New York City has been on lockdown for about a month. Up until this past week the effect has been stark and nearly universal. Most mornings, weather permitting, I sit in my small Brooklyn backyard as the day begins. For weeks the loudest sound has been the silence, quiet streets forming a backdrop for distant sirens and harbor boat horns. That is changing, the white noise of car traffic, like an ocean lapping on a beach has returned.
On my “essential walks” which I take daily to the grocery or the bodega, I traverse an overpass above the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. For the past month traffic has been spare, an emergency vehicle here and there, not much more. That too has changed. While it has not returned to the soul crushing bumper-to-bumper standstill that makes the BQE infamous, the number of cars coursing to and from Staten Island has built up everyday.
What is important and telling about the differences in people’s behavior this week is that no city or state government policies have actually changed. The people of New York themselves, and from accounts across the country in other places as well, have simply decided to loosen the guidelines for themselves. We tend to think of the idea of the government existing through the consent of the governed as being about elections, but it is about more than that, the successful lockdown of New York City was not enforced as much as it was consented to.
This phenomenon is something that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo seems to understand. Cuomo was asked during one of his daily press conferences this week if he is worried that his steady stream of good news about the number of deaths stabilizing instead of increasing and the decrease in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations could give New Yorkers a false sense of security. His answer was basically that he has to tell citizens the truth or he loses his credibility.
Furthermore, Cuomo has admitted on several occasions that with 19 million people living in the New York City metro area, he really is not capable of enforcing many lockdown and social distancing measures. As he puts it, “we can’t arrest 19 million people.” Where that leaves us is in a democratic dance, a push and pull between elected officials and the people who elected them, both sides respectful of the other, but both also possessed of the power shape the virus response.
The state and local government in New York City can see what is happening They know the streets are filling back up. This week it was announced that starting Friday all riders on New York subways and busses must wear masks. This on some level is a concession that New Yorkers are once again descending below Gotham to the turnstiles and edging closer back to their normal lives.
The purpose of the lockdown was made very clear a month ago. It was to flatten the curve of cases in order to ensure that our hospitals were not overrun. That has been achieved, makeshift hospitals and the USS Comfort have thankfully turned out to be precautions we didn’t need. In a story that will disappear from the news media faster than a cockroach under kitchen lights, the Trump administration was proven correct about having the ventilators the nation needed. We achieved the goal at catastrophic economic expense to millions of Americans, and now Americans know it is time to start the return to our new normal.
The country has reason to be proud of its response to the Wuhan virus. If not for the fact that much of our corporate media sees its entire job as trashing Donald Trump and his administration, there would be a more celebratory feeling about this shared success. But even though a well-deserved moment of national pride is probably impossible, the American people know the tide is turning and they are anxious to get back to their lives.
Over the next week or two this balance between the power of the government and the will of the people will continue to shape the coronavirus response. But that balance is beginning to shift in favor of the population, this is America, and it is Americans, not our government that will ultimately decide when this cloud lifts. That is as it should be, and thankfully leaders like Trump and Cuomo understand this. The United States began in earnest with the words “We the people.” The coronavirus lockdown will end as a result of that very same authority.