No aspect of our lives in the rivertowns is untouched by the COVID-19 Pandemic. Here’s How It Got To Us:
By Barrett Seaman
In the beginning, it was somebody else’s problem—thousands of miles away in Wuhan, China. Then it was on cruise ships, where some of the afflicted passengers were Americans; then in South Korea, Iran, Italy, but still not here in the rivertowns.
In late January came the first report of an American outbreak in a nursing home in Kings County, Washington. The virus swept through the facility, hitting the most vulnerable: old people, many with underlying health issues. As a result, the death rate was far higher than it had been in China—around ten percent in Kings County.
Growing uncertainty came with the realization that the novel corona virus, or COVID-19, was not moving linearly across the globe but popping up like a whack-a-mole wherever people randomly traveled or met. The pandemic finally got our full attention when a 50-year-old lawyer in New Rochelle was admitted to Bronxville’s Lawrence Hospital and ultimately diagnosed with the virus. He had been to Miami, but more significantly, he had been unusually sociable back home, going to synagogue, a bat mitzvah, a funeral and his law offices in Manhattan, inadvertently exposing dozens upon dozens and making New Rochelle the new American Ground Zero for COVID-19—a mere 15 miles across the county. One of the doctors who treated him—and subsequently went into a 14-day self-quarantine—lives in Irvington.
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our Hudson River villages during the month of March was far greater economically and psychologically than it was from the actual disease. By month’s end, there were about 70 confirmed cases in Sleepy Hollow, Tarrytown, Irvington and Dobbs Ferry. A 50-year-old woman was treated for the disease at Phelps Hospital in Sleepy Hollow but discharged on March 12, well enough to continue her recovery at home. Others would later be admitted, treated and discharged.
By the Ides of March, however, when the reported cases in New York State reached 729, leading the nation, and Westchester’s caseload neared 200, it had become clear that the COVID-19 outbreak was no longer somebody else’s problem. It was ours.
With that mid-month watershed came a torrent of program and meeting cancellations. Supermarket shelves began to empty faster than they could be re-stocked. Restaurants began limiting reservations, at first to 50% of their capacity, leaving vacant tables between customers. Christian churches stopped the rituals of passing of The Peace and serving communion. Nursing homes, including Andrus, barred visitors. Local schools announced they would close at least until mid-week when they would re-evaluate. For the remainder of the month—and into an unforeseeable future—every aspect of life in the lower Hudson Valley would be dramatically changed: our collective health; our government and public services; our schools; our businesses, our places of worship; our leisure time; sports; elections. Here’s how each of these vital parts of our lives shifted over the course of a single month:
Hospitals, health services and the virus itself
While the number of cases reported by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) for the state and county have climbed alarmingly throughout the month, there were very few reported cases in the rivertowns and, as if this writing, no deaths had been reported in our communities. Phelps admitted its first patient March 7th and discharged her on the 12th. That same week, a healthcare provider employed by one of the Westmed facilities in White Plains tested positive. Ellen Sledge, owner of Hastings ice cream store Penny Licks, felt symptoms and called her Westmed physician for guidance and was told not to come in, as tests were not then available and there was nothing they could do anyway. Feeling “just achy enough to be annoying” and running a temperature, she stayed home while her staff “swooped in” to keep her business going. Both her husband, a portfolio manager, and one of her three children also showed symptoms, but nothing serious.
The big missing link, for the nation as well as the region, was testing. Many have blamed the CDC for rejecting the test kit administered almost everywhere else on the planet by the World Health Organization, without having an alternative. On March 10, the CDC approved testing by Northwell’s laboratories on Long Island. Phelps Hospital, part of the Northwell Health System was able to authorize tests for patients and have the results back from Long Island in a day or two. After the FDA permitted private labs to offer testing, LabCorp, one of the big testing companies in the area, advised patients who thought they had the virus not to come into a LabCorp facility but to go through their personal doctors. “LabCorp personnel,” they wrote, “are not able to collect specimens in LabCorp patient service centers.”
On March 13, New Rochelle, where Westchester’s COVID woes began, opened a drive-through testing statjon on Glen Island. It was open for village residents and others with physician-issued scripts. One sent there to be tested was Reverend Gareth Evans, Rector of Irvington’s Church of St. Barnabas, who had contracted a fever a week earlier. He tested positive.
On the 15th, Phelps cancelled all elective surgeries in order the reserve resources for COVID-19 patients. Other area hospitals did the same. On MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Governor Cuomo said, “I only have 3,000 intensive care unit beds in the State of New York. About 80 percent are already occupied so I only have about 600 beds available.”
Two days later, a 60-year-old man in Rockland died from the virus, the second in a week in that county. Both were reported to have significant underlying health issues. A bit of good news emerged, however, when the wife of the New Rochelle lawyer posted on Facebook that her husband had been removed from a ventilator and was “awake and alert and seems to be on the road to full recovery.” As the month drew to a close, the number of COVID-19 patients in Westchester was fast approaching 3,000. In a call-in press conference on the 23rd, County Executive Latimer reported that as of the previous Friday, there were 43 cases in Greenburgh Township and another 22 in Mt. Pleasant. Not a single municipality on the county was free of the disease.
How Our Governments Reacted
State and local government officials, led by Governor Andrew Cuomo, were active and involved early and often as the virus worked its way into our communities. Hardly a day passed without Cuomo appearing on news shows, issuing edicts, warning the public, prodding the federal government to get involved.
Over the following weekend, County Executive George Latimer did the same for Westchester and closed all schools as well. Tarrytown and Irvington declared their own states of emergency, closing off government buildings and services except essentials—police, fire, EMT and DPW. Sleepy Hollow and Dobbs Ferry would do the same later. Open meeting laws that require elected officials to conduct business in public were suspended, allowing meetings to be conducted by phone. Town Supervisor Paul Feiner ordered all public playgrounds closed.
With the economy grinding to a halt and access to money tightening, Cuomo suspended debt collections and won an agreement with his legislature to extend paid sick leave. He joined with the governors of New Jersey and Connecticut to limit the size of gatherings to 50 persons for at least two months. He initiated a 90-day hiatus on home mortgage payments. First calling for all businesses to reduce their on-premises work forces by 75%, he later called for all but essential businesses to close up shop. On March 20, the governor issued a ten-point “New York State on PAUSE” executive order that included all but essential businesses. (See separate story: “Who Can Stay Open?”). That weekend, he toured prospective sites for field hospitals he has asked the Army Corps of Engineers to come and build. One of the sites selected was the Westchester Convention Center in White Plains.
County Executive Latimer was no less active. In mid-month, he opened a number of school buildings, absent students and teachers, to be used as day care centers for the families of healthcare workers and first responders. The county is also mobilizing schools to distribute meals that children otherwise would have otherwise gotten in school. He put out a call to all unemployed or retired nurses to supplement the staffs of Westchester‘s hospitals. “We are ramping up for the expected influx of COVID-19 positive patients and known shortage of medical professionals,” he said. “This is the time for Westchester residents to step up and use their skills to serve their entire community.”
Taking on the role of chief morale officer for the county, Latimer went to a Hartsdale Asian restaurant, O Mandarin, to show support for a community suffering from a sub rosa opprobrium because of the roots of the virus in China. He later met with area chefs and restaurateurs to celebrate their role in providing food to the needy. Channeling former New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, he posted a video of himself reading Jason Carter Eaton’s How to Train a Train for the county’s homebound schoolchildren.
Meanwhile, in Washington, Congress and the White House continued to debate a trillion-dollar relief package that seemed after the fact before it was finalized. One firm decision: the deadline for filing income taxes has been extended from April 15 to July 15.
How Our Local Businesses Are Coping
Even before draconian government restrictions were applied, the small businesses that are the mainstay of the rivertowns’ economy were struggling to adjust to a new world. Changes came gradually, starting with food. On March 11, Stop&Shop ceased all food sampling and ramped up its cleaning efforts. Store hours at all area supermarkets were abbreviated in order to give staffs the time to clean and re-stock the shelves—often in the face of runs on products like toilet paper and cleaning products. (see separate story on food services, including restaurants)
Other businesses are employing strategies designed to keep customers—and thus cash—coming their way. “Several stores/galleries have been offering a creative combination of private appointments, online choice, gift wrapping and either pick-up or delivery,” reports Tarrytown/Sleepy Hollow Chamber of Commerce co-president Philip Johnson, citing Bellas, Nu-Toy Store, and Canfin. Swan’s House, he says, is using Etsy for online shopping.
Online sales efforts are an obvious way to practice distance selling, but some fitness enterprises are taking advantage of streaming as a way to retain clients. Dobbs Ferry’s Barre3 is offering a 15-day free trial for a package of streamed workout routines “curated by our Master Trainers.” Nick Campbell, co-head of the Rivertowns Chamber of Commerce, says “The Pallas in Dobbs, Fit Inn in Tarrytown and Hastings Yoga are all doing this too.” Mathnasium, the math learning center franchise in Dobbs Ferry, he says, is also moving to an online platform “so kids can Skype in from home.”
Jazz Forum in Tarrytown is offering its clientele a way to stay musically in touch through Jazz Forum @ Home. “Every Thursday while we are closed, we will share Jazz and Brazilian videos, archival photos, interviews and more.” Details at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The federal government’s initiation of disaster relief loans for small businesses is another resource available for those in a pinch. Ellen Sledge’s advisor at Elmsford’s Community Capital New York, a non-profit finance company specializing in small businesses, urged her to apply on behalf of her Hastings ice cream store and factory, Penny Licks—even if she didn’t use it. Information on the SBA loans can be found at https://www.sba.gov/page/coronavirus-covid-19-small-business-guidance-loan-resources.
Housebound with a fever that is most likely coronavirus, Sledge is doing what she can in the face of a melting business. In one week alone, $12,000-worth of party orders were cancelled. In an effort to rally others in the food business, she launched a Facebook page, The Commerce of Comestibles, as a gathering site where ideas can be exchanged.
“Everybody is having to think outside the box,” says Kimberly Jacobs, president of Community Capital. Even with the small business loans and government relief measures, there are still gaps. One area not addressed, she notes, is that of leases. And while extended unemployment benefits help some, they don’t help the self-employed. As for the White House plan for payroll tax relief, Jacobs calls that “a gift to the employers, not the employees.”
Tim Sullivan, president and CEO of Irvington’s Sunnyside Federal Savings & Loan, observes that “the bank is not seeing a lot of foot traffic,” but adds: “We’re all here. I’m at my desk. We’re in uncharted waters.” Financial advisor Jean Sears says she has a few clients that are nervous, “but I just print out the charts that show the advantage (of staying in equities),” she says. “Since the last rock bottom of the market in 2009, the market is up 451%.” At least it was.
Schools: Where Are The Children?
In mid-March, most public schools tentatively closed for several days in order to clean buildings and assess. The kids never came back. On the 16th, Cuomo ordered all schools, public and private, to close for two weeks and by month’s end it was clear the academic year was over. Those that could use online teaching did so, but it was spotty.
Cancelled classes were only part of the loss. Irvington High School Senior Ella Roth was really looking forward to the planned trip to France over spring break. “I was really looking forward to a great way to end out senior year by getting this incredible opportunity with my closest friends,” she said. Her classmate Sarah Garcia learned at the last minute that the New Balance National Track & Field competition, scheduled for mid-month, was cancelled. She had qualified in the 1,500-meter race walk. “I was initially pretty upset since it had been my goal to make it to nationals this season, and I had worked extremely hard to achieve it. This is also my senior year, so it would have been one of my last chances to race at a more competitive meet.”
Suddenly faced with a lot of downtime, students are filling the vacuum in various ways—learning a musical instrument, hanging out with their families, doing homework assignments. One activity they need no instruction in is communicating with their friends via phone, text, Skype and social media sites.
At the private Masters School in Dobbs Ferry, students were told March 16 that they would be switching to remote learning as of March 31, when they were scheduled to return from spring break, until May 5th. The school also closed its dorms for the remainder of the school year, meaning that 200-some boarding students, many from foreign countries, would have to find host housing in the surrounding community.
At the international school, Education First (EF) in Tarrytown, 90% of the high school students went home on March 13, says EF’s president, Philip Johnson. About a third of the language school students also left, with more and more making reservations to go as soon as possible. “On campus we are following all guidelines from the authorities, including State of New York and CDC,” Johnson said. “We have increased cleaning and housekeeping routines and incorporated state-of-the-art disinfection technology into these routines. We have established isolation areas in the dorms to use should students present with symptoms.”
Even as it was cancelling classes and moving to online learning, Mercy College had to deal with an adjunct professor who had tested positive for the virus. They were quickly able to identify 28 students with whom he had come in contact.
Colleges and universities across the country cancelled classes and sent students homeward—some from study abroad programs overseas. Haleh Tavakol of Sleepy Hollow had each of her twin daughters, Lila (pronounced Leela) and Roya, struggling to get home—Lila, a junior at Barnard, from Spain, and Roya, a Georgetown student, in New Zealand. President Trump’s abrupt announcement blocking all flights from continental Europe had mother and daughter scrambling to find a way home. “The stress is going to kill me,” said Haleh. Lila finally got a flight. When she landed at JFK, says her mother, “there was no screening or testing. They asked her if she had been in Iran, South Korea or Italy. That’s it. No one even told her to self-quarantine, but she did anyway.
Meanwhile, her twin Roya in New Zealand, was unaware that her program had been cancelled and that her housing would expire on the 20th. Haleh worked the phones trying to get her a flight, which she finally did. Now both girls are home—one upstairs and one downstairs in voluntary quarantine. The irony, Haleh noted, is that New Zealand is one of the safest places on earth from the virus…at least so far.
Where We Worship: At Home, For Now
With the cautionary tale of the New Rochelle lawyer spreading the virus through his
synagogue, houses of worship throughout the area acted quickly to cancel all gatherings. The Catholic Archdiocese of New York cancelled masses as of the 14th. Most other denominations followed suit. With no services to attend, the faithful of all religions have turned largely to electronic conveyance of prayer and pastoral care. At Tarrytown’s Temple Beth Abraham, Rabbi David Holtz said on Facebook that he was working to create a “meaningful Shabbat service” to live stream, starting on Friday, March 20. The Shames JCC on Hudson, shuttered since mid-month, is using Facebook Live and Zoom to stream programs for all ages, from early childhood to guitar lessons to chair yoga.
Irvington’s Episcopal Church of St. Barnabas established a pastoral team, with each member assigned a group of parishioners to call and check on periodically. The hard news, however, was that their Rector, Rev. Gareth Evans, fell ill with a fever and was eventually tested at the Glen Island facility in New Rochelle. On Saturday, the 21st, he learned that he had tested positive and would remain quarantined for another two weeks. In a letter to the parish, he urged anyone who had come in contact with him to follow CDC and New York State guidelines—and to keep him in their prayers.
The Great Entertainment Drought
Both the Tarrytown Music Hall and Irvington Town Hall Theater cancelled or postponed all upcoming shows for the foreseeable future. All the local movie theaters shut down. School plays and sporting events were cancelled, as was the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament. Both the NBA and the NHL put their seasons on hold. All the area St. Patrick’s Day parades were cancelled or postponed until September. The RiverArts Studio Tour, a three-decade-old tradition that opens artists’ studios to visitors, scheduled for late April, was called off. Even Tarrytown’s Duck Derby has been postponed, tentatively until late June.
Golf is possible, presuming social distances are kept. Sleepy Hollow Country Club is keeping its dining services open but Ardsley CC has closed down for the foreseeable future. Two members of the adjacent Curling Club tested positive for the virus, presumably contracted before they shut down.
Even birthday parties fell victim. Edna Cahill’s 90th birthday was supposed to be celebrated at Tappan Hill, the upscale events space in Tarrytown. But like everyplace else, Tappan Hill shut down, to Ms. Cahill’s great disappointment. So Heidi Fitzgerald, one of her neighbors at Edgemont Condominiums, gathered friends (at a safe social distance, of course) and serenaded her from outside her apartment.
Irvington internet blogger Pierrette Pillone, searching for upsides, suggests that in the absence of programmed entertainment, her readers consider “walks in the woods, DIY projects around the house, cooking experiments, board games, and Netflix.”
Indeed, Netflix, along with all the other streaming services and television programming, became pretty much the only game in town.