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Looking Back At COVID Beginning In New Rochelle

New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson and New York National Guard members, March 12, 2020
Courtesy of the City of New Rochelle
New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson and New York National Guard members, March 12, 2020

It was the first weekend March when New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency due to the coronavirus, which took hold in New Rochelle. For a time, the Westchester County city became the epicenter of the virus in New York and the country.

Governor Cuomo on March 9 announced the state was up to 142 cases, with 98 in Westchester County. He also spoke a day earlier as regular coronavirus updates continued.

“What happened in Westchester County is a person who was positive was in a very large gathering,” says Cuomo. “And people then got infected and then they went to very large gatherings.”

Cuomo implemented a containment zone March 12 with a one-mile radius in New Rochelle, temporarily closing houses of worship and other large gathering facilities for two weeks. National Guard troops were on the ground to assist with cleaning and other activities. New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson spoke with WAMC March 13.

“New Rochelle’s in the spotlight right now, but I don’t think we’ll be in the spotlight for very long because it’s not that it’s worse here, it’s just earlier here,” Bramson said. “And the kinds of condition that we are facing are likely to be faced by many other communities in the days ahead.”

Bramson, at the time, wanted to clear up any misconception that the city was on lockdown.

“And, just to be clear, containment zone is a kind of a scary term .It really just means that large institutions within the area are prohibited from having large gatherings, which is a sensible means to slow the spread of the virus in an area which has had a high concentration of positive tests,” said Bramson. "But it’s not an exclusion zone. There’s no perimeter that prevents people from entering or exiting. It’s not a restriction on individuals or on businesses.”

In fact, fellow Democrat Westchester County Executive George Latimer, speaking with WAMC March 12, wanted to demonstrate that eating out was OK.

“I made it a point last night of having dinner in one of the restaurants in that area just to show that it’s safe and secure,” Latimer said.

Cuomo was in New Rochelle March 13 to open the state's first drive-through COVID-19 mobile testing center. Here he is speaking March 8:

“I know there’s a whole frenzy about it. The facts do not justify the frenzy, period,” Cuomo says. “The biggest problem we have in this situation is fear, not the virus; the virus we can handle, it’s the fear. And the fear is just unwarranted.”

Again, Bramson, March 13:

“I think the challenge for all of us is calibrating our response so that it is proportionate to the challenge that’s in front of us, proportionate to the serious issues that we’re facing, but doesn’t stray over into fear or panic or hysteria of a kind that’s ultimately self-defeating,” said Bramson.

Cuomo encouraged New Yorkers to work from home, telecommute and avoid densely populated spaces whenever possible to help contain the spread of the virus. More than nine months later, he says the spread predominantly comes from small gatherings. Latimer, again, speaking with WAMC in March, said he agreed with Cuomo’s containment zone designation for New Rochelle that month.

“The way I view this is sort of the way you do when your phone is on the fritz and you turn it off and you turn it back on. It’s called rebooting. That’s, that’s what we’re doing right now. We’re trying to boot in this target area with all of the major houses of worship, the country clubs, whatever other facilities are there that people gather at. We’re trying to make sure there’s deep cleaning done, that schools are out at this period of time, it gives us a chance to ensure that there’s no virus being tracked on surfaces, and then also to kind of push off some of the social contacts a little bit more,” said Latimer. “We’re in unchartered territory. There’s no roadmap that tells us do this, do that.”

Fast forward to early May, when Mayor Bramson again spoke with WAMC for an update.

“The number of active cases in New Rochelle, as throughout Westchester, is declining week by week,” said Bramson. “That’s a product of the good work that we’re all doing to remain physically distant and avoid nonessential gatherings. Clearly those measures have been effective.”

He continued:

“The bad news is that many families are grieving the loss of loved ones and that, even on the downside of the apex, there are still hundreds of new cases each week throughout Westchester County, and this remains among the areas with the highest infection rates in the world,” Bramson said. “So we know that we still have a long road ahead.”

That long road led to a second peak in the pandemic that began a few months ago. During one of his COVID briefings in November, Latimer said the last time the county had more than 6,000 active cases was the beginning of May, and the last time there were about 250 people hospitalized with COVID was May 31. Westchester County held a Ribbons of Remembrance ceremony in early December honoring the more than 1,500 residents who died from COVID-19. Rabbi Evan Hoffman offered prayers and shared a personal anecdote.

“It was my Jewish community of New Rochelle that was first hit on March 1 of this year when everyone else was still enjoying life as normally as they could and thought they could. I was in quarantine for 14 days with my children,” Rabbi Hoffman says. “The day that I came out, I had my first COVID funeral on the Stony Hills of Mount Eden in Valhalla. And, instead of there being 100 people there, there was one person, me, and the deceased, and the funeral workers.”

Today, there are no containment zones; there are state designated color-coded zones — red, orange and yellow, with red carrying the most severe restrictions. Westchester has six zones — an orange zone for most of the Village of Port Chester and part of the Village of Rye Brook, and yellow zone designations in portions of New Rochelle, Ossining, Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow, Yonkers and Peekskill. And, sadly, more than 37,000 state residents have died of COVID-19.

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