/Dispatches from a Pandemic: Letter from New York: ‘New Yorkers wear colorful homemade masks, while nurses wear garbage bags’

Dispatches from a Pandemic: Letter from New York: ‘New Yorkers wear colorful homemade masks, while nurses wear garbage bags’


NEW YORK — The wait is not over. At least, not yet.

New York City remains Ground Zero for coronavirus. Coronavirus deaths here surpassed the number of New York fatalities on 9/11. As a blanket of silence covers the streets and people have suddenly started wearing masks when they go outside, hospitals are grappling with the chaos created by an unseen virus and lack of personal protective equipment. New Yorkers wear homemade masks, while nurses wear garbage bags.

As of Sunday morning, 9,385 of the 20,506 U.S. fatalities were in New York State, up 758 in 24 hours. The increase in deaths from the disease in the state has remained over 700 for six consecutive days. Some 188,694 of the 547,681 cases in the U.S. were in New York State, according to health authorities. Of those cases, 103,208 cases were in New York City, up nearly 5,000 overnight. There are currently 1,835,373 confirmed cases worldwide, and 113,362 deaths.


Coronavirus deaths here surpassed the number of New York fatalities on 9/11.

“The change in total number of hospitalizations is down again. This is the number that we have been watching because the great fear for us was always overwhelming the hospital system,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Sunday. There are now 18,700 people in hospital with the virus.

The governor said the curve of new cases was showing signs of flattening, but he appealed to the federal government for more testing. He said it was too early to tell when the city could start relaxing its social-distancing measures. “Reopening is both an economic question and a public health question, and I’m unwilling to divorce the two. You can’t ask the people of this state or this country to choose between lives lost and dollars gained,” he said this weekend.

New Yorkers have been told to stay at home and only essential businesses are open, including pharmacies, medical facilities and supermarkets (more on that, below). After weeks of debate about whether members of the public should wear face masks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced last week that it’s changing its policy on masks. It now recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings. It said asymptomatic transmission was “new evidence.”

People here have longed for clarity on how to keep themselves and everyone else safe. On Thursday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said the social-distancing policy will likely last until May. “You can create a face covering with anything you have at home right now, a piece of cloth,” he said last week. Others say several layers of cotton or even paper towels have enough density to protect against the virus. (A general rule of thumb: If the light can shine through it, it’s too thin.)

Like Trump and the CDC, de Blasio has said that he does not recommend using N95 masks. “We’re advising New Yorkers to wear a face covering when you go outside and will be near other people. Let’s be clear, this is a face covering. It could be a scarf, it could be a bandana, something you create yourself. It does not need to be a professional surgical mask.” You know what’s better than a bandana, covers more of your face and stays in place? A balaclava.

I went to a grocery store and I improvised in a balaclava. I looked like the Invisible Man if he had a walk-on role on “A Clockwork Orange” or “Mad Max,” as a friendly commentator said. Here’s why I wore it: I wanted to cover my face completely so (a) I wouldn’t touch it, (b) I could protect others in case I was asymptomatic and (c) I could reduce my chances of catching a coronavirus-infected droplet. (You could also make a balaclava out of a cotton sheet or an old hat, and add a coffee filter or other material for extra layers between the garment and your nose and mouth)


‘You can create a face covering with anything you have at home right now.’


— New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio

There is evidence that some masks do work: Medical-grade N95 surgical masks, according to this study, filter viruses larger than 0.1 micrometers (a micrometer, um, is one millionth of a meter). The coronavirus is approximately 0.125 micrometer. Would my humble balaclava make a difference? I could be wrong, I could be right, as Johnny “Rotten” Lydon sang. But I wore one. Given de Blasio’s statement on Thursday evening, I’m happy to give it a shot.

Wearing a balaclava, the most effective cloth mask I have lying around, is not something I did lightly. Growing up in Ireland in the 1980s during the Troubles, and living in London during the 1990s, sporting a balaclava with an Irish accent would have been a risky proposition. It has connotations that no Irishman would like to relive. But with my now transoceanic twang, I think I’ll be OK. Plus, it’s for the opposite reason than Ireland of Yore: I want to stay safe, and help others do the same.

Masks have helped reduce contagion by reducing droplets being sprayed into the air by the wearer. There is a shortage of medical-grade surgical N95 masks in hospitals in New York City, along with other personal protective equipment. Every day, meanwhile, is Christmas Day in New York City: The streets are virtually empty. When I hear an ambulance, I wonder if there’s a coronavirus patient inside. Are there more 911 calls, or do I notice every distant siren?

For now, I will stick with my balaclava, as it holds its position, unlike some makeshift bandanas, and offer up this 5-point survival guide for food shopping in the epicenter of COVID-19 in the United States: Here are some tips on how to make your own mask. (The fabric should be of sufficient density; fold a cotton tee-shirt over at least two or three times, as U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams — once vehemently opposed to the public wearing masks — demonstrates in this video.)

Barney Greengrass, the Jewish deli founded by the man who shipped smoked sturgeon to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Warm Springs, Ga. for Thanksgiving 1939.

And, so, to my Letter from New York: One of my best friends in New York, Francis, is self-quarantining. She requires friends to shop for her. I am down with spending other people’s money and I like to be helpful, especially as we sit and wait for the dreaded surge of coronavirus cases. For me, this is a win-win. Also, she has good taste, so her shopping list will have plenty of ideas. I discovered homemade peanut butter. I will never go back to jars again. That’s a win-win-win.


A trumpet sounds at 7 p.m. to mark the shift change of health-care workers.

Not bad for a couple of hours’ work. This task also gives me the opportunity to give people a snapshot of what it’s like living in New York City, the city that these days always appears to sleep. We are the national epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. I don’t have a yacht or a big pile in the country to retreat to. It’s a surreal experience living in the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. But I love my adopted city, and I’m not leaving. I will ride this out.

On Tuesday evening, I spoke to Francis by phone, and the clock struck 7 p.m. Through the trees and up the fire escapes, the music and cheering started for health-care workers, who change shift at that hour, and first responders. It was heralded by the soothing, reliable sounds of a trumpet. “It’s relaxing,” I said. “It restores a sense of peace.” The trumpet player does not manage a tune. I wondered whether a 30-something New Yorker had found the instrument lying around. Francis speculated that it was a young child, just learning to play.

On that note, I have a 5-point survival guide for food shopping, which I hope is useful regardless of where you happen to live. First off, here’s a little about Francis: She is smart, extremely well-read, and makes me laugh. We read long-form articles together and, afterwards, we discuss them over tea. We don’t always agree, which we like, but we do agree most of the time, especially on social issues, and we’re OK with that, too. She remains open to changing her mind. I learn from her, so I endeavor to remain open minded too.

‘Growing up in Ireland in the 1980s during the Troubles, and living in London during the 1990s, sporting a balaclava with an Irish accent would have been a risky proposition.’

1. Look back, but stay present. A little perspective is good

Francis recalled the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, and how people would get up from a park bench if they thought a sick person sat down next to them. New York was one of the epicenters of that pandemic, too. She did not get around to talking about the many polio epidemics America has faced throughout the 20th Century. There are only so many plagues a person wants to recall over a plate of Dubliner cheese and crackers. Look back, but stay present. A little perspective is good.

She may be stuck at home, but she remains upbeat, and doesn’t let the grass grow under her feet. It’s humbling to witness. We take tap-dancing classes together (her idea). At least, we did until the social-distancing policies prescribed by public-health officials came into effect. On Monday, we each vowed to practice 15 dance steps. That’s more “dig, brush, toe, heel, paddle and roll, paradiddle!” for me. Before tap-dancing class, she asks me, “So, Quentin, what color is your tutu today?” I usually describe the most ridiculous-sounding tutu. “Pink,” I say, “with yellow ruffles.”


It’s sometimes difficult to ask one person for what seems like a big favor.

Francis is 95, and she is now blind. Mostly, I feel grateful that we are both here in the same place, and at the same time, and that our paths crossed. She grew up in an Irish community in Massachusetts. I grew up in Dublin. She calls me “lace-curtain Irish.” Because she is in a high-risk group, she is isolating. There is so much that is out of our own control during this pandemic, but this I could control: I could go to the supermarket for her. That is how I found myself with another Irishman — Eugene, who moved to the U.S. 30 years before I did — at the Fairway Market on Broadway and 74th Street on afternoon last week, with a shopping list in one hand and a grocery cart in the other.

We’d both been asked to help buy our friend groceries — separately, it seemed — so we joined forces. I didn’t like him usurping my place as Sir Edmund Hillary on this potentially hazardous expedition. Nor did I want to be Francis Crozier to his Sir John Franklin. (Neither Crozier or Franklin returned from their last expedition to the Arctic.) It’s sometimes difficult to ask one person for what seems like a big favor. It can seem easier to ask two people for slightly smaller favors. Regardless, this is the time to ask. I was happy to share the load. Eugene and I made a good team.

“If we get coronavirus, it will be in a grocery store!” I said, surveying the food aisles, and giving the gimlet eye to the scattering of other cautious New Yorkers wandering around in masks, pushing their carts. He looked at me like I was about to rob a store, not shop in one. I was wearing a balaclava I’d bought years before for a New Year’s Eve midnight run in Central Park. He tried to muffle a laugh. “Would you risk your life for a bagel?” I asked Eugene. “How about a jar of marmalade?” I presumed that he was about to say, “You are overreacting! He smiled, instead.

The bread counter at Fairway Market. ‘Would you risk your life for a bagel? How about a jar of marmalade?’

2. St. Dalfour is delicious, but was it worth the trip?

Earlier this week, I faced that dilemma. I was out of marmalade. I layered up and headed to Barney Greengrass on Amsterdam Avenue and 87th Street. This is the Jewish deli founded by the man who shipped smoked sturgeon to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Warm Springs, Ga. for Thanksgiving 1939. I bought a jar of St. Dalfour French preserve. I forgot they only accept checks or cash. I fumbled theatrically for stray dollars. “We’ll take your number,” the man behind the counter hollered, “and bill you during the week!” That’s the New York I know and love.


Coronavirus survives longer on a solid surface like cardboard, steel or plastic.

After that trip to Barney Greengrass, I got the idea for a D.I.Y. mask to help me and others stay healthy: My balaclava. The New York City Department of Health said in an online statement that face coverings are more useful for protecting others if you are asymptomatic. “A face covering will not protect you from infection, but it can help others. A face covering can include anything that covers your nose and mouth, including dust masks, scarves and bandanas. Do not use health-care worker masks, as those must be preserved for people in the health-care system.”

I also wore woolen gloves to Fairway Market and Barney Greengrass because studies have found that shopping carts are covered in all kinds of germs, just like subway poles and turnstiles, or anything else that lots of people touch on a regular basis. I constantly lose my gloves, alas. But I have adopted a wartime thrift: Today, I wear odd pairs with pride. I did not bring alcohol wipes to Fairway. Next time, I will at least bring a few Clorox
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wipes in a Ziploc bag. Before and after I put the groceries away, I wash my hands.

3. Leave your ‘cranky pants’ in the dry cleaners

Coronavirus can reportedly survive longer on a solid surface like cardboard, steel or plastic than on a pair of gloves. That’s good news for my gloves, but I still act as if the virus could find its way onto my gloves, too. Here’s the other reason I wore a balaclava to the supermarket: It’s not comfortable, it reminds me and other people that we’re dealing with a serious health emergency; it covers almost my entire head, and — here’s the science bit — it provides a constant nudge to remind me: ‘Do not touch your face.’ If you take anything away from this, take that.


My balaclava provides a constant nudge to remind me: ‘Do not touch your face.’

Shopping can be stressful under these conditions. It’s good to be a cautious — and a smart — shopper. I usually want to get in and out in double-quick time, but on this occasion I decided to be careful and take my time. What’s more, I enjoyed it. Everything I could have done to minimize my chances of picking up COVID-19, I did. I stayed 6 feet away from others, whenever possible, including my shopping partner. We did not go at rush hour. I talked to staff and other customers.

Everyone is freaked out. I get it. That’s why I decided to leave my “cranky pants” at the dry cleaners, which closed its doors shortly after Gov. Cuomo’s social-distancing policy came into effect. Friendly banter puts me and, I hope, others at ease. A nice woman recommended the London broil. “Thanks for the tip,” I said. “I’ll take half a pound!” I may not know my broil from my flank, but I do have a pretty good idea where our weak spots are for the virus. I just have to keep my cool.

Fairway Market on Broadway and 74th Street.

4. If you’re nervous, imagine how the staff feels

If you are concerned about going to the grocery store, imagine what it’s like for those who work there. They may smile and say, “Can I help you?” But they could also be thinking, ‘Do you have it?’ I told every staff member I spoke to at Fairway, “Thank you for working today.” They need to hear that. New Yorkers have read about the hospital naval ships arriving into New York Harbor last week. The sound of entire neighborhoods cheering for health-care workers can move you to tears. But not everyone is finding it so easy, and a frazzled customer is often not a gentle or happy customer.


Don’t drive yourself crazy reading social media: Fear is not your friend.

I read peer-reviewed studies — not mysterious Facebook
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posts — and I don’t let them drive me crazy. There is still no evidence linking coronavirus transmission with food and food packaging, despite the virus being able to survive on cardboard in a laboratory setting. Furthermore, Juan Dumois, a pediatric infectious-diseases physician at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Fla., suggests that viruses would survive better on “artificial fibers” — polyester over wool, silk or cotton.

Ultimately, I choose caremongering over scaremongering because fear is not your friend. Francis told me the other day, “Quentin, I’m 95! Do you think I’m scared of coronavirus?” But that doesn’t mean she’s standing in line at the supermarket, either. So here’s the deal: If you want to change clothes or wear a non-surgical mask, do it. If you want to wear a goldfish bowl on your head and fly around on rollerblades, while reciting “De Rerum Natura” by Lucretius, be my guest. I’ll be the first to tip my hat, and say, “Good morning! Have a shatterproof day.”

5. You have to think on your feet during a pandemic

I also got something I couldn’t buy at any store or pharmacy. Getting out of the house was a magical tonic. This was the biggest supermarket sweep of all: Turns out, Francis was doing me the favor, and I didn’t even know it. I did not see Yoko Ono rummaging through the vegetables at Fairway — I did see her there once, and I left her to it — but I did enjoy the fruits of my labor by feeling useful for helping a friend. I also met a neighbor outside. We stood from 6 feet away from each other. He works in a salon and he has been furloughed. New York is a village. Love and gratitude is all around.


Turns out, my friend was doing me the favor, and I didn’t even know it.

And so to the last leg of my New Yorker’s survival guide to grocery shopping. We had two weeks’ worth of groceries — bottles, cans, six-packs of kitchen roll, liters of milk, jars of this, that and the other — and they were heavy. Remaining vigilant for an hour in the store made it seem like two hours. Eugene and I were exhausted from our shopping. I walked one block, and we had a few more to go. I spotted an abandoned cart on the street corner. “We’ll return it,” I said. “Later!”

Eugene and I quickly piled the groceries into the cart, and pushed it across four traffic lanes on Broadway. “Go! Go! Go!” I shouted. You have to think on your feet during a pandemic. We’re in the middle of a national emergency, after all; if the cops stopped me, I’d simply tell them the truth. Thank you, NYPD, first responders and health professionals, and thank you, Fairway Market. (Gloves, check. Balaclava, check. Walkie talkie, check. I use a walkie talkie as an old-school Generation X way of spatial-distancing. They’re not as reliable as smartphones, but they’re more fun.)

As I headed down Amsterdam with the speed of a bullet, a man ran out of a jewelry store in pursuit of another man. “People are dying, and you try to steal something from my store? You motherf—!” Ah, yes. There are always folks with bigger problems than mine. I kept moving: This was a good day in Manhattan. To quote that opening line from Jules Dassin’s postwar film noir, “The Naked City”: “There are 8 million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.” Francis would have been 22 when that film was released. She, too, has more stories to tell.

(This story was updated with new coronavirus data on April 8, 2020.)

This essay is part of a MarketWatch series, ‘Dispatches from a pandemic.’

Quentin Fottrell, heading off on his expedition: ‘If I can avoid passing on one droplet while reaching for the chicken giblets, I will.’



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