NEW ROCHELLE, NY — Today is the “morning after” the end of the Containment Zone in New Rochelle. That light at the end of the tunnel turned out to be a train.
New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson, who was given an unenviable two-week head start in responding to the coronavirus, had a message for the rest of the country’s leaders and residents when we spoke to him earlier today.
“The measures we implemented are important,” he said. “They are worth doing even if they’re hard, that communities are capable in taking unprecedented action provided they are given clear guidance and clear information and that we have capacity to overcome this challenge if we stick together.”
While the Containment Zone may have worked to flatten the curve in New Rochelle — the growth in the number of cases of COVID-19 in New Rochelle has slowed — the number of coronavirus cases in Westchester and, more broadly, the entire New York Metro area continued to skyrocket. And, as Bramson stressed, the results in New Rochelle are preliminary and could change suddenly.
While Westchester County had 4,691 positive tests as of March 25th, the good news is just 234 of those cases are in New Rochelle. The worse news is that as we were writing this article, County Executive Latimer was announcing those numbers jumped to 5,944 positive tests with 56 hospitalizations and 8 deaths countywide.
“The data are sufficient to demonstrate that New Rochelle is declining as a percentage of confirmed cases in Westchester,” said New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson. “Our early quarantine and social distancing measures have been effective.”
Talk of the Sound asked Westchester County Executive George Latimer at his online press briefing for his thoughts on whether the New Rochelle Containment Zone period was helpful and what lessons might the rest of the country learn from New Rochelle’s experience.
“The last couple of days had a fairly flat result in New Rochelle which is the bulk of this area identified,” said Latimer. “We hope that means that those activities reduced the amount of contagion that could spread and therefore reduce the amount of people that we would find In a position of severe illness and hospitalization and so forth.”
“It’s a little early to say that we have a trend, the zone itself is no more because now we have controls that are much greater all across the County but I think the fact that New Rochelle was the first community to see the positive tests and actions were taken in new Rochelle that went further and we’re hopeful that that represents a flattening of the curve.”
We asked the same question of New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson. What are his thoughts on whether the New Rochelle Containment Zone period was helpful and what lessons might the rest of the country learn from New Rochelle’s experience.
“New Rochelle residents did an exemplary job of complying with the terms of the containment zone and other restrictions were in place here,” said Bramson. “The vast majority of New Rochelleans recognize that it was important to follow the guidance of Public Health professionals and act in a responsible fashion and I am proud that our City rose to the occasion under the most difficult of circumstances.”
“In terms of whether the containment zone was successful, the early data suggest New Rochelle is declining as a percentage of positive cases in the region and because social distancing measures or implemented here earlier than elsewhere it is reasonable to conclude that those measures may have been responsible for limiting the spread of the virus in New Rochelle, however, we need to be very cautious in interpreting the data because it contains lots of uncertainty.”
“It is always hard to judge how much our municipal number reflects the spread of the virus as opposed to simply greater detection of the virus through intensity of testing, the rates of testing vary widely between different communities and there’s also a lag between when individuals get their positive results and when those numbers are aggregated by the municipality as a whole.”
“I think optimism is appropriate but it needs to be cautious optimism and the cautious part needs to be underlined,” said Bramson. “I really want to emphasize the limitations of the data. We’re all looking for rays of sunshine and this may very well be a ray of sunshine but it’s entirely premature to be popping champagne corks.”
“There is one sobering lesson and one encouraging lesson,” said Bramson. “The sobering lesson is this, when the containment zone was originally announced on March 10 it was rightly viewed as a forceful and necessary measure to limit the spread of the virus in an emerging hotspot, just one week later it already looked mild and it was overtaken and exceeded by statewide standards that were far more stringent which illustrates just how quickly the virus has upended public policy goals and expectations.”
“The positive lesson is that in the face of this overwhelming pressure and the glare of the national spotlight New Rochelle‘s social infrastructure has held firm, community agencies and not-for-profit groups have mobilized and the City has been able to maintain essential services in the context of a radically different work environment and there has been an outpouring of voluntarism and civic pride.”
“The great majority of residents have not reacted with panic or hysteria but instead have been calmly engaging in commonsense measures,” said Bramson.
New Rochelle, a New York City suburb of 80,000 people, is about 20 miles north of midtown Manhattan but less than 1/2 a mile from the Bronx, the northernmost borough of New York.
In New York City — the new global epicenter of the coronavirus — the number of cases jumped from 185 on March 14th to 15,597 on March 24th.
“We’re now looking at a bullet train, because the numbers are going up that quickly,” said Governor Andrew Cuomo on March 24th.
The first person in New York State to test positive for COVID-19 was a 39-year-old health-care worker who had recently returned from Iran. She was diagnosed on March 1st. She was not hospitalized and has since recovered, according to the Associated Press.
Lawrence Garbuz, the second person in New York State to test positive for COVID-19, and the first person in New Rochelle to test positive, became symptomatic on February 22nd. A member of Young Israel of New Rochelle, Garbuz attended services at the synagogue that day, and a funeral, and a bat mitzvah on ￼February 23rd. He was admitted to NewYork-Presbyterian Lawrence Hospital in Bronxville on February 28th. He was diagnosed with coronavirus on March 2nd and transferred to New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York City where he recently emerged from a medically induced coma and is said to be recovering well.
After Garbuz tested positive on March 2nd, more tests were done on family and friends. As the extent of community spread in New Rochelle became apparent, the Westchester County Department of Health directed about 1,000 people who might have come in contact with ￼Garbuz to quarantine in self-isolation.
As first reported by Talk of the Sound, an Emergency Operation Center was set up in the old Steiner Sports Memorabilia offices below the offices of the Westchester County Department of Health at 145 Huguenot Street in downtown New Rochelle. Samples from the quarantined residents were collected each day, driven to the EOC, stored in the back of a Black SUV (pictured above) then driven to a testing lab in Albany by New York State troopers.
The operation was later documented on 60 Minutes: Inside an American coronavirus containment zone.
Garbuz’ wife, son and daughter tested positive on March 4th along with the man who drove Garbuz to the hospital, his friend, the friend’s wife, two sons and daughter. 8 more people tested positive on March 5th, 9 more tested positive on March 6th, another 23 tested positive on March 7th, bringing the total in New Rochelle to 49 cases.
On March 10th when Governor Cuomo announced the Containment Zone in New Rochelle, marking off a one-mile radius around Young Israel New Rochelle, there were 108 cases in New Rochelle.
The Containment Zone period was implemented starting March 12th and ran until midnight March 25th, last night.
On March 20th, aggregate New Rochelle cases stood at 223, more than double from the 108 when the Containment Zone was announced on March 10th but the rate of growth slowed. By March 24 confirmed cases were at 225 and by March 25th confirmed cases were at 234 indicating the curve, at least in New Rochelle, had flattened.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has praised the Containment Zone in reducing cases in New Rochelle.
“You see the Westchester number is slowing,” Cuomo said over the weekend. “We did a New Rochelle containment area. The numbers would suggest that that has been helpful. So I feel good about that.”
The mindset in New Rochelle, and the rest of the country, has undergone a sea change since March 10th when Governor Cuomo shocked the country by calling out the National Guard and declaring an ominous sounding “Containment Zone” in the Wykagyl-area in New Rochelle’s tony North End. He shut down schools, houses of worship and other large gathering places in parts of New Rochelle and neighboring Tuckahoe.
At the time, it appeared New Rochelle was in a unique situation that it would have to weather for two weeks but one that would soon end with a return to normal. Instead, New Rochelle has exited the containment zone period in a world transformed beyond what few could have imagined at the beginning of March.
After Lawrence Garbuz woke from a coma, Adina Garbuz posted on Facebook on March 18th:
“(Lawrence) is trying to comprehend a world where no one goes out, no social gatherings, no religious services, no Purim!!”
We asked Mayor Bramson to address how the community has had to adjust quickly to a rapidly evolving situation, that where we are today was not in most people’s minds when the Containment Zone was announced on March 10th.
“I agree 100%,” said Bramson. “As serious and all-consuming that this was at the outset, I don’t think any of us fully grasped initially just how wide ranging and long lasting the impacts of the crisis would be and I think that only became evident with the passage of time.”
“This went from being a New Rochelle specific containment zone to a state wide containment zone to being nearly a national containment zone in a span of days,” he said. “I don’t think anything in our prior experience has prepared us for the sort of challenge that moves so rapidly that touches every aspect of public policy in such a radical way.”
Governor Cuomo announced on March 20th, the entire state would go on PAUSE (“Policies Assure Uniform Safety for Everyone”) on Sunday night, March 22nd, in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19 and avert the expected wave of patients expected to crash on top of the healthcare system.
Today, as the Containment Zone ends, all “non-essential” workers are to stay home, essential businesses like grocery stores and pharmacies remain open but restaurants and bars can only serve delivery and take-out. Everyone must keep six feet of distance between other persons. New Rochelle, along with the rest of the country, wishes it only had to contend with the, in retrospect, light restrictions of the containment zone rules of no gatherings under 50 people but where restaurants and other businesses remained open, everyone was at work and people were free to come and go.
Looking back two weeks later, the Containment Zone announced March 10th looks like “the good old days” on March 26th.
On the day after Cuomo announced the New Rochelle Containment Zone, Mayor Noam Bramson and Superintendent Dr. Laura Feijóo spoke at back-to-back press conferences.
“This is purely a limitation on large gatherings; it is not a quarantine or exclusion zone, and it does not apply to individual residents and families or to individual businesses.”
“The National Guard will be assisting with logistical and operational challenges in our community, including cleaning and the distribution of meals to students who rely on school lunches and breakfasts at schools that are closed.”
“I happen to live in the containment zone. I had lunch with my family at a restaurant in the containment zone yesterday. One can travel through the area and not have any sense of life having changed. It’s only through these institutional impacts that the people of New Rochelle have been significantly affected.”
“The virus is not like a cloud that lingers around a whole neighborhood. It is passed through close contact between individuals. And so some social distancing is, obviously, sensible, particularly if you are a senior citizen or if you have a compromised immune system or a respiratory condition. But if you are a healthy adult, then I think continuing to participate in the life and commerce of our community is a sensible decision. The county executive and I a few days ago made a point of eating lunch out at a kosher Asian restaurant that is right in the heart of this neighborhood, and we did so with great confidence that our health will just be fine.”
Bramson said that the restrictions did not apply to families, people entering or leaving the area, or businesses, saying “life could go on as normal” for those groups.
“The Schools impacted are limited to New Rochelle High School, Albert Leonard Middle School and Ward Elementary schools in the City School District of New Rochelle will be closed from March 11, 2020 through March 25, 2020. As of this most recent guidance, we anticipate students will return to school on March 26, 2020.”
“We believe students are safest in schools and are eager to reopen as soon as possible. It is inevitable that one of our students or staff will contract the virus.”
“We thank the Governor’s office for their partnership. After speaking with his staff, it is clear to us that they understand the complexity of our district and our advocacy to stay open.”
“We need State funds and the States commitment that food will be made available and delivered to homes where students have been identified as needing this level of support.”
The day after the twin press conferences at New Rochelle City Hall, on March 12th, as Talk of the Sound was first to report, CDC Guidance for New Rochelle recommended closing all schools in New Rochelle for 6 weeks, until April 27th.
Talk of the Sound was also first to report on a revolt by FUSE, the local NYSUT school union.
On March 11th, FUSE President Martin Daly accused Dr. Feijóo of having “ignored the recommendations of medical professionals, and the pleas of community members, employees, and students….needlessly putting all members of the school community’s health at risk.”
To support students at the three schools closed by the Containment Zone, Dr. Feijóo personally delivered Chromebooks to students at their homes.
The next day, under intense pressure from the school union and parents and with one sick staffer member at Isaac E. Young Middle School, Dr. Feijóo, announced on March 12th, all district schools would be closed for two weeks, until the end of the Containment Zone period with plans to re-open schools today, March 26th.
Earlier that day, Dr. Feijóo met with top school officials and began a hastily arranged tour of the 7 schools which still remained open to discuss the yet-to-be announced decision to close the schools for two weeks. She cut her tour short, having visited Barnard Early Childhood Center, Trinity Elementary School and Isaac E. Young Middle School. She felt ill and went home to Long Island where the next day she was tested at the Urgent Care facility in Plainview.
On March 21st, Feijóo learned she has tested positive for COVID-19 and held a video press conference from her home. She told reporters, all those she came in contact with on March 12th, were directed to self-isolate until today.
Feijóo also disclosed two employees at Isaac E. Young Middle School tested positive as did a student at one school which she declined to identify.
Michael Hilderbrand, Principal of Trinity Elementary School, was on hand for food distribution on March 17th but was not there after Feijóo tested positive.
The quarantine of almost every top official in the school administration may go a long way to explain why the food distribution operation set up at six locations was a fiasco.
As Talk of the Sound was the first to report, the distribution of food to school children took on an almost festive atmosphere with cookouts and ice cream trucks, book fairs, balloons and birthday presents. The predicate for the entire operation was that in the epicenter of the then-largest coronavirus outbreak in the United States, no worker or client was infectious. Few precautions such as gloves, masks, hand sanitizer, disinfectant and social distancing, were put into practice.
After Talk of the Sound published a detailed assessment of the entire food distribution operation, abrupt changes were put in place such as school nurses screening all workers in the morning, doing temperature checks throughout the day, eliminating all but food distribution from the food distribution tables and better distancing measures.
While Dr. Feijóo remains self-isolated until after she tests negative, the District announced Board President Amy Moselhi who works closely with the Superintendent had tested negative. The District has not disclosed test results for those who were in direct contact with Feijóo on March 12th. Self-isolation ended today for those school officials and employees in direct contact with Dr. Feijóo that did not test positive since March 12th.
As it stands today, Governor Cuomo’s Executive Order directing all schools in New York to close by Wednesday, March 18 for two weeks ending April 1 remains in effect:
“At that time, the state will reassess whether to extend the school closures further and continue to suspend the 180-day instructional requirement. Schools that exceed the closure period without state authorization will not be exempted from the 180-day rule.”
New Rochelle schools are on Spring Break from April 6th to April 10th.
While schools may re-open elsewhere in New York State on April 1st, the City School District of New Rochelle is still under CDC guidance to remain closed until April 27th.
We asked Mayor Bramson to talk about the period of the Containment Zone from a personal perspective. He lives in the Containment Zone area with his wife and two children so while as Mayor he is dealing with many bigger issues but he is also a Dad, a Husband and a school parent.
“In my own family we’ve been fortunate,” said Bramson. “All of us are healthy, none of us with the exception of my mother fall into a high risk category, our children are old enough both being high school students that they can be reasonably independent and don’t need constant supervision and we don’t have to grapple with the enormous challenge of food insecurity.”
“We are comparatively fortunate,” he said. “I recognize that there are others in New Rochelle either because their health is compromised or they have been subject to an individual quarantine or because they don’t have childcare or because their economic situation is less secure who are facing challenges far greater than we are.”
We asked Bramson one final question about what many New Rochelle residents have experienced over the past two weeks, the “Oh My God!” moment of waking up in the middle of the night or suddenly be confronted with the new reality and contemplating the surreal nature of living in a Containment Zone.
“There were two episodes like that,” said Bramson. “One was my visit to the Glen Island testing center, driving up to the approach road seeing a police officer with a mask, reaching another checkpoint with a healthcare worker in full protective gear.”
“None of it was surprising intellectually. I knew these things were occurring and yet to see it was startling and disconcerting and creepy. It felt like wandering into the scene of a movie and it really drove home the reality of the situation we we’re all facing.”
“The other episode, around the same time was a completely sleepless night in which I began running through all sorts of horrible scenarios none of which were probable but all of which were suddenly plausible,” he said. “The next morning I had a conversation with City Manager Chuck Strome about the need for us to completely re-orient our thinking about what our responsibilities were in the foreseeable future and the kinds of contingencies we might have to deal with.”
“I don’t wanna overstate that,” said Bramson. “Like everyone else my thinking has moved along sort of an evolutionary path pathway but there certainly were moments where the gravity of it all seemed to settle in.”
Moments of gravity, indeed.
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