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The city that never sleeps has met its inner Rip Van Winkle

As Congress dithers, small businesses in New York and elsewhere face a struggle for survival

Empty streets in Midtown Manhattan on Sunday. As Congress plays its own game of chicken, neighborhood small businesses in New York and elsewhere face a struggle for survival, Shapiro writes.
Empty streets in Midtown Manhattan on Sunday. As Congress plays its own game of chicken, neighborhood small businesses in New York and elsewhere face a struggle for survival, Shapiro writes. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

NEW YORK — Sunday night I looked down from my 11th floor window on a Manhattan so empty that you could imagine the sidewalks had been created by some prior civilization. 

A single car paused for a traffic light on Amsterdam Avenue. And then after the light changed, there was nothing else moving — no taxis, no buses and no delivery trucks — for as long as I looked.

Pedestrians too had totally vanished with the restaurants and bars shuttered. Every trip to an open drugstore, grocery or bodega has become a calculus in risk assessment. Is the item that I’m shopping for — a loaf of bread, a box of Kleenex, a pound of coffee — worth the risk of touching a door handle or stepping too close to a neighbor? 

On the Upper West Side, the city that never sleeps has discovered its inner Rip Van Winkle. 

After 9/11, New Yorkers huddled together in homes and restaurants out of shared loss and shared defiance. After the 2008 economic collapse, those who could afford to still shopped and spent in a determined effort to support imperiled neighborhood merchants. 

But nothing in memory compares to the silence of the involuntarily homebound. 

Harsh realities

Once again, New York is ground zero. As of Sunday night, nearly 11,000 people with the coronavirus have been diagnosed in this city of 8.4 million. That’s roughly one-third of all the COVID-19 cases in the United States. 

Taking the health advisories seriously, I have not been venturing out, aside from periodic safe-distance walks to stare at the Hudson River. 

But even though I cannot see most of them from my window, I worry about the future of the small businesses that give a neighborhood its character and its sense of place. 

How many restaurants, already oppressed by astronomical Manhattan rents, will never reopen? Can my dry cleaner hang on at a time when T-shirts and sweatpants qualify as formal attire? What about quirky little institutions, like a store called West Side Judaica, that exist nowhere else? 

This, in theory, is what all of America will be facing in the weeks ahead. 

But a nation never known for its patience is already bristling at the restrictions. Donald Trump is tweeting threats in all capital letters: “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF.” Any moment now, this self-anointed wartime president will probably announce that we have won the war and can resume normal spending.

John M. Barry’s epic and sobering account the 1918-1919 pandemic, “The Great Influenza,” should serve as a crash course on why public health in an emergency cannot be left to the politicians. 

At a time when there was no national leadership from President Woodrow Wilson or anyone else in Washington, cites and states were left on their own. (Any of this sound familiar?) 

The highest death rates were in cities like Philadelphia where an incompetent and boodling political machine followed the strategy of aggressive denial. Until it was too late. 

A feverish response

As Congress plays its own game of chicken over the $2 trillion stimulus bill, it is easy to despair about the future of American democracy. If the coronavirus doesn’t qualify as an emergency worth putting aside political gamesmanship, then should anyone expect unity if an invasion force from Mars landed on the Capitol grounds? 

Yet for all the invective being ginned up by Capitol Hill speechwriters, there is a glimmer of hope in the speed at which both parties came to agree that a massive stimulus was needed. It was only a week ago that Mitt Romney shed free-market dogma to propose that every American receive $1,000 to help weather the crisis. 

The spending package — almost certain to be signed into law this week, despite all of the current posturing — will be a badly flawed piece of legislation. That is par for the course when Congress legislates in a feverish response to an unprecedented crisis. 

Six weeks of hearings, economic studies and laborious negotiations would undoubtedly produce a stimulus package that is fairer, more shrewdly targeted and less wasteful. 

But in six weeks, probably more than half the small businesses in my neighborhood (and yours) will be in bankruptcy. In six weeks, the streets will be filled with newly homeless who lost their apartments along with their jobs. In six weeks, there will be socially distanced lines for soup kitchens everywhere. 

Three weeks after the 2008 election, with the economy in free fall, Rahm Emanuel, just tapped as Barack Obama’s White House chief of staff, said at a conference, “You don’t want a good crisis to go to waste.”

In truth, government only gets one real shot to lessen the damage from a crisis before it reels out of control. Every other political consideration at that moment is a distraction from that overarching goal. 

As we compare the struggle against the coronavirus to a war, we should also heed the lessons of World War II. Not every dollar that was appropriated by Congress was spent wisely. Not every battle plan made sense. Not everyone involved in procurement was a selfless hero. 

But America prevailed partly because of the size and the strength of our economy. The same is true today — and the moral is that the dangers are far greater in doing too little, too late, than in doing too much right now.

Looking out my window, across West 86th Street, I care about the lights from the apartments across the way, filled with homebound people whom I do not know. 

What I hope and pray throughout this horrible period is that each night those lights will go on the same as always —signaling continued health amid the pandemic.  

Walter Shapiro has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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