To Shut Down or Not to Shut Down? That is the Question.

The divergent strategies deployed in the two cities (and nations) where I divide my life have led to very different outcomes, economically and psychologically. And yet, their death tolls are nearly indistinguishable. Here’s what I’ve observed, and concluded.

The 1.3-mile stretch of 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights in Queens has become a neighborhood gathering spot.Credit…Todd Heisler/The New York Times

I truly thought I was done with writing about the pandemic, after a year of reflection fed by a “split life” spent in two distinct realities — those of New York and Toronto, or Trump’s America and Trudeau’s Canada — with regard to the laws and behaviors that have come to define life in each city, and nation. I pored over statistics every week, as I moved from place to place as a citizen of both, because travel rules were in constant flux, and I needed to know how what was happening on the ground affected my ability and desire to continue seeing my wife and children, whose homes placed them on both sides of an increasingly hostile border.

The differences couldn’t have been starker.

If I Can Make it Here

In New York, a city decimated by the first peak last April, their world-famous public realm, comprised of unparalleled restaurants, bars, theater, concerts, hotels, nightclubs, retail and other only-in-New-York happenings is on life support, and thousands of them have closed down, perhaps for good. The food and beverage industry in particular has been pummeled, shedding more than 140,000 of its 325,000 pre-pandemic jobs, according to the New York Times — 43% of total employment. The hospitality and entertainment industry has fared almost as bad, losing 366,000 — or 39% — of all jobs, according to the New York Post. In all, 1 in 8 New Yorkers — 12% of them — have lost employment since the pandemic took hold.

The losses are staggering, sending families into food lines, shelters, the streets and despair.

And yet.

The City that Never Sleeps may have blacked out, but a large contingent of the public at large — those who didn’t hightail it the moment life got tough — still throngs the streets, supporting local stores, bars and retail outlets that remain thankfully open, and largely retaining their tough-minded, resolute “when the going gets tough, the tough get going” attitude, in addition to their unique New-York brand of gritty optimism.

I’ve watched this play out time and again during my quarter-century living there, and in the quarter-century before that, too, because my father moved there in ’73, shortly before urban decay brought the city and its economy to its knees, in its worst-ever economy.

I had a front-row seat to much of it.

“South Bronx, 1970.” Image: Camilo José Vergara

As of today, eleven thousand restaurants have taken over the streets, turning a car-centric landscape into a plywood version of Paris or Venice, as limits on indoor dining have sent resourceful owners into the open air, to keep serving customers, and by extension, feeding their own families. The city, wisely, has ceded control of the real estate fronting each operation, pushing cars out in favor of making more space for New Yorkers to find pseudo-normalcy. Recently, the mayor made this a permanent law, heralding the beginning of what I believe will become the end of the Automobile Age in urban centers.

Likewise, the city’s “Open Streets” policy has thus far transformed one hundred miles of vehicular arteries into pedestrian-only paseos. As a result, sports-playing kids, an exercise-starved public and chatty neighbors have all come out of their homes in droves to avail themselves of this boon in any circumstance.

REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

And while 3.59 million New Yorkers have fled the city in the past 2 years, taking $298 billion in income with them, according to a Propmodo article titled The Big Apple Bites Back, in that same period, 3.5 million transplants have become new New Yorkers, taking advantage of both the 20% overall reduction in overall rental prices, and moving there for what NYC alone promises: the unmatched culture, innovation, and human capital that has always been its biggest hallmark and draw, turning it into the global center of gravity for the finance, publishing, advertising and fashion sectors, as well as the planet’s biggest home to artists — over 56,000 of them. The plummeting real estate prices will only serve to increase that number, over time. This is important, because artists are the lifeblood of innovation and reinvention, which is why, more than any other reason, Brooklyn has become the world’s leading cauldron of experimentation and cultural export.

The city’s population of artists has grown by 17.4% overall, from 2000–2015, according to Bloomberg. And while Manhattan’s dizzying real estate prices have pushed 10% of them into the other boroughs or beyond the city’s limits, Brooklyn’s (and Queens’) artist communities have burgeoned, growing 72% in the same time period, overall. Fort Greene, Brooklyn Heights, and Downtown Brooklyn, where I still live part time, has seen 58% growth. Sunset Park? +124%. Bed-Stuy? +268%. And Bushwick, where some of my closest friends have lived for ages, has experienced a whopping 1,116% surge in artist-residents, in just 15 years.

Jefferson Street, Bushwick. Image: Sue Davies

Taken in sum, these things are astounding, and bode well for the future of a city unlike any other. Real New Yorkers’ tenacity, and their unique brand of creativity, will find ways of recreating themselves now, as they always have, in the past.

If not there, then nowhere.

Toronto the Good

Then, there’s Toronto — my other home. If New York is defined by its grit, defiance and creative enterprise, “Toronto the Good” as my Montreal-born-and-raised mother recently called it, invoking its original nickname, is another animal altogether. Toronto didn’t double down on whatever hand it was dealt, by the pandemic, to meet it head on. To the contrary, it folded, wholesale, and went into hiding, where it remains on near-total lockdown. Today, it is illegal to operate a restaurant — even out of doors, where there is nearly zero risk of contracting COVID, anywhere, with the sole exception of large-scale, dense, maskless gatherings. Nonetheless, Toronto’s modus operandi during the pandemic has been, “When in doubt, duck.” Everything the public could engage in—retail, food and beverage, entertainment, and services, are all now verboten. Moreover, for much of the year, public parks and even provincial parks were off limits. We flaunted that last one early on, because my wife and I determined it was nonsensical, and without risk. We were fined $200 for the privilege of a two-hour walk in the woods, alone.

Image: Rick Madonik, Toronto Star

Even — and this is my favorite one — ski hills were shut down for the first few months of the season, until just a few days ago. You know: those places of near-zero density, bracing winds and near-total body coverage, faces, hands and all. In fact, the National Post reported that Ontario was the only place in North America to close its ski hills, to which normally submissive Ontarians have sent an 85,000-signature petition to the government, in an attempt to get them to reconsider.

An image outside of High Park—Toronto’s largest open space.

What was the city and province’s official rationale for closing the great outdoors, in urban and rural settings alike? Well, one can never be too safe…

Toronto concluded that outdoor dining would have made it more difficult for snow removal vehicles to operate efficiently. Not to be outdone, the province determined that until there was proof that no one could get sick in parks, trailheads or ski hills, it just wasn’t worth the risk to allow any of it.

As a result Torontonians, deprived of outlets for physical and psychological energy, are increasingly reacting like bottles under continued pressure, with some of these coming violently uncorked. Suddenly, in my experience, everyone sees every other human being as a threat. Accordingly, I am scowled at or sidestepped every single time I exit my home to get food or household goods. Everyone is so wired from the province’s Chicken Little pronouncements about risk that nerves are extremely frayed, friends are increasingly seen as biological weapons, and being out of doors is now considered by many to be an existential threat.

I have been screamed at, and belligerently insulted, by I-can’t-count-how-many people there. Often, it’s for the transgression of encroaching on the 6-foot (2-metre) mandated minimum boundary between humans. Just last week, my mother came to town to visit from Montreal, and she, two of my kids and I went to one of the only places one’s allowed — a grocer, with a few ready-to-eat meals — to get provisions and pizza. As I approached an empty counter to see what they were serving, someone beyond my field of vision began screaming at me at the top of his lungs for “coming too close” to him. I stopped in my tracks and stared, dumbfounded, since he was likely about 6 feet away at the time, and there was no way in that store’s narrow aisles to ensure keeping that distance, anyway. And so, I had mistakenly assumed that anyone there was willing to “take the risk.”

“ASSH*LE!” he yelled at me. “Go f**k yourself! There are rules!” I hadn’t uttered a word, and all of this happened in about 4 seconds, tops. My kids, mother and I stared at each other, no idea what to say. They agreed later (I asked them) that I’d done nothing worth provoking this. After, however, I called him a “deranged human being” and we moved on. I couldn’t hear the rest of what he yelled as I walked out of earshot.

At the scene of the crime: Eataly Toronto

The month before, an Air Canada attendant I passed on an escalator as I exited the airport in Toronto lost her sh*t on me, in seconds. I always walk faster than others, especially in airports. As I approached her on the escalator, I politely and quietly said, “Excuse me,” stepping around her on the way down. “Hey! You’re not allowed to come that close to me!” I stopped, turned around a few steps below, and retorted, “You mean, like on that flight we just exited, where we were sharing a sardine can, elbow to elbow, for the past 1.5 hours?” “Assh*le,” she said, and her co-worker chimed in, in agreement, clucking her tongue at my perceived insouciance. “Can’t you read English?” “No, I guess I can’t,” I told her.

“Go f**k yourself,” she said.

<sigh>

Pearson Airport: the scene of the (other) crime—just not the player.

Every person, apart from those on the front lines of health and safety, and those who sell and/or deliver supplies to keep you alive, has been forbidden from leaving home in Toronto, and most of Ontario. And while some still do, flaunting the laws to take a breath of fresh air, or walk in their neighborhoods, maintaining multiples of the regulated minimum meterage between them, just in case, most have faithfully followed the orders. Toronto the Good has lived up to its nickname. Those who do venture outdoors, as I mentioned, now see every other human being as a mortal threat. I am glared at constantly, just for sharing the street. This is the legacy of a people on long-term lockdown. Nearly every person I have passed on the street in Toronto has walked off of the sidewalk and around a car to put distance between us.

Outside. With masks on.

What has the net effect been, for grinding their retail, entertainment, food, beverage and hospitality economies to a halt? 355,000 of the province’s 7.1 million jobs have been lost, or just 5% of the total (1 in 20). That’s because the government elected to foot the bill instead (until the CERB program was recently closed), to keep people employed by supplying 75% of salaries to participating employers, up to a $56,000 annual limit. My own company benefitted enormously from this, as a notoriously volatile profession in times of economic hardship.

In essence, the Ontario government chose control — through debt and regulation — over choice — the empowerment of individuals and companies to weigh and take risks, within established frameworks. And while frankly, I’ve no strong opinion about which is a better system in normal times, I have watched two wildly divergent populations act and react very differently under each, with one seeking pseudo-normalcy by exercising lemons-into-lemonade creativity within some regulatory boundaries, and the other heading indoors and killing urban life wholesale, until the government tells them otherwise.

It’s driving my own wife batty. She watches me travel regularly, while she — a public front-line healthcare worker — cannot. I eat out with friends, regularly, in NYC. She doesn’t even get to see her friends, and hasn’t done so in nearly a year. She barely sees her own family, because today in Ontario, everyone sees everyone else as a pathogenic threat.

In my opinion, it isn’t fair. Not to her, and not to 40% of Canadians who find themselves living in Ontario, and who are have been slowly losing their sh*t.

Will they survive it, and will life return to normal, at some point? Most likely, yes. But in the meantime, Toronto has lost out on two things that New York hasn’t: the chance to innovate — to fix things that were never perfect to begin with, or, to come up with temporary hacks; and the bonding between people that arises most acutely when people share hardship.

After 9/11 happened, New Yorkers were closer. Restaurants were fuller. Residents were kinder. And bridges between cultures were stronger. Today, in the pandemic, I encounter daily examples of kindness that were never so acutely on display there: smiles; gratitude; generosity; camaraderie. Conversely, I am palpably aware of the threat I continually represent in the eyes of Torontonians, who just want me to leave them alone and maintain my distance. In Toronto, my new nickname — assh*le — will likely stick. I’m trading up from f**ktard, which I was called once before for crossing an empty strip mall parking lot diagonally, rather than orthogonally, within the painted lines.

But that’s another story.

Is It Worth It?

But what of the infection rates, you could — and should — ask? Don’t these provide clear justification of Toronto’s draconian measures? Isn’t shutting down the public realm and shredding inter-human trust simply the prudent thing to do, when lives hang in the balance? Isn’t life itself far more important than its quality, if one were forced to make a terrible choice?

Indeed, it is. To be alive and beaten down is far better than to be free and dead. No argument there, whatsoever.

But.

Here, too, the cities tell a different mathematical story than the one the people have bought into. Yes, New York has seen far more deaths than Toronto has, primarily the result of last April’s early spike, before any of really us knew what we were fighting, and death rates were far higher per infection than they are today.

But.

Three-City Comparison. © Anthony Fieldman 2021 Source: New York Times COVID Tracker

Right now, in the two contexts I’ve outlined at length, above, New York is experiencing 0.96 deaths/100,000 residents, while Toronto is witnessing 0.79/100,000. Meaning, there is a 0.17/100,000 delta between them; or, for every million residents, Toronto’s lockdown will save 1.7 more people from COVID-19 than New York City will.

If we extrapolate those numbers to the entire metropolitan population, Toronto’s hyper-regulation, hyper-vigilance and hyper-anxiety will collectively — potentially — save approximately 5 more human beings from succumbing to the pandemic than it would have had it not closed down, if its laws tracked those in NYC, barring other variables. That’s five deaths added to the 50,000 or so who die there each year, every year.

Lastly, we need to factor in the perplexing statistic that shows Toronto’s infection rates have risen by 50% over the past two weeks, while New York’s have decreased by 1%, according to the New York Times’ COVID tracker.

And so, is the shutdown worth it? Are the disruption, job losses, government debt, anxiety, depression and exploding mistrust worth the pain?

Well, obviously it depends on your point of view.

I came to conclude that the costs of closing down an entire city — and the province of Ontario — weren’t worth it. That’s because the gap in infection and death rates today, in both of my homes, is frankly negligible. It therefore isn’t worth it, I believe, to inflict more emotional, societal and economic suffering than one has to.

New York City’s level-headed attitude toward closing what’s riskiest, and safeguarding the relatively benign outlets residents have and cherish, to help businesses and denizens to weather the pandemic, is not only healthier, it might even result in a richer public realm than the one we started with. You know: the one geared toward automobiles instead of people; and the one that kept inflating the price of everything drastically to feed capitalist greed, making Gotham ever-less affordable, at the cost of both the city’s lower-income taxpayers, and long-term health.

Where Canada’s policies are helpful, I believe, is in providing some measure of financial assistance to those whose businesses suffered, or who lost their jobs. America alone has provided bupkus directly to its citizens at a time when it needed to. With that said, though, the U.S. has spent 11% of its GDP on coronavirus spending packages of some kind, while Canada has spent less than half of that, at 5%, according to a Columbia University study. The difference is in where the funding has gone.

These things are important because the fact is, COVID-19 is most likely here to stay. It will go from being an epidemic to becoming endemic, according to Dr. Fauci, and others. And so, even if we may be able to weather this year’s pandemic and survive it with punishing measures in place, we will not be able to do so indefinitely. Canada’s government will not be able to provide 75% of every Canadian’s salaries forever, as it recently did. In fact, that program just closed. Businesses will not be able to weather empty shelves and seats forever, without closing, or moving on. Communities and the social fabric will not be able to survive the continued onslaught of mutual mistrust that hangs thick in the air, in Toronto. Families will not be able to continually weather being kept apart, as they are, up North, without their bonds stretching to the breaking point.

The costs aren’t worth it. And so, in my view, the incubation of clever alternatives — innovative strategies — that will allow life to go on in some capacity must be cultivated if life isn’t to collapse under the weight of a perpetual threat.

And who will come up with these strategies? A government that measures every act through the lens of political messaging and re-election, and therefore does only what must be done in order to alienate the smallest number of people? Or a bootstrapped citizenry that is clever enough to find innovative ways of recasting their own businesses and livelihoods in the context of a changing landscape, because to them, it is about survival, not re-election?

I think we’ve seen which one works best.

Final Thoughts

The reason I decided to write “one more piece” on COVID-19 is that on my way to New York City this week, I detoured to spend 3 days in Miami with an NYC friend who had decamped there for a month to take advantage of a rent break his landlord gave him in the Big Apple.

I wasn’t prepared for what I saw. While life in Toronto is fully shut down, and New York’s measured limits have led to the transformation of its public realm, in Miami one would hardly even know that there’s a pandemic raging in the world, at all.

Miami by night © Anthony Fieldman 2021

Apart from the fact that about 30% of people wear masks on the street (mostly around their chins, sadly), life — traffic, professionals in suits, restaurants, beaches, retail and street life — is teeming there as it always has.

Miami by night © Anthony Fieldman 2021

I figured I must be missing something, and that they had to be dying in droves there, out of sight, given how profligate their lifestyle is, in the context of a momentous wall of death, everywhere.

Well, here, too, the numbers reveal the truth. On that same NYT database, Miami’s current death rate is 0.74/100,000. That makes it near-identical to Toronto’s. My friend Gill, one of the most well-read and coldly rational people I know — he’s Scandinavian — and the man whose apartment I was crashing in for a few days, shared his two theories. First, the biggest influence by far, he believes, is that as the result of poor testing data, the city is beginning to actually reach herd immunity. He thinks half of the city has already had COVID-19, whether or not they know it, and whether or not the official caseload numbers reflect this. He says he hasn’t met one person who hasn’t had it, since arriving there a month and a half ago. If he’s right, then a lockdown would’ve been ineffective in preventing death, but catastrophic to its tourism-centric economy, like that of New York. And while one may underreport the cause of illness (his theory), death records are another matter, because these are reported when the body is found, and the causes are clearer. And, again, their death rate is nearly indistinguishable from Toronto’s. The second criterion he thinks makes a difference is the weather. In warmer weather, coronaviruses cannot easily proliferate. If so, geography may be its saving grace. It makes sense, until you look at the bigger picture. Tropical nations like Brazil, Mexico, Peru and Panama, and temperate nations like Spain, Italy and Portugal have been among the toughest-hit countries of all. Moreover, states like Texas, Mississippi, Arizona, California and Alabama, among others, have all seen levels far higher than those of similarly temperate Miami, and many northern climes.

All of which leaves me to believe that draconian measures may have less impact on how many lives are lost in any particular place than we think, for reasons beyond my reckoning. And if that’s the case, then we’ve suffered needlessly.

The fact is that it’s almost impossible to get sick out of doors. Even at the height of the Black Lives Matter marches, with thousands screaming at the top of their lungs, in close proximity (I partook in dozens of these in NYC, packed shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of marchers, for hours on end each day, for a two-week period), the much-feared spikes never materialized. Most of us wore masks. That stratagem does seem to make a huge difference in the projectile capacity of a droplet- or aerosol-buoyed pathogen.

And so, eating out of doors, walking in the neighborhood, playing in the park, hiking, marching in solidarity, skating and skiing (!!) among many other activities, should all be not only allowed, but encouraged.

Moreover, if obesity is a lightning rod for COVID-19, as it has been revealed to be, in addition to its being the world’s single greatest killer, then staying put at home, sedentary and without a means of working off meals, may kill far more people, in the end, than letting life go on uninterrupted might have.

I’m not kidding.

Diet and Death in the United States. © Anthony Fieldman 2020

Thus, the investment in more robust, innovative, public realm-enhancing open-air infrastructure for socializing — for bars, eating establishments, and active sports like cycling or tennis, and modified-density solutions for movies, concert venues, night clubs, and other larger gatherings — must be made. Cities will benefit enormously, with or without a coronavirus. Of course, the vehicular road network that claims 50% of the average city’s footprint will provide the majority of the real estate required for this to happen, and should be wholly rethought and prioritized, for the mid- and long-term. My friend Josh Sirefman, for decades a high-profile private- and public-sector executive and advocate, and the founding president of Google’s Sidewalk Labs, wholly agrees, and has aimed the energies of the nascent company in that direction. In fact, he and I just gave a talk on this subject, six weeks ago, called City 3.0.

And finally, we cannot afford to continue looking at COVID-19’s impact on lives through a narrow lens. For all those who lost a job due to lockdowns, there is little chance that a sizeable portion of those lives won’t suffer long-term as a result, every day of their futures. Not everyone can bounce back from job loss, or the decimation of the industry that they trained in. The whole idea of Universal Basic Income arose from this idea — that something inhuman (technology, rather than a natural pathogen) would force us to rethink work, for those most impacted. Dozens of countries are experimenting with UBI today. COVID-19 will only accelerate this, because of our own decisions — not those of efficient algorithms.

The same goes for our children. How many families will be torn apart? How many children — especially disadvantaged ones — will be left behind for life by the lack of access to quality teachers, tech and/or resources, whether it’s “only” for a year, or twelve, if Fauci is right about COVID’s endemic future?

For every life literally lost today, countless others will suffer long term. The ultimate price we pay for locking down life will be multiples of the immediate impacts we feel today. And so, our actions will either stunt us in the future, or they will set us up to thrive in spite of it.

An image of magnets in my Brooklyn home © Anthony Fieldman 2021

That is to say, to borrow Vivian Greene’s quote, “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning to dance in the rain.” She’s right. We have an opportunity to cultivate our inner New York moxie, or pluck, and creatively reinvent ourselves in the face of adversity, by turning challenges into opportunities to fix what was never perfect to begin with.

Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning to dance in the rain. —Vivian Greene

In an attempt to reconcile the alternate worlds in Toronto and New York bi-weekly (from quarantine to quarantine), then glimpsing the devil-may-care attitude of the Miamians earlier this week, I’ve come to think that the most conservative answer is likely as wrong as the most cavalier one; and that the best answer might skew more closely — judging by life on the ground in each, and the associated death tolls there — toward that of managed risk, and public realm innovation.

For cold climates, investments in weatherizing the urban outdoors — with heat lamps, radiant floors, wind-proof, well-ventilated shelters, and other strategies — should become a priority for manufacturers and cities. We can look to festivals like Burning Man for an example of how 75,000 people foster human exchange with temporary shelters in a punishing environment.

The super-clever COVID-19 shelters at Katana Kitten, in NYC. Image: Katana Kitten

In both warm and cold climates, a better, more scientific accounting of the true dangers attendant to outdoor gathering must be made, if we are to understand just how safe it is to gather, and in what forms. So far, the evidence points overwhelmingly to the relative safety of this strategy. Over 25,000 studies have been reviewed toward this end, supporting my conclusion. But science has not yet reached a conclusive determination.

It’s time.

And finally, a full appraisal of not only the short- but the mid- and long-term impacts of various closures, job losses, and impacts on education and work, must be made in the aftermath of this pandemic, if we are to plan better for the next one.

Because it’s coming. And this one has decimated the economy.

Human beings don’t have the best track record of heeding our own past. But history is complete with lessons, if only we have the foresight to study them.

For now, I’m sticking by my initial thoughts. It’s safe to be outside, even if others come within six feet of you. <ahem> It’s criminal not to allow people to avail themselves of this critical resource, let alone not encourage it. Masks work. Holing oneself up at home or shutting down the public realm until the population is vaccinated, or until our respective break points are reached, isn’t the answer, and might cripple the most at-risk populations in the long term (no, not the elderly; they’ve been our focus; the working class, the disadvantaged — young and old — and minorities). And so far, by empirical observation, after a year spent traveling every other week between NYC (eating out; joining protests, exercising outdoors, and seeing friends within a defined “bubble”) and Toronto (where none of that has happened, apart from the occasional walk outdoors, when I was mostly permitted to), plus a short stint in Miami, which is fully open, indoors and out, I have concluded that we have suffered needlessly.

I guess time will tell.

Architect | Photographer | Writer | Polyglot | Windmill Jouster | Nomade Civilisée.

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