New York Is Trying Targeted Lockdowns. Will It Curb Covid?

By Gregory Barber

New York City has always been ahead on this virus, compared with the rest of the United States. It was first to face the tragedy of overwhelmed hospitals and widespread deaths, and then first to recover something that looked like normality. This summer, the restaurants spilled into the streets. The art museums reopened. Sunbathers could again bask in Central Park without risk of seeing their torsos shamed in an evening news segment. But last week, New York, both state and city, teetered back into grim territory. Indicators trumpeted by politicians through the summer as evidence of success—low case numbers, test positivity rates below 1 percent—had begun to flash as bright warning lights.

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But the worrisome numbers were not uniformly distributed, state officials argued. They were skewed by certain neighborhoods and groups that were not playing by the rules. So, the state would “attack each area in the cluster with the appropriate restrictions,” as Governor Andrew Cuomo wrote last week on Twitter. The zones, issued last week by state health officials, are splashed across the map: red, orange, and yellow, corresponding to just how far hard-won gains towards normalcy are rolling back. Across large swaths of Queens and Brooklyn, dozens of schools that had reopened last week would be shuttered. Outdoor and indoor dining, depending on the zone, would be pulled back, and mass gatherings restricted. In red zones, nonessential businesses were again required to close. The restrictions would last two weeks, starting October 8, assuming the situation improves by then.

None of this was unforeseeable. The city is confronting outbreaks—and a possible second wave—that are inevitable in places where the virus has been mostly quelled, particularly as the weather cools, schools reopen, and people gather indoors. But once again, New York City is just the first to deal with it. “They have the opportunity to write the playbook,” says Sam Scarpino, an applied mathematician at Northeastern University who studies how outbreaks move.

But can a color-coded, micro-targeted approach meant to place restrictions on places with the most spread actually contain a borderless virus? New Yorkers were quick to point out some problems. There is the fact that New York City is a large and fluid territory. It’s tough to imagine neighborhoods divided block by block, with each area following different instructions to close businesses or schools. It means that in Queens, three shopping malls sitting within a mile of each other straddle three zones. Three malls. Three sets of restrictions. Say you’re a red zoner who wants to dine inside again? By all means! Just take the subway a few stops.

And while the restrictions are geographic, public officials have made clear that they primarily address a particular group of people who live within those zones: the Orthodox Jewish community. The restrictions, Cuomo said last week, are in response to a failure to curb mass gatherings—especially those related to Jewish holidays. Many within the community also believe that “herd immunity” has already been reached—that’s when enough people are immune that a contagion no longer effectively spreads—and that restrictions and mask wearing are no longer necessary. Last week, protesters marched against the plans, arguing they were now living and working in ghettos, their freedoms curtailed while the rest of the city carries on. On Thursday, Catholic and Jewish groups filed a lawsuit to prevent restrictions on religious gatherings.

Still, in some ways, such a hyperlocal focus makes sense, says Lauren Ancel Meyers, an epidemiologist at the University of Texas at Austin. One way to think about this virus is that it toggles between two stages of containment. There’s a phase in which the rate of infection is low and the primary concern is localized flare-ups. They may be centered on specific kinds of incidents, like a big indoor gathering, or individuals who happen, whether by behavior or biology, to be particularly infectious. It’s critical to contain those flare-ups before they spark into a wider outbreak. But after that point, the precise source of any one infection becomes difficult to discern. It’s all a wash. There’s just too much virus, too many potential pathways of transmission. If those cases threaten the capacity of the health system, it may become necessary to lock everything down, as New York did this spring.