Dubbed the “Queen City of the Sound,” New Rochelle, New York has become the epicenter of the state’s coronavirus outbreak after a 50-year-old attorney was diagnosed with the virus on March 2. He has since been linked to at least 50 other cases in the area.
Now, the bustling suburban town in Westchester County, where 108 of New York state’s 173 confirmed COVID-19 cases originate, is under a mile-wide containment zone order for two weeks, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced on Tuesday. Though residents can still move around the area, the containment essentially mandates the closing of public schools, houses of worship and other places where large groups gather regularly.
New Rochelle has been ranked among the best places to raise children, boasts some of the nation’s priciest real estate and, according to its police department, is the safest city of its size in New York State and the fifth-safest city of its size in the U.S.
So when news broke that the town was on lockdown and National Guard troops will arrive Thursday to disinfect buildings and deliver meals to more vulnerable populations — including the more than 2,800 students at closed schools who typically receive free or reduced-fee lunches — residents were shocked.
“My first reaction was, ‘Oh, my gosh! The National Guard? What’s going on?’” resident Tom Lowder tells PEOPLE. “Once they explained things and it became clear they weren’t going to militarize the area, that it was really just for logistical support so that they can go in an clean the schools and other gathering places to make sure they’re completely virus-free when the students come back, I thought, ‘You know, that really makes sense. Maybe they’re erring on the side of caution just to make sure that we don’t spread the virus even more.’ ”
Getty Signs posted around New Rochelle urge residents to “Stay healthy!”
Some in the diverse community are supportive of the move while others question its ultimate effectiveness. The town’s large Jewish community is also feeling pressure from neighbors, says one resident. The infected lawyer had attended a function at Young Israel Synagogue in New Rochelle before he was aware he had contracted the virus, and the containment zone spreads in a 1-mile radius out from the synagogue.
“A lot of the Jewish families are feeling vulnerable about the fact that they’re under quarantine and that they’ve been kind of vilified over something that was totally not in their control,” Denise Logan, a mom of three living in New Rochelle, tells PEOPLE.
Getty Purple ribbons dot poles outside Young Israel Synagogue in New Rochelle
During the quarantine, more than 5,500 students who attend the three temporarily shuttered public schools — New Rochelle High School, Albert Leonard Middle School and Ward Elementary — are affected. They’ll study from home for at least the next two weeks and some 2,000 who lack access to a computer will be provided Chromebooks on loan from the school district to complete their assignments.
Logan, who has a 17-year-old son at the high school and a 12-year-old daughter at Albert Leonard, says the decision to close public schools has been questioned.
“The population that has been under quarantine is mainly part of this Orthodox Jewish population. The majority of them send their kids to private school, so they really don’t use the public school system. So there’s been a lot of controversy here about whether to close the public schools or not based on the fact that the students in the public schools have not been quarantined or tested positive,” she says. “There are a lot of people in the community that are dependent upon the school system for meals and childcare. There’s an economically challenged contingent that needs the school system for that purpose.”
Outside of the new containment measures, though, daily life in New Rochelle has not significantly changed, Lowder says.
“I’m seeing more people wiping down shopping carts at the grocery store, wiping down their steering wheels, things like that. People aren’t shaking hands or fist bumping or hugging,” he says. But otherwise, “just driving through the community, you wouldn’t know anything out of the ordinary is going on.”
Logan believes that reporting on the New Rochelle outbreak has been overblown.
“Some of the media is reporting this story like our entire area is one giant petri dish of disaster but the numbers don’t reflect that,” she says. “It’s just an aggressive portrayal of what’s going on here. If you drove through you wouldn’t notice anything. Life is really just kind of normal for a lot of people, even though people are working from home.”
“The community knows how to come together and we’ll get through it,” she adds.