On the Tuesday before spring break, I walked out of my education class and into a family group chat storm, sparked by my sister’s text from the middle of her school day: “Coronavirus is in New Rochelle.” The news felt surreal at the time: Up until this point I’d only been aware of COVID-19 cases in Washington state, which I knew to be disastrous for locals but which still felt far enough away from me that the situation wasn’t yet personal. By the time I packed to go home for spring break on Friday, I had a feeling that I might not come back in two weeks. Only a day after New Rochelle’s first case was confirmed, the patient’s synagogue, Young Israel, had been shut down, and everyone who’d gone to recent services with him was told to quarantine in their homes for two weeks. At the rate things were escalating in New Rochelle, I knew I too could end up quarantined at home due to some random exposure. Just in case, I brought home a book for my women’s studies class that I didn’t yet need but would get to soon after break. At the time, I assumed my return wouldn’t be delayed longer than a week or two.
But on Thursday, March 12, shortly after I arrived home, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo created the country’s first containment zone, a one-mile radius around the synagogue. Residents were still free to enter and leave the containment zone, but the order closed down schools within that one-mile radius and banned large gatherings, such as religious services. The National Guard was deployed to New Rochelle to help distribute food to students who relied on free or reduced-price school meals. Many of my high school friends whose colleges had shut down opted to live with relatives elsewhere instead of coming home. For the first time ever, I saw my hometown’s name in the top news headline on my phone. My dispersed Vassar friends were living largely normal lives for that first week of spring break. They ate at restaurants and went to the gym and spent time with their friends while I was living under a set of norms that would become their future.
A recent robocall from Noam Bramson, the mayor of New Rochelle, reminded my household that the containment zone is technically over. He went on to tell us that this changes nothing: The restrictions imposed by Governor Cuomo’s “New York State on PAUSE” executive order mirror those from the initial containment zone. New Rochelle, in terms of the pandemic, is not unusual anymore. Now communities across the state are following the same or stricter mitigation measures: Non-essential businesses are closed, public gatherings are banned, and residents are mostly staying in their homes until the worst of the outbreak has passed.
But for a few weeks, New Rochelle occupied an unfamiliar media spotlight. On March 15, the Buzzfeed News Instagram account posted a slideshow of photos headlined “This Is What Life Looks Like Inside The New Rochelle Containment Zone.” The cover photo showed a group of people in masks and gloves and protective clothing. Next, a driver wearing a poorly fitted mask inside her car. Empty restaurants between Young Israel and my neighborhood. National Guard members mid-task. Initially I was shocked. I lived in the containment zone, and these pictures didn’t match what I saw around me. I sent the post to a friend from Vassar. “This is not what it looks like at all,” I told her. At the time, I had only seen one person wearing a mask in public. The restaurant photographed had rarely been full before the virus, and I hadn’t yet seen anyone from the National Guard. The comments on the post echoed my reaction. People I vaguely knew in high school flooded the comments section: “Delete this. It’s fake news. I went to the supermarket/the bagel store/a party today. You’re dragging it. It’s not that bad.” Some people tried to turn the narrative around, talking about how they were bonding with their families and spending time outside, tagging their comments with #NewRoStrong. My experience was closer to the latter group’s: I wasn’t thrilled about being stuck at home with no friends around, but I also wasn’t that concerned. Most of the small businesses around me were still open and accessible. I’ve always been obsessive about hand sanitizer, so unlike some of my family I had no new habit to form. I baked bread and read books and FaceTimed my friends. My life felt relatively normal.
Because of this, I understood the urge to deny what the post depicted. That’s not what it’s like for me, people were saying, so that can’t be what it’s like. But dramatic as the selection may have been, those photos were real. They were all taken in New Rochelle, though not all technically within the containment zone. There really are empty businesses, food distribution sites and a drive-through coronavirus testing site at Glen Island Park, just as there are families out riding bikes together and high school students parking their cars in a circle and sitting in their trunks to socialize. If I did not live in New Rochelle, I would have looked at those photos on March 15 and imagined a city falling into a dystopia. Since I do live here, my urge was to dismiss them. Neither reaction is completely right. These scenes don’t represent my privileged reality. My family members are healthy, my parents’ income is relatively unaffected, and we don’t rely on food from the school district. But the scenes that these photos show are happening here.
New Rochelle’s situation is no longer unique, and cities across the country are featured in major news stories, empty streets and all. But New Rochelle has continued to make the news, now with a focus on how an early virus hot spot has progressed through this crisis. On Saturday, March 21, in one of his daily press briefings, Governor Cuomo brought us up again. “You see the Westchester number is slowing,” he said. “We did a New Rochelle containment area. The numbers would suggest that that has been helpful. So I feel good about that.” If I lived outside New Rochelle I might take comfort in this. I might assume that the containment area had successfully stemmed the spread of the virus by limiting transmission in the area where cases originated, and that New Rochelle residents who lived outside that one-mile area were safe.
It seemed that only people within New Rochelle understood how nonsensical the initial containment area truly was. The policy seemed to operate on a false assumption that no one had ventured in or out of that one-mile bubble since the virus began to spread. The original plan shut down all large gatherings within one mile of Young Israel. This included three of New Rochelle’s 10 public schools: the high school, one middle school and one elementary school. Another middle school and six elementary schools remained open. Many families were left with one child at home and others still going to school. For the days before all New Rochelle schools were closed, there was no actual containment taking place. It was only a fortunate coincidence that both of my younger siblings’ schools happened to close at the same time with the initial order. My mother was incensed. She left a message on the governor’s public voicemail and wrote angry comments on local Facebook groups, urging her friends to call the governor’s office and ask him to talk to locals who would understand the reality of how the schools functioned. What blew her away even more than the absurd policy was the public response from people outside of New Rochelle. She was disgusted by the praise-filled comment sections on national outlets’ articles about the situation. “How can they think this makes sense?” she marveled.
It’s normal to read a report from a source we trust or a politician from our party and take it as fact, despite not being in the middle of what’s going on. I’m not sure there’s any way around that—it’s impossible to go everywhere and know everything. But living here in the containment area (that technically is no more) is giving me questions. I’m wondering what stories I’ve read and accepted as fact that have actually been at odds with the reality on the ground. At the same time, I’m questioning how it’s even possible to present objective truth. Is New Rochelle a vision of the viral disaster in our future, or is it a community relearning the value of spending time with our families and coming together in spirit to face a physical threat? If I was a journalist coming in from outside, would I take pictures of the people out walking in the woods to take in the sun, or of the latex gloves and face masks strewn all over the sidewalks? I’m not sure what the right answer is, but I think it’s crucial to represent both realities.