Coronavirus in New York: Panic shopping for masks, but restaurants are still packed

Shoppers buy toilet paper, food and water at a store in Los Angeles on Feb 29, 2020.
Shoppers buy toilet paper, food and water at a store in Los Angeles on Feb 29, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Some pharmacies are seeing huge queues of customers buying hand sanitisers and face masks. One newsstand owner is cleaning his hands obsessively with a bowl of warm water that he keeps inside his stall. A bar owner has written to the mayor to see whether the city can offer licences for takeout cocktails.

For weeks, New Yorkers braced for the arrival of the coronavirus, even while day-to-day life in the city seemingly has not changed.

Through the weekend, restaurants had been full and tourists still headed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and lined up for Broadway shows.

But that resiliency may soon be tested as the first case of coronavirus in New York state was confirmed on Sunday night (March 1).

A woman in her 30s who had travelled in Iran has the virus and is isolated in her home in Manhattan, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo announced.

Even before this first confirmed case, many pharmacies in the city said that they had been out of sanitisers, antibacterial wipes and masks for weeks.

Ms Jean-Marie Maroulis, a pharmacist at the Village Apothecary in Manhattan, said that the number of customers there had increased by a third amid fears of the virus. Ms Toni Tooley, an employee at a Rite Aid in Chelsea, said those supplies were out of stock.

"When we get them, people buy like 10 boxes," she said. "Every time we get them, the next day they are gone."

She added: "We don't have any hand sanitiser in the store at all. We barely have wipes."

Before the announcement on Sunday night, New York City's Health Department said that two more people had been tested for the virus and were awaiting results, bringing the total number tested to 11. The nine other tests have come back negative.

The case that was confirmed on Sunday night was tested at the Wadsworth Centre in Albany and will be sent on to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention's lab in Atlanta for confirmation. Previously, all patient samples had been sent to the CDC for initial testing.

 
 
 
 

New York City officials also said that the Food and Drug Administration had approved their application to develop their own coronavirus test and would soon begin administering it in the city.

"This approval will expedite wait time and improve New York's ability to more effectively manage the coronavirus situation as it unfolds," Mr Cuomo said in a statement.

Small adjustments

For many, Sunday night, life was continuing as usual - with some small adjustments. Some said they were reducing handshakes and hugs, while others said they were contorting themselves on the subway to keep from touching the poles. Street entertainers were asking to be paid by credit card rather than with cash.

Ms Meryam Khodja, 27, a regular commuter into New York who was at the Port Authority last Friday, rattled off a list of people who were worried about the disease: "My sister, her boyfriend, my boyfriend, his mom, my parents," she said.

Ms Khodja had hoped to see Aladdin on Broadway, she said, but that plan was abandoned after her boyfriend said that sitting in a packed room with strangers was too much of a risk.

And then there was Mr Keyur Patel, 21, who runs a newsstand near Herald Square in Manhattan.

Mr Patel keeps hand sanitiser and a bowl of water for washing his hands inside his stall. When a sneezing customer makes a purchase, Mr Patel said, he makes sure to wait until that person has walked away before vigorously washing his hands.

"I don't know if they're sick or not, but they do buy Kleenex," he said. "This one, Kleenex, has been selling a lot."

Some museums have seen a dip in the number of visitors.

 
 
 

"Attendance is only slightly below what we modelled for the year during the past couple of weeks, although we are mindful that the rapidly changing environment may deter some travel plans," said Mr Kenneth Weine, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Mr Weine said museum officials were consulting with staff and community members to ensure a safe environment. Safety concerns over the virus caused workers at the Louvre in Paris to walk out on Sunday, causing the museum to turn away tourists.

Precautionary measures

In New York, some people said they were not entirely sure what the virus was or what exactly would prevent it, so they were taking all precautionary measures, like hoarding face masks, even though the surgeon general has urged people to stop buying them because they are not effective.

"Self-preservate! That's the best way to put it without saying, 'Don't be dirty,'" said Mr Jaquan Jones, 28, who operates a carousel in Battery Park and who asks customers to pay by credit card. "That's right - treat yourself like your favourite meal."

Ms Ayushi Kedar, 25, who was visiting from Boston, said she had heard from her sister that the virus came from sea animals. "So I stopped eating seafood for some time," she said. 

Nothing from news reports indicate that this is true. 

 
 
 

Mr Bentley Eldridge, 17, who was visiting from Seattle with classmates to attend a model United Nations conference, said his grandmother had told him to take zinc during the trip. Others on the trip said their mothers had urged them to take multivitamins.

"How many thousands of people were just at the opening ceremony?" Mr Eldridge asked nervously.

Ms Annie Lanier, who owns Black Rabbit, a bar in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, said she was starting to get nervous about the potential repercussions from the coronavirus on her business and the thousands of other small businesses in New York, which employ about four million people.

"If we had a 20 per cent decrease in business, that would be really scary," she said, adding that she had written to the mayor to see whether alcohol licences could be altered to allow home deliveries of cocktails and alcoholic beverages.

"We would not be able to pay bills and salary. It would get serious very quickly."

While people were not scared yet, she said, a possible death in the city as a result of the virus would probably shift attitudes quickly.

The new virus is believed to have originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year before spreading to more than 60 other countries. More than 89,000 people have been infected, and more than 3,000 have died. New hubs of transmission have emerged in Italy, Iran and South Korea.

In the United States, more than 80 cases of the virus have been confirmed. Over the weekend, two people in Washington state were the first people in the country to die as a result of the illness.

Forecasting declines

New York City's tourism agency had already forecast a decline in visitors from foreign countries before the virus spread to Italy and other countries.

Mr Fred Dixon, the chief executive of NYC & Co, said the agency's latest projection for 2020 was for about 285,000 fewer visitors from China, the city's second-biggest source of international tourists.

 
 
 

That would be a decline of more than 25 per cent from the 1.1 million Chinese visitors last year, he said. But the agency is still forecasting a slight increase in total visitors this year, to 68 million from 66.6 million in 2019.

Ms Narelle Lange, a tourist from California, had planned her trip to New York months ago. The threats of the coronavirus were not going to alter her travel plans, she said as she sat on a bench waiting for a train to the Bronx.

"I am not fearful at this point," said Ms Lange, a registered nurse. "I take my chances."

Her plans for the next four days in the city were all about crowds. On Saturday, she would visit a museum. On Sunday, she would attend To Kill A Mockingbird on Broadway - the second play she would see during her trip.

"Life still needs to be lived," Ms Lange, 58, said.

Rubirosa, an Italian American pizza restaurant on Mulberry Street in the Nolita section of Manhattan, was packed for brunch last Saturday. The coronavirus was on the minds of most people there, but not enough to change their routines.

Ms Amanda Delaney, 19, of Queens, a hostess at the restaurant who works the weekend brunch shift - which, she said, could get "psychotic" - said that the restaurant gets about 700 diners per work shift.

Still, she was unfazed by the number of people she encounters per day.

"You always have to be conscious in a city like this about germs, no matter what's going around," she said.