Coronavirus in New York: Life takes an eerie turn in New Rochelle ‘containment area’

People walk through downtown in New Rochelle, New York, on March 10, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

NEW ROCHELLE (NYTIMES) - Surgical masks at the bus stop. Residents stocking up on toilet paper and medical supplies. A purple ribbon around a tree outside a virus-besieged synagogue.

The sights and rituals of life in this New York City suburb, which had already been altered, took an eerie turn on Tuesday (March 10), as New York's governor announced a drastic new step to try to control the spread of the coronavirus in one of the largest clusters in the United States.

State officials created a 1-mile radius zone in New Rochelle, in Westchester County, where schools and other buildings will be forced to close and the National Guard will be deployed.

The creation of the "containment area" by governor Andrew Cuomo, which had echoes of measures taken in other past public health crises, concentrated the state's attention around a synagogue that is at the centre of the state's largest cluster of cases.

The move seemed likely to be a precursor to similar, and perhaps more severe, actions elsewhere as the virus spreads quickly around the country. On Monday, officials in Santa Clara County, California, enacted a ban on gatherings of more than 1,000 people, and other counties were poised to follow suit.

There are now more than 800 cases of the virus in the US, including more than 170 in New York, which has the second-highest total after Washington state.

Unlike Washington, New York has yet to report a death caused by the virus, and Mr Cuomo's decision appeared to be geared towards stamping out a disease by eliminating close contact among large numbers of people in an area just north of the nation's largest city.

"This is a matter of life and death," Mr Cuomo said. "That's not an overly rhetorical statement."

In New Rochelle, Mr Cuomo said, large gathering places in the containment area like schools, community centres and houses of worship would be closed for two weeks beginning on Thursday. Members of the state National Guard will be deployed to clean schools and to deliver food to quarantined residents, including hundreds of students now facing two weeks of being isolated at home.

The state did not plan to close streets or impose travel restrictions, Mr Cuomo said, noting that he was only "containing facilities" where the virus might spread. Businesses like grocery stores and delis can remain open.

Still, the spiralling scope of infection in New Rochelle, and the increasingly disruptive measures being used to fight it, were unsettling for residents, some of whom had already begun stockpiling supplies.

"We got our toilet paper, paper towel, water," said Ms Morrietta Nkomo, 47, who lives within the containment zone with her husband and 8-year-old daughter. "We got medical supplies, too. I wasn't playing around."

Local officials said that they were still seeking clarification from the state on some of the plan's details. The affected area is a mix of homes and businesses, and it includes a country club as well as houses of worship.

But New Rochelle officials emphasised that the creation of the containment zone did not mean that people would be forced to quarantine themselves or that car and pedestrian traffic would be limited.

"Needless to say, there's considerable concern," said Mr Noam Bramson, the city's mayor, noting that some residents were already living under quarantine after possibly being exposed to the virus. "That said, I am very proud of our community."

Still, Mr Bramson said that some New Rochelle businesses were already suffering, in large part "because a fair percentage of the customer base is already quarantined". That percentage, he said, included his mother, who lives in one of the area's nursing homes, which have been a source of concern during the outbreak.

The containment plan also included setting up a new satellite testing facility for New Rochelle that would increase officials' ability to test for the virus in the city, which has a population of around 80,000.

There were 108 known patients with the virus in Westchester on Tuesday, Mr Cuomo said, adding that most of them were in New Rochelle.

The Westchester cluster first came to the authorities' attention last week, when a lawyer who lives in New Rochelle and works in Manhattan, Mr Lawrence Garbuz, became the second person in New York to be found to have the coronavirus.

The Westchester health commissioner had previously ordered specific closings linked to Mr Garbuz's movements in the days before he received the diagnosis: The synagogue he attends, Young Israel of New Rochelle, was ordered closed, and congregants who had attended a bat mitzvah, a funeral and Shabbat services in late February were ordered to isolate themselves at home for 14 days.

On Tuesday, residents inside the containment zone were simultaneously concerned by the newest developments and relieved that the steps being taken were not more severe.

Mr Matt Phillips, who lives not far from the synagogue with his wife and two teenage children, said he hoped that the measures would help, but he also expressed a fear that New Rochelle would be living with coronavirus for a while.

"I think the hope is to slow it down," Mr Phillips, 50, said. "But I'm not under any illusion that it will be gone in two weeks."

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