Shutting down the city that never sleeps

An unimaginable week in New York City as it became a new epicenter of America’s coronavirus pandemic

Shutting down the city that never sleeps

An unimaginable week in New York City as it became a new epicenter of America’s coronavirus pandemic
Streets in Manhattan were already emptying early last week. (Jeennah Moon/Reuters)

It was one of the most unimaginable statements in the history of one of the world’s greatest cities.

“Even though a decision has not been made by the city or by the state, I think that all New Yorkers should be prepared right now for the possibility of a shelter-in-place order,” Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Tuesday afternoon.

In that moment, New York City was becoming the new epicenter of the novel coronavirus spreading across the country — the 923 documented cases at the beginning of the week would soar beyond 5,000 by the end, including at least 26 deaths, figures climbing by the hour. The mayor would call the numbers “staggering” as the colossal city struggled to slow down further. Already, Broadway had gone dark. Museums were shut. Schools were closed. Office buildings were emptying and traffic was thinning, but now the imperative was growing for an even more complete shutdown of life in a city of 8.4 million people waiting to know what exactly that meant.

The “very, very difficult” decision would come in the next 48 hours, de Blasio (D) said — words that spread across a city where yet another unfathomable decision had already taken effect the day before, the near-total closing of the city’s 26,000 restaurants and 10,000 bars.

“Last call is 7:30,” Pete Byrne, the bartender at Corner Bistro in the West Village, had said Monday night as the 8 p.m. deadline approached, and this time he really meant last.

And so the last customers finished their last drinks at the worn wooden bar, clinging to the last moments of the New York City life they’d known. The Clash was still playing on the speakers. ESPN was still on the TV. But there were disinfectant wipes next to the beer glasses and at one bar stool, a young man was saying, “I heard if you can hold your breath for 10 seconds then you don’t have it.”

“Ten seconds?” said his friend, inhaling.

At another stool, a white-haired regular was finishing the red wine that was always waiting for him when he arrived in the evenings, saying, “I don’t see what all the fuss is about,” and grumbling about what he was going to eat in the coming days.

At another, a man coughed into his burger.

“Tough times,” he said to the bartender.

“Yeah, we’re in for it,” Byrne said, and soon he climbed onto a table, switched off the television and ushered everyone out.

“Ciao,” said the grumbling regular, wrapping his plaid scarf.

“We’ll get through it,” said another regular heading to the door.

“Hope to see you in about two weeks — we’ll keep our fingers crossed for that,” said the coughing man as he pushed the brass plate on the swinging doors with his bare hand, and Byrne followed him outside.

“Be safe,” Byrne said, switching off the red neon sign, and the corner of West 4th and Jane streets was a little darker.

* * *

Patrons wait for to-go orders outside MacDougal Street mainstay Caffe Dante on March 19 in Manhattan's Greenwich Village neighborhood. (Victor J. Blue/AFP/Getty Images)

The next morning, the Corner Bistro opened again, but in keeping with the ban, for delivery only, the last hope of every restaurant that had not already laid off entire staffs now joining the millions filing for unemployment.

In the kitchen, a cook fired up the broiler and waited. At a computer, a waiter named Zurita watched for orders. In the office upstairs, Tom Soltan called to suspend the linen service, the rug cleaning service, the beer delivery and the meat delivery, and meanwhile, downstairs, only six orders had come and now the ATM technician was at the door.

“What do you want me to do?” he asked.

“Nobody’s going to use it — maybe just cut it off,” Zurita said, and so the blue lights of the ATM went dark, and the last order came, and the last delivery guy put it in his backpack and headed out into a city becoming emptier by the hour as the number of cases grew and the mayor deliberated over what a more drastic shutdown could entail.

Ron Shillingford biked up Eighth Avenue, passing door after door taped with signs: “Dear beloved customers . . .” and “In light of the coronavirus . . .” The street was free of all the traffic he normally dodged, and soon he arrived at a building where the front desk was a fortress of Lysol wipes, Lysol spray, boxes of tissues and a bottle of rubbing alcohol.

He rode up an empty elevator that smelled like sanitizer. He walked down a quiet hallway. When he knocked on the apartment door, a single gloved hand reached out for the food he’d brought.

“Thanks man,” a voice said, and this was what life was becoming on Tuesday: gloved hands, disembodied voices and street trash that now included face masks in gutters and protective gloves on sidewalks and an instruction pamphlet for the N95 mask in a bus lane.

Inside Grand Central Terminal, the voice of the train announcer bounced around the soaring concourse mostly empty at rush hour. A homeless man yelled in a corner. Two police officers leaned on a shuttered ticket booth. Outside, the line of yellow taxis grew longer and longer, stretching down 42nd Street as drivers waited for passengers not coming.

“It’s very bad,” said a driver named Sam Helal, who’d had two fares in five hours.

“I cannot find anyone,” said Balkar Singh, in line behind him.

“I don’t know how I’m going to pay my rent,” said Shamin Pervez, in line behind him.

The streets were left to roaming taxis, white work vans and the delivery bikers now idling in small circles on corners including West 27th Street and Broadway.

“I have nothing,” Mohamed Ahmed was saying to his colleague Andrew Gaillard.

“Are we going to qualify for unemployment?” said Gaillard. “What about us 1099 workers? What about us?”

They kept checking their delivery apps for new orders.

“Today is worse than yesterday, yesterday was worse than the day before — everything is getting worse,” said Ahmed and then they were quiet.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” said Gaillard.

* * *

A man walks through the nearly empty Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan on March 14. (Jeennah Moon for The Washington Post)

Wednesday morning:

The front page of the New York Daily News read “Helter Shelter” and as de Blasio and New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) argued over the shelter-in-place order — which the governor would have to approve — New Yorkers headed to banks to get cash, wiping down the buttons on the ATM before pressing them.

“For the delivery people,” said Kathi Gelles, at an ATM on Sixth Avenue.

“In case I have any problems,” said Jay Dube through a mask, imagining what those problems could be. “Maybe the bank closes because they have no money. Maybe my investments go down. Maybe my family will need it.”

His phone rang.

“Hello?” he said. “I’ll meet you at home, okay? I’m coming home.”

He tucked his money away as the next person took his place, and meanwhile, on Wall Street, another awful day was underway even as lawmakers in Washington were discussing a trillion-dollar bailout package.

Inside the New York Stock Exchange, health-care workers in white coats aimed temperature guns at the foreheads of traders in blue coats coming and going as the market plunged.

Outside, the tall buildings and cobblestone streets at the epicenter of the financial world were a canyon of emptiness, and on the hour the bells of Trinity Church rang for those still left.

At midday, a man walked outside a building, stood in a sliver of sunshine, stretched his arms up, touched his toes, and went back inside. A janitor swept up three cigarette butts and a foil wrapper, and it was quiet enough to hear the scrape of the dustpan on asphalt and the conversation of two security guards nearby.

Now all of a sudden they have resources,” said one, referring to the proposed government relief. “Now, you can have sick leave. Now. See what I’m saying?”

Across the street, Victor Andino stood alone by the cart where he sold I-Heart-NYC T-shirts, and watched the stock market ticker scrolling above the door to the exchange.

“Oh,” he said as the little arrows scrolled by pointing down, down, down, and when a lone tourist asked about the famous bronze statue on the steps of Federal Hall, Andino said distractedly, “Yeah, George Washington,” and kept watching the arrows until he decided to close early. He packed up the T-shirts. He boxed up the little bronze bull statues. He took down the taxicab magnets and loaded the storage crates into his white box truck, and now the sound of Wall Street was of the metal hatch rattling shut, and soon after that, the floor traders began leaving, hurrying toward their trains, not knowing that the next day would come yet another improbable announcement, that floor trading would be shut down.

“It’s surreal — we’re in uncharted waters here,” said a man in tortoiseshell glasses before disappearing down the stairs to the still-open subway.

The train cars at this time of day should have been jammed but they were not. There should have been standing room only but now there were plenty of seats, and in one car, 11 people sat spread apart from one end to the other. But at the next stop, a few more people got on, and at the next stop a few more, and soon every seat was taken including one where a young man wiped his runny nose with a bare hand then gripped a silver pole. A woman pulled her turtleneck over her mouth and nose, and as train sped north toward the Bronx, the moneyed world of the Upper East Side aboveground was quiet enough to hear birds chirping in the budding trees on East 87th Street.

Along Fifth Avenue, the M5 bus sailed south without a single passenger inside.

A jogger ran up and down the stairs in front of the shuttered Metropolitan Museum of Art, which had just sent a letter to patrons saying they were preparing for a $100 million loss and expected to be shut down until July.

On a side street nearby, an elderly couple walked their dachshund. The woman coughed.

“Come on little puppy,” she said, pulling the slow dog down the empty sidewalk, past the long green and black awnings where doormen opened heavy wrought iron doors wearing rubber gloves instead of the usual white ones.

They opened the doors for a man hauling in two bags of groceries. They opened them for the elderly couple, and at a building on Fifth Avenue, a doorman ushered in a delivery man rolling a tank of oxygen.

* * *

Like many other cultural institutions, the Museum of Modern Art in Midtown Manhattan is closed indefinitely. (Jeennah Moon for The Washington Post)
Health-care workers are honored before the start of trading at the New York Stock Exchange on March 20. The exchange's famous floor had closed the previous day. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
A costumed street performer gets some air while wearing a mask in Times Square on March 14. (Jeennah Moon for The Washington Post)
TOP: Like many other cultural institutions, the Museum of Modern Art in Midtown Manhattan is closed indefinitely. (Jeennah Moon for The Washington Post) BOTTOM LEFT: Health-care workers are honored before the start of trading at the New York Stock Exchange on March 20. The exchange's famous floor had closed the previous day. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters) BOTTOM RIGHT: A costumed street performer gets some air while wearing a mask in Times Square on March 14. (Jeennah Moon for The Washington Post)


The number of coronavirus cases in the city was spiking toward 4,000, and as de Blasio’s 48-hour window was nearing its deadline, he was calling the virus’s march through the city an “explosion” and pleading with the federal government to mobilize the military and send more supplies — another 15,000 ventilators, 3 million N95 masks, 50 million surgical masks, and 45 million each of face masks, surgical gowns, coveralls and gloves.

“It is beyond comprehension, it is immoral that our president has not ordered the military to full mobilization,” de Blasio told reporters at a news conference as the city continued shutting down and hospitals along the stretch of First Avenue known as “Bedpan Alley” were gearing up.

At Bellevue, a white tent was being assembled on the green grass of an adjacent courtyard, where an expected flood of people would be tested for the virus.

In front of the hospital, taxis and vans were lining up to take home the last patients with non-urgent ailments, including an elderly woman being wheeled into an Access-A-Ride van.

“It’s a ghost town in there,” she said. “They canceled my eye surgery. I’m bumping into everything. This is affecting everybody in every way.”

Inside the hospital foyer, three New York City police officers stood guard wearing masks and stopping most visitors from going any further.

In the vast lobby beyond, doctors and nurses hurried from one corridor to another. A worker hauled out two signs explaining that visitors were now restricted except for “imminent end of life situations.”

Another worker set up two white folding tables, then a folding metal chair, and by late afternoon, a young man was sitting in it, coughing into a mask. A white-coated woman wearing a protective eye shield hurried over to him, aimed a thermometer gun to his head, and soon two more health-care workers surrounded him, and then an officer was telling the civilians left in the foyer, “Okay, everyone needs to leave now — everyone out.”

After that, a woman with a thermometer gun began standing on the ramp into the lobby, checking everyone coming and going, including Suzana Hasanaj, a pharmacist finishing her shift.

“Right now, I’m a little bit panicked,” she said. “What is it going to be? Am I going to be sick? Because the virus is in the air.”

It was starting to get dark, and she hurried home along First Avenue, where stray gloves and masks littered the sidewalk and empty buses passed and the few people out on the streets were the ones who had little choice but to be there.

At a grocery store on Sixth Avenue, workers restocked cans of beans and granola bars.

At a pharmacy across the street, an elderly woman took a package of cough drops from a half-empty rack.

And as 48 hours came and went without an official shelter-in-place order, more and more New Yorkers were realizing it was probably only a matter of time.

“We’ll get through it,” said a bodega owner named MD Hossein, closing down, perhaps for good, and now a city that had known emergencies before was as still and quiet as ever.

Times Square was empty except for police and a few leftover tourists taking photos of its momentous emptiness. The New York Public Library, closed. St. Patrick’s Cathedral, closed. Rockefeller Center, closed. All the shops and office buildings along Fifth Avenue — closed until further notice, even the gold one at the corner of 57th Street.

Trump Tower was closed, and inside the lobby, everything had come to a stop, including the gilded escalator that Trump had once glided down to begin his presidential campaign on a day when the city was running at full speed.

The lights are still on, but the Theater District's stages are dark. (Jeenah Moon/Reuters)
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