Life During Coronavirus Time

School closings, sanitizer shortages, empty shelves, Wall Street shocks and an ever-longer list of cases

11 Mar 2020 | 07:31

In the narrow aisles of Joseph’s Pharmacy on the Upper West Side, customers scoured the shelves for anything they could find to kill the coronavirus.

“Disinfectant wipes?” one woman asked an employee.

“We’re out,” the cashier said.

Another woman asked where she could find the hand sanitizer. The worker grabbed a bottle for her from behind the counter, where they were keeping their limited supply.

“Can I have two?” the customer asked.

“Only one per customer,” he responded.

“One is for me, and one is for her,” she said, pointing to her companion.

The worker wagged his finger and smiled at her. “I don’t think so,” he said.

Yet another customer, Naomi Nomikos, had walked into the pharmacy undeterred by the anxiety around her. She had read in the New York Times that morning that she could make her own hand sanitizer and she came looking for supplies. But they were out of the alcohol she needed.

A New Reality

Since the first case of coronavirus was reported in New York, this has been a common experience for shoppers. Disinfectant products and hand sanitizers have become virtually impossible to find in the seemingly endless number of CVS and Duane Reade stores that dot the island of Manhattan. Whole sections of stores are empty as people stock up on supplies.

One CVS worker said she had never seen anything like the consumer response to coronavirus. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has responded to the shortage with New York’s very own brand of hand sanitizer, which the state is using prison labor to manufacture.

Now, with number of confirmed cases reaching 173 in the state and 36 in the city as of Wednesday morning, there is a sense that the sky is indeed falling. On Monday, the stock market plunged, having its worse day since the 2008 financial crisis. Buying and selling of shares stopped altogether at one point, following the drop in major stock indexes. On Tuesday, the market remained shaky.

Some schools have closed. Events have been canceled. People are keeping their distance from public transit and from one another. Self-quarantine is becoming a more common solution to stopping the spread of the virus.

Perspective from a Polio Victim

As Nomikos walked to the second Joseph’s Pharmacy location between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues – still in search of supplies – the 76-year-old said she was being practical, but she wasn’t panicking.

“I’m a doctor’s daughter. I try to have rational thoughts,” said Nomikos. “I don’t follow the herd, ever. People love to latch onto what the craze is. Everybody now is eating kale. There’s kale muffins. Next there’s going to be kale cigarettes.”

Nomikos had polio as a child, during the outbreak in 1949. She said she tried to put the coronavirus into perspective when she thinks about the 1950s and all of the kids who died or were put in iron lungs.

“What you hear now is that we’re all going to get it, but for 80 percent it’s like a mild cold,” she said. (While that figure that has been cited by experts as an estimate of the percentage of cases that are considered less serious, the term “mild cold” is Nomikos’s own characterization.)

Nomikos stood outside the second Joseph’s Pharmacy explaining that she needed 60 percent alcohol in order to make her disinfectant gel. A woman leaving the pharmacy overheard and told Nomikos that she was in luck. She had tried nine different stores and Joseph’s was the only one with the supplies for the homemade hand sanitizer.

“Oh, great,” Nomikos said with a shrug and walked into the pharmacy.

The Schools

As the number of cases continues to increase, the city’s schools have had to make big decisions on how to proceed with classes. Last week, a petition to close all of the city’s public schools during the coronavirus outbreak began circulating on Change.org. The petition calls for students and teachers to remain at home and to transition to online classes via Skype and email. By Tuesday morning, the petition was closing in on 97,000 signatures.

On Monday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s issued some guidance on the matter, saying schools would close down for at least 24 hours if a student or staff member tested positive for the virus. The schools would then undergo a deep cleaning. The state’s department of education urged schools to monitor student and faculty health closely and to communicate with parents as the situation develops.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said he agreed with the governor’s plan, and had previously expressed wariness when asked about closing schools because of the burden it would place on low-income families. No public school has closed so far.

Columbia University, Barnard College, Fordham University, St. John’s University, Yeshiva University and New York University have either canceled classes or will be conducting courses remotely online.

Public Transit

One of the largest sources of anxiety for New Yorkers amid this public health crisis has been the reliance on public transportation to get around. The MTA has said that people should feel safe taking the train, but also said crowded cars should be avoided if riders could spare the time to wait for the next train.

Transit Authority officals said they are taking a number of precautions to keep trains and buses clean, including posting health tips and information in English, Chinese, Spanish, Russian and Korean throughout the subway, bus and railroad systems. The cleaning of the buses, trains and stations has increased in frequency and intensity by sanitizing “high-touch surfaces,” which the MTA says includes poles, handrails, seats, benches and grab bars. Cleaners are working every day, and the full fleet is cleaned every 72 hours. Stations are disinfected with CDC-endorsed cleaners every day.

It was announced Monday that the head of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Rick Cotton, has tested positive for the coronavirus. Cotton oversees the region’s major airports, bridges, tunnels and bus terminals. He has been self-quarantined at his home and is working on the Port Authority’s response to the virus remotely.

“He has been at the airports, obviously, when many people were coming back with the virus,” Cuomo said at a news conference.

Cotton’s wife, Elizabeth Smith, who serves as the head of the Central Park Conservancy, has also tested positive for the virus, according to the New York Times.

For all the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus threat, one thing is clear – everybody needs to be vigilant.