A New York City Housing Authority retiree ticked off his running tally: an ex-wife sick, a daughter sick, and three old friends dead. In Queens, a young poet learned a friend’s parents are in the hospital, one on a ventilator.
And Qtina Parson of Parkchester, the Bronx, gave a grim reversal of the cheerful family updates one expects from the proud mother, sister and aunt that she used to sound like just a couple of weeks — a lifetime — ago.
“My nephew — sick, he’s 28,” she said. “Him and his girlfriend. My sister-in-law, she’s 46, she had it.” Her son, Marcus, 18, is with relatives in South Carolina, where he has developed a fever and a cough. “But he’s out there cutting grass,” she added, as if saying this aloud would make it true: “I’m telling him it’s his allergies.”
New Yorkers have watched in helpless fear as the coronavirus, with dizzying speed and ferocity, truly took hold of the city in recent days. With almost 1,400 dead, many have already lost someone in their circle — a co-worker, an old friend from high school, the parent of a child’s classmate. The parish priest, the elderly neighbor upstairs. A mother, a father.
Almost everyone now knows someone who is sick.
The story is told in the numbers: There were 47,349 confirmed cases of coronavirus infections in New York City as of Wednesday. But the reality of its reach is far worse — one study of cases in China suggested that up to 10 times the people who have tested positive may be infected, which would make the true number in the city close to half a million. And the apex is believed to still be weeks away.
The rising numbers have conversely shrunk the private worlds of some 8 million individual people. It is as if the microscopic enemy, once an abstract nuisance to many, something happening someplace else, seemed to be closing in, its arrival announced with the now-constant peal of the ambulance siren.
If the pandemic can be thought of as playing out in weeks — the week the restaurants closed, the week schools closed, stores closed — this has been the week its true grip was felt throughout the city.
“It is the great equalizer,” said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Tuesday at a briefing. “I don’t care how smart, how rich, how powerful you think you are. I don’t care how young, how old.”
To many, the rules of engagement suddenly changed this week.
“They were saying, ‘just if you’re immuno-compromised,’” said M. Marbella, 27, a poet and writer who recently learned that a friend’s parents were both in the hospital. “Now everyone’s dropping like flies.”
The speed could make it feel unreal. A person who enjoyed dinner in Manhattan before attending a Broadway show exactly one month ago could today be sick, mourning a family member, out of a job or all of the above. There was next to nothing to compare it to; thousands lost a loved one on Sept. 11, but those losses arrived in a single terrible day, in an instant. Some reached further back to find a comparison, to World War II or the Spanish flu of 1918, or beyond.
“It’s like the plague from England from the 14th century,” said Max Debarros, 67, in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
It is a plague playing out not only on the streets, but also on the screens, racing through people’s Facebook accounts and Twitter feeds as old friends and friends of friends announced personal losses. The threat seems to be everywhere.
“Every day on social media, we see someone new,” said Audrey Cardwell, 30, of Sunnyside, Queens. At first skeptical of the outbreak’s potential — “it felt like fearmongering” — she now seeks ways to address the anxiety she feels, though meditation and walks with her dog. “I have to monitor how much I’m reading and scrolling,” she said.
Likewise, Leora Fuller, 33, of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, who said two of her students at Rutgers University-Newark had been hospitalized, is focusing more on friendships and her own well-being. “Real care,” she said, “like not, ‘Oh, I’m going to buy something for myself.’”
Other means of coping play out across the city. Aurelio Aguilar, 36, at work in a bodega on the Lower East Side, drinks a concoction of ginger, lemon and mashed garlic, his grandmother’s recipe to boost the immune system. In Fort Greene, Aidan Sleeper, 36, carries a homemade mix of 30-to-1 water and bleach and sprays every doorknob he’s about to touch.
In Long Island City, Queens, Glenn Harris, 54, celebrated a birthday last week with 20 friends on the videoconferencing platform Zoom — “people from all over the country,” he said. At the same time, Andy Arroyo, 35, planned for the worst and spoke of the gun he’s owned since Hurricane Sandy struck in 2013.
“It may seem like an overreaction, but you really can’t predict how people will act during desperate times,” said Mr. Arroyo, who lives in Port Chester, in Westchester County, and was on the way to a potential job in the Bronx. “I need to make sure myself and my loved ones are safe.”
Americans overall, not just in large cities, are feeling the arrival of the coronavirus in their own lives. A Civiqs/Daily Kos poll this past week asking 1,505 adults in the United States about the pandemic found that 13 percent had been infected or knew someone who had, and that 60 percent worried they would become sick.
The coronavirus was an abstract concept to Cat Harper, 59, in the Bronx, until word arrived that members of her family’s church in Long Island City were becoming ill. Then, her sister began coughing, and it wouldn’t go away.
Her sister tested positive and was admitted to Montefiore Medical Center several days ago. “I was starting to get scared that I might not get to see her ever again,” Ms. Harper said. She called, but many days her sister’s throat was so sore she could barely speak.
“She was seeing all the other people around her, a lot of them way sicker than she was,” Ms. Harper said. “She was probably thinking that would happen to her.”
Instead, she recovered and was released to quarantine at home. Other families have had much worse outcomes.
“There are people that are close to me, that I know, who are sick,” said Angelo Alston, 60, a retired employee of the New York City Housing Authority. “My ex-wife. My daughter. A friend of mine in Georgia that I grew up with passed away. Two other friends that I grew up with also passed.”
He moved to Pennsylvania years ago, but was back in the city after the death of a stepson from a nonviral medical condition — a terrible loss at any time, but now, also a threat, bringing family back to the city to claim his remains.
“I’m trying to get out of here,” he said.
In Fort Greene, Blair Smith, 35, was already dealing with a sick relative when she ran into a neighbor with bad news about a handyman, Jorge, whom they both knew. He had just died.
“Oh, my God,” she said. “It’s like watching a storm and you’re just watching for that moment when it really hits.”
Dion Faria, 44, of Bedford-Stuyvesant, was more annoyed than afraid when he was forced to keep his club on Pacific Street closed. Now, with Facebook friends of friends getting sick and a viral video of bodies being loaded into a refrigerated truck outside a city hospital, he finds himself imagining a time after this one.
“Hopefully, the gates open,” he said on his stoop, “and we all go back to living.”
Jo Corona, Matthew Sedacca, Jeffrey E. Singer, Alex Traub and Rebecca Liebson contributed reporting.