Three older men wear masks and social distance in J. Hood Wright park in Washington Heights, Manhattan, New York City during the COVID-19 pandemic. – New York, NY / United States – May 16th 2020 (Shutterstock)
Soon, New York will start pulling up shutters and setting out chairs. Work-from-homers will venture beyond their neighborhoods from time to time. Employees will trickle back into offices. Housekeepers, electricians, dentists, and security guards will repopulate the subway, because they will have no choice. The city is gambling that we have learned enough in these past months to keep the risks under control — that masks, distance, hygiene, and anxiety will keep us, if not exactly safe, then safe-ish. With no cure, no vaccine, and limited treatment, we have to rely on our own behavior and that of everyone around us. We have to trust our fellow New Yorkers to stay home at the first sign of the sniffles, to share our habits of caution, to wait for the next train if necessary, to step politely aside. We have to trust the MTA to keep crowds thin, employers to think through workplace logistics, the transportation department to dissolve the knots where pedestrians might jam the sidewalks, the school system to have a plan for a million kids that will protect their families too. Lockdown was easy compared to this.
And because that whole latticework of new habits and mutual consideration is so fragile, those who are at greater risk of getting sick will have to avoid it altogether. We’re opening a new chapter in the tale of two cities: the young and the healthy will (sometimes enthusiastically) take their chances; the old and the vulnerable will effectively remain under house arrest. To reopen now is to accept a new form of segregation, the exclusion of entire at-risk populations from public life, including everyone over, say 65. This is a civil-rights issue, and the reason we face it is that we have bumbled the better option: testing everyone.
If New Yorkers could get tested en masse and quickly isolate those who are infected, separating them from their families for two weeks, then the healthy could all pitch in to heal our wounded city. It’s not inconceivable. Wuhan, a city larger than New York, has reportedly tested 6.5 million residents (or maybe 9 million) in ten days. The Army tests all new recruits before they can join the ranks. In the short term, we would need to tolerate intrusions into our privacy that cannot be made permanent. Before you could enter a public building or sit at a restaurant table, you’d have to scan a QR code on a phone or wristband certifying you as COVID-free. No test, no service.
In the absence of widespread, repeatable, and accurate testing, we’re left with a radically unfair choice. Instead of isolating the infected, we will isolate the old and infirm, as well as plenty of vigorous people with an assortment of risk factors. Reopening schools means cutting grandparents off from their grandchildren and teachers from their parents. If you have diabetes or high blood pressure (or live with someone who has diabetes or high blood pressure), you’d be wise to avoid serving on a jury or entering a mall. Public transit will serve only for the young and healthy or the foolish. The threshold of every public building becomes a site of discrimination.
Maybe one day a universally effective vaccine will make all these considerations moot. In the meantime, though, as the city emerges from its state emergency, impatient with grief, eager to start making money again, each of us has to decide how to manage risk, not just to ourselves but to everyone we know. Can I get together with half a dozen friends again? How about eight? If my roommate got a haircut, does that mean I can’t see my grandparents? Should I take the stairs instead of the elevator, a bike instead of the bus? But the older you get, the more absurd those choices become because the price of a miscalculation can be suffering and death. If you’re 80 with a history of heart disease, the lockdown won’t lift anytime soon.
These dilemmas affect the entire country, but New York City (with its heavy load of COVID cases, and a population that by and large has complied with medical recommendations) should lead in addressing them, and not just because of our intimate history with the disease. The nation can’t fully fire up its economy until New York does, and the city can’t fully function without its seniors, any more than it can thrive without immigrants.
The one crumb of good fortune in this cruel time is that the virus mostly spares children (though it has sickened and killed some). But imagine if that weren’t true: Would we be so quick to embrace reopening, if it meant infecting and killing our kids? Would we be willing to lock them away for their own protection while adults got on with our lives? I suspect the pressure to test everyone now would be so overwhelming that even the most sluggish politicians would have to step up. Instead, we are making our shameful peace with a partial reopening that leaves millions indefinitely shut indoors.