family’s synagogue, to suspend activities. The officials mandated a two-week quarantine for anyone who attended a funeral at the synagogue on Feb. 22 or a bat mitzvah on Feb. 23. About 600 people are affected, according to the JTA.
“It’s an old-world Jewish community, because everyone is so into everyone’s life,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Sirkman of the Larchmont Temple, a synagogue in a neighboring town. “There’s a real sense of mutual support and mutual care. There’s a real sense of connectedness that is an extension of their Judaism.”
Sirkman’s synagogue sent a letter this week urging its 800-family congregation to take precautions, including “rubbing elbows instead of shaking hands, etc. to minimize the transmission of germs.”
“If we hug or hold hands or kiss a little less,” the letter said, “it does not mean we don’t care. On the contrary, with sincerity of heart, it means we truly do!”
Gillian Steinberg, an English teacher at SAR, will be in quarantine through Friday, but she is still prepping for classes Thursday.
From her home in Riverdale, she and her son, a sophomore at the school, will put on headsets for classwork and sit in separate rooms. The school set up online classes through Zoom for most of the school day, allowing for a 45-minute lunch break.
“Everyone is doing the best they can. The high school’s been updating us regularly,” she said. “I don’t get an overall sense of panic. We’re going to get through this thing.”
She and her husband, who are recovering from the flu, said their doctor told them not to come in for a medical visit because Steinberg works at SAR. She said they were instead diagnosed with the flu in the emergency room by doctors in hazmat suits. Her husband has since been working remotely.
“I think he’s hoping to go back to work and be away from the chaos,” she said.
Michael Weissman, owner of Mikey Dubb’s Frozen Custard in New Rochelle, said members of Young Israel were some of his first customers when he opened in July 2018 and have been faithful ever since. The shop is down the street from the synagogue.
He provided catering for the synagogue’s carnival on Sunday for Purim, a festive holiday that begins Monday night. The job did not affect his employees, he said: “We’re always wearing gloves anyways. We’re just redoubling our efforts.”
Parents who have visited the shop with children this week seem anxious, Weissman said. For now, he’s still scheduled to cater a Purim event this weekend for a different synagogue.
“No one wants to panic,” Weissman said. “Everyone is taking it a day at a time right now.”
Schwartzman reported from Washington. Miriam Berger in Washington contributed to this report.