It’s not every day you see a detailed map of your hometown splashed across the news. Then again, the National Guard was never asked to set up a containment area there — until now.
So if you’re wondering what it’s like to have my New York hometown figure prominently in the story of a virus from Wuhan, China? It’s been completely surreal.
New Rochelle, New York, is home to about 80,000 people. It’s a small city, but because it sits in New York City’s long shadow, it’s more like a large suburb. I still remember being a teenager and complaining to my father about how boring it was and wishing we lived somewhere more exciting. Little did I know things would become too exciting for my taste in 2020.
As of Tuesday, my home county of Westchester has reported 380 cases of the Wuhan virus, many of them in New Rochelle. In an effort to reverse that trend, Gov. Andrew Cuomo sent in the National Guard last Thursday to “clean public areas within the [1-mile] containment area and deliver food to homes,” in addition to setting up the state’s first drive-through testing area. This comes on top of the quarantine that had already been imposed on some people within this small geographic area. Life is not exactly normal.
New Rochelle Seeks a Balance Between Calm and Concern
New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson, whom I reached for comment after the quarantine had been imposed but before the National Guard arrived, told me, “Obviously, this is a very difficult challenge for our community. Most especially for the residents who are impacted by a quarantine, which at a minimum is deeply disruptive, but also brings with it concern for one’s own health and one’s neighbors. At the same time, I’ve been very impressed by the calm and mature way in which residents have confronted the challenge. There’s been no panic or hysteria. The overwhelming majority of residents are receiving the guidance of public health professionals and making common-sense decisions and acting in ways that are caring toward their neighbors.”
When I asked if he had learned any lessons that might help the rest of the country, Bramson replied, “We are well served by striking the right balance between calm and concern. Our concern needs to be proportionate to the challenge in front of us. If you shoot too low or too high, it’s counterproductive.”
The mayor’s not the only one striving to strike the right balance. The “public areas” in the highly residential area Cuomo is containing through next week include not only stores and restaurants, but also several houses of worship and a Catholic girls’ school, posing both logistical and spiritual challenges. Everyone has had to devise work-arounds.
The Ursuline School, which is beginning its daily distance learning with student-led prayer, tweeted an open letter from the school’s president and principal, writing, “Our community’s health and safety are our highest priority and we continue to keep in our prayers all those around the world who are directly affected by this epidemic.”
The Community Improvises
Rev. Angela Redman of New Rochelle United Methodist Church said that for her parishioners, whose “median age is 65” and largely live alone, “The biggest change has been our inability to meet for worship and Bible study.” That has moved online with Zoom. Otherwise, “the younger members are making sure that the seniors have what they need.”
Redman also observed, “What’s really interesting is that one of the greatest assets that a church has is space to gather … and that is the one thing we cannot offer right now. This is a time in which we will have to truly demonstrate that the church is not the building, but the people, and make space in our hearts that will allow us to be, at the very least, people who can demonstrate compassion.”
In a call, Rev. Nicholas Anctil, parish priest of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, described canceling regular church programming, including weekday religious services and feeding the homeless in Manhattan. Sunday’s divine liturgy was conducted with three parishioners in church — meeting a canonical requirement — while everyone else, including the four babies who were supposed to be blessed in church, watched on Facebook Live.
The church is calling all parishioners individually to check in, and Anctil said he is supporting the community by “frequenting some of the stores in the containment zone for takeout, [going] to the CVS, because … no one is frequenting them. Half are closed, half are unattended, and they still have salaries and staff.”
Rabbi David Schuck from Beth El Synagogue told me in an email that Beth El is “working to create systems of support for those who are isolated within our synagogue community, as well as virtual programming meant to continue to engage our membership intellectually, socially, and spiritually. We will not let this public health crisis deter us from serving the needs of our congregation. … [A]nd we have been moved by how members of our community have supported each other.”
Rochel Butman, an emissary at Chabad Lubavitch of Westchester County, recounted the alternative Purim festivities she organized last Monday and Tuesday. To help quarantined families fulfill the commandment of hearing the book of Esther in person, Butman recruited high school boys to walk around, chanting the Megillah for the 126 families who requested it.
Butman recalled, “People were by their doorway; the boys were on their lawn reading with a flashlight. It was very moving.” She described an “outpouring of gratitude” from the community, so “even though the boys were working so hard, they were on a high because people were so grateful. They were glowing even though they were hoarse. They really brought people the joy of the holiday.”
There’s no doubt this has been, and continues to be, a challenging time in my hometown. The good news is that the community is coming together and supporting its members, including those who are sick or most at risk. Good on you, New Rochelle. This is how it’s done.