New York’s State of Anxiety

While the city now has one of the lowest infection rates in the country, local leaders are trying to assuage our fear of uncertainty

01 Aug 2020 | 02:55

Megadoses of anxiety have always been essential to the New York state of mind. But this really does feel different. Existential uncertainty is our new normal and we are all trying to adapt.

In BC times - Before COVID - we walked fast because we had places to be. We talked fast because there was so much to say and so little time. Now, no words seem adequate and, in any case, where is there to rush to?

New Yorkers have always displayed a striver’s certainty. “If I can make it here...” Well, you know the rest. This was our “concrete jungle where dreams are made from.”

Sure, there was no telling when buildings might topple or the tides would flood the subways. This happened. Still we crossed oceans, worked nights, brushed off setbacks in an abiding faith that in New York, New York the outcome of our story was in our own hands.

Our traditional anxiety was whether we were doing enough to make it here. The anxiety now is that here itself, our Great City of the twentieth century, won’t make it no matter what we do to bring down the caseload or restart the economy.

“I’ve shifted my thinking to be long-term COVID,” said Amanda M. Goetz, a VP of marketing and mother of three. “It has helped with anxiety. Plan for the worst and be surprised to the upside.”

After decamping to family in Florida and Illinois through the pandemic, Goetz returned to the Upper West Side the other day and said she had decided to stick with New York. “I actually feel New Yorkers take the pandemic seriously,” she reported. She also found a startup she liked to home school her kids here.

“We Won’t Give Up”

Our local leaders are clearly trying to assuage our fear of uncertainty. “This is an extraordinarily difficult time, layer upon layer of crisis, but we won’t give up in the midst of this,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday.

Governor Andrew Cuomo regularly reminds New Yorkers of the mountain of COVID-19 cases we faced and overcame. He is so attached to the image he even once presented a clay model of the COVID mountain at one of his briefings. He rallied New Yorkers as Smart, Loving, United and Tough, although then changed the order to put Loving at the end when someone pointed out the initials spelled SLUT.

Having achieved one of the lowest infection rates in the country, the governor has embraced New York confidence by advising others. With Jane Rosenthal of the Tribeca Film Festival and Kathryn Bigelow, the Oscar-winning director, New York created public service ads to be shown around the country. In the ads, Morgan Freeman expresses one of Cuomo’s favorite themes. When you wear a mask, Freeman intones, you have my respect. “Mask up America. Be New York tough,” the ad recommends.

New Yorkers have a well-established tradition of scoffing at our leaders, who as often as not have earned at least some of this New York disrespect. There is perhaps no higher honor for an elected official than to be booed at Yankee Stadium. But of course in this new age we can’t go to Yankee stadium to vent. And our ultimate leader, a former Queens developer with a finely honed talent for fueling uncertainty, said he had declined an invite to the stadium that may or may not actually have been made.

Free to Play

The Yankees illustrated last week how unstable our former certainties have become. Their ubiquitous season schedule used to be something a fan could plan around. Both home and away. Not these days. A series last week in Philadelphia dissolved after the Florida Marlins, who had just played the Phillies, disclosed that the virus had infected half their team. The Yankees were about to head home to the Bronx when The Orioles in Baltimore said, hey, we’re COVID-free and free to play.

Major League Baseball has come to resemble a pickup stickball game where teams hunt for who else is allowed to come out and play. It’s charming, but a bit unsettling to watch billion dollar businesses operate this way.

“We’re in a world where no one has dealt with anything like this before, so I think we all need to be pliable and be able to pivot and at least be open to adjust,” said Brian Cashman, general manager of the Yankees.

Baseball can help us understand the mind of New York, to paraphrase George Will in an earlier context. But nothing is more central to real life here than back-to-school month, also known as September. Mayor de Blasio pointed out that this is an anxious time even in normal times.

On Friday, as the deadline set by the Governor loomed, the mayor and the schools chancellor, Richard Carranza, offered what Caranza described as “some semblance of security” around the uncertainty of schooling in the age of COVID-19. In-person schooling will only be allowed if the overall rate of infection in New York is under 3% (it has hovered lately between 1% and 2%), the mayor announced.

This hewed closely to public health advice that the best way to make schools safe is to eliminate the virus in the larger community. Yet the mayor and the chancellor seemed to lack conviction in their own plan.

“We’re really choosing from a portfolio of imperfect solutions,” said Carranza.

“Our hope and dream is a vaccine real soon – everyone gets vaccinated, we’re back to full strength,” explained the mayor.

It was puzzling to hear the mayor and the chancellor so swiftly undercut their own confidence-building efforts by talk of the more perfect plan – the one scientists and drug companies may deliver to us, sooner or later. So not New York tough.

The virus can be contained through rigorous adherence to mask wearing and social distancing, cleaning and aggressively ventilating schools and swift and effective contact tracing. Layers of protection, the public health experts would call this. In other words, we can take our fate back into our own New York hands, tough, smart, united, disciplined and loving (as we now order them). If we can make it safe here ... Well, you know the rest.

“I’ve shifted my thinking to be long-term COVID. It has helped with anxiety. Plan for the worst and be surprised to the upside.” Amanda M. Goetz, a VP of marketing and mother of three