New York voices: Virus-wracked city split on safety versus liberty

Linda J. Dodson

NEW YORK — Tony, the owner of a wine shop and Italian restaurant in New York’s Long Island City, thinks the authorities have wildly overreacted to the coronavirus.

“I don’t believe the hype,” said Tony, who is in his 40s and gave only his first name. “Common sense dictates that a virus cannot jump 6 feet unless you sneeze on somebody. I think there’s a lot of unscientific fear mongering and I think it’s being perpetuated by the media … and it’s causing real damaging effects economically.”

On the other side of the same neighborhood, another wine shop owner named Slavko believes one can’t be too careful. He has installed plastic boards to block his entrance: Customers can buy alcohol through a small window in the barrier but cannot come inside.

Slavko, 60, insists shoppers stand 6 feet, or about 2 meters, apart. “If they don’t, then I tell them, I’m not serving you,” he said. “They’re telling you to stay home and not to work. And meanwhile, if it’s a nice day out, everybody’s out in the park, playing, walking, getting close and not wearing masks or anything like that. … People are very young and foolish.”

This tale of two New York wine shops reflects a yawning gap in the U.S, between those who fear the virus and others who are more worried about their livelihoods. The same conversation is underway worldwide — including in Asia — as governments face pressure to reopen economies while some health experts warn of new waves of infections. But the American traditions of freedom and individualism may make the debate particularly intense.

The persistent danger is illustrated by places like Singapore, which appeared to have the outbreak under control in early April — only to see cases burn past 10,000 due to clusters in dormitories for migrant workers.

The U.S. has been hit much harder, with over 1 million confirmed cases and 56,000 deaths as of this week. Yet protests against restrictions on movement and business spread through nearly a dozen states earlier this month. “Land of the free. Go to China if you want communism,” one demonstrator in Denver, Colorado, said while leaning out of a pickup truck, according to CNN.

President Donald Trump has sent conflicting messages, encouraging protesters on Twitter to “liberate” their states but later criticizing the governor of Georgia’s plan to restart businesses.

In New York, some residents like Tony resent the restrictions and insist the government’s $1,200 stimulus checks are nothing more than a “very temporary Band-Aid” that will last an average New Yorker “one week to two weeks.” Tony has kept his wine shop open but says the stay-at-home order “destroyed” his restaurant, forcing him to lay off 24 employees.

Though he complies with the state’s mandatory face mask rule, he called it a “joke” because many people do not wear them properly.

Others are more upset with those who flout the rules, rather than the rules themselves.

In Central Park one recent Monday, dozens of New Yorkers were out jogging or walking their dogs. Some were picnicking on the grass in small groups. At least one woman was sunbathing in a bikini alongside her chihuahua.

Seeing people ignore the rules is “kind of frustrating,” said Michael, a 29-year-old cashier at a housewares and kitchen store in Long Island City. Neither he nor his 70-year-old father can work from home.

“People put themselves at risk [to come to work], and then it’s almost like spitting in their face,” Michael said from behind a mask. “It’s just selfish. They don’t care or they don’t want to change the way they live, even though it could be doing all these terrible things to people.”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has gone so far as to encourage residents to “snitch” on social distancing rule breakers by taking a photo and texting it to the authorities.

Small groups of people relax in Central Park during the coronavirus pandemic on April 25.

  © Getty Images

Even people who accept that the coronavirus is a grave threat may not be doing their part to flatten the curve. Dr. Marney White, a psychology and public health professor at Yale University, said individuals are often irrational when it comes to health.

“It almost seems like an extension of adolescent invincibility, where people believe in the seriousness of the disease, they understand that there are risks associated, but they believe that they themselves are impervious,” White said.

She also believes inconsistent messaging from government leaders is a contributing factor. “People are clinging to these inconsistent messages that are telling them it’s not too serious, [such as] ‘if you’re in good health, then you should be OK,’ ‘kids are OK’ — that kind of thing.”

On top of that, White said, is the matter of culture — the “don’t tell me what to do” attitude.

Dr. Jonathan Kanter, a psychologist at the University of Washington, echoed this point. “Here in the U.S., we’re a fiercely individualistic society,” Kanter said. “In general, for many people, this idea of individual liberty is the most important priority. And some people are prioritizing that over social health right now.”

Earlier this month, a resident in New York’s neighboring state of Connecticut filed a lawsuit over the governor’s executive order requiring people to wear face coverings in public, citing infringement on individual liberties.

“A society like the U.S. is really not prepared to come together collectively and prioritize the collective good over the rights of the individual,” Kanter continued. “We’re just not built for this.”

A shuttered New York bar displays a message of determination, as coronavirus restrictions pummel the economy.

  © Getty Images

Kanter said more collectivist cultures, including Asian ones, appear to be better at handling a pandemic. He cited a 2008 study published by London’s Royal Society that suggested dealing with past disease outbreaks may have helped shape collectivist cultures in the first place.

Though the U.S. endured the 1918 flu pandemic, the coronavirus outbreak is the first to trigger nationwide restrictions of this scope. The 2008 report argues that a lack of pandemic experience may lead to “greater encouragement for individual experimentation and trial-and-error learning,” while pandemic traumas may encourage societies to emphasize “imitation and emulation of prestigious in-group members.”

Still, back in New York, residents have witnessed the worst of the coronavirus pandemic up close, and many are worried about the economy opening up too quickly.

The state’s lockdown has been extended to May 15, but Slavko said he will not let customers into his wine shop even if the policy is eased next month.

“If they open up the city by May 15, it will be the most stupid thing that anybody has ever done,” Slavko said. “[The virus] is going to come back again. They have to start this all over again.”

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