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Nothing About New York’s Outbreak Was Inevitable

Seven weeks after its first recorded coronavirus case, New York has become the global center of the pandemic. In New York City, a staggering 1 in 800 residents has died from the disease, which continues to kill hundreds of New Yorkers a day.

New York City is sick, and journalists, pundits, and politicians have made a diagnosis: The city’s exceptional density is the problem. That is certainly the self-serving conclusion of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. It’s a convenient bit of fatalism for a man presiding over a catastrophe.

At the core of this theory is the idea that New York City is just different. New Yorkers live their lives in close proximity. They share laundromats, lobbies, elevators, subway trains, and crowded sidewalks. No U.S. city has more inhabitants per square mile  New York City News or higher rates of public transit use. The coronavirus was destiny. “It seems highly unlikely that any response by the state or city could have fully stopped the pandemic,” the New York Times wrote earlier this month. Joel Kotkin, an urban affairs commentator whose crocodile tears for New York would fill a backyard swimming pool, could barely contain his glee at the prospect that New Yorkers might finally pack up for the Dallas suburbs.


Like any misdiagnosis, this one will make it harder to find the cure.

A cursory look at a map shows that New York City’s coronavirus cases aren’t correlated with neighborhood density at all. Staten Island, the city’s least crowded borough, has the highest positive test rate of the five boroughs. Manhattan, the city’s densest borough, has its lowest.

Nor are deaths correlated with public transit use. The epidemic began in the city’s northern suburbs. The city’s per capita fatalities are identical to those in neighboring Nassau County, home of Levittown, a typical suburban county with a household Press Release Distribution Service In New York City income twice that of New York City.

True, New York City apartments are crowded. The share of housing units with more than one occupant per room is almost 10 percent. But that number is 13 percent in the city of Los Angeles. As a metro area, New York isn’t even in the top 15 U.S. cities for overcrowding. It’s not even the American city with the most apartments per capita (Miami) or immigrants (also Miami), to take two other characteristics that critics say might be associated with coronavirus infections.


New York City has a lot of restaurants per capita, places where people gather with strangers every night. But not as many as San Francisco, which, though it ranks second in the U.S. for both residential density and transit use, had just 20 COVID-19 deaths as of Friday.

If you expand your comparison internationally, New York City looks less exceptional still. It is not as dense or transit-dependent as, say, Paris (which has less than half of New York’s fatality rate) or Seoul, South Korea, where the pandemic has been all but controlled.

So what is it about New York City that made it a hot spot? Right now, it looks like the most exceptional thing about New York is its leaders’ belief that the city is unique. This presumption served first as a reassurance that New York would not follow Lombardy’s example, and later as the reason why it had.

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