At first, it seemed like business as usual on Friday morning at Gruenebaum’s Bakery, a kosher bake shop in the Bronx neighborhood of Riverdalein New York.
Customers greeted counter staff with easy familiarity, picking up challah loaves for shabbos Jewish day of rest, and then going about the rest of their day’s errands. Some sweet-toothed shoppers inquired about black-and-white iced cookies and chocolate babka, a loaf dessert akin to a flaky pound-cake.
In conversation with some Gruenebaum’s regulars, however, it became apparent just how much the coronavirus outbreak had affected this area’s Orthodox Jewish community, after an attorney in nearby New Rochelle, New York tested positive earlier this week.
The lawyer’s wife and two children reportedly tested positive as well, as did a neighbor who drove him to the hospital. Several Jewish day schools – including nearby Salanter Akiba Riverdale campuses – and synagogues have closed. Some students are under self-quarantine due to possible exposure.
The developments made Riverdale the center of the outbreak in New York city, jangling nerves and sparking concerns that the coronavirus was poised to spread further potentially causing chaos.
New York state’s governor Andrew Cuomo said Friday there are now 33 coronavirus cases in the state – with 11 new diagnoses connected to the original New Rochelle case. This uptick comes as frontline healthcare workers across the US voice concerns about the outbreak. They have expressed anxiety over what they have called a disturbing lack of preparedness. They have said that supply and staffing shortfalls, along with confusing guidance and minimal information, could worsen the situation.
Joe Molinatti, who drops by Gruenebaum’s almost daily, said it’s usually packed at lunch with students from SAR’s high school campus. The shopping center with Gruenebaum’s is located across the street from the school building. In the mornings, the shop should be packed with parents picking up baked goods after taking their kids to school, said Molinatti, 79.
“People are concerned, also scared at the same time,” said Molinatti, who lives in nearby Yonkers.
A customer with several children at SAR Academy, the lower-and-middle school campus located in another part of Riverdale, said these children were under self-quarantine. They were potentially exposed to coronavirus after attending a bar mitzvah several weeks ago.
One child was initially panicked, she said. “The kids watch the news, and when it hits home, it’s scary.” Physically, she said, “They seem OK.”
“This is extremely stressful,” she said, both for SAR parents and the entire community.
“That’s the nature of Orthodox Jews,” she said. “New Rochelle is part of our community – if one family suffers, we all suffer along with them. I could meet someone just and be like, ‘Oh, I know that one, or I know that one,’ that’s how it is,” she said.
“It’s called Jewish geography,” said Honey Banin, who works at the bakery.
Coronavirus is the “No 1 topic of conversation,” the SAR students’ mother said. “At any synagogue, any Jew walking down the street is talking about it.”
This appeared to be true elsewhere in Riverdale.
Two women walking their dogs could be overheard talking about being able to work from home, and the fear of those who couldn’t, during the coronavirus outbreak.
“My sense is that there’s just a lot of anxiety because of the unknown,” said another woman, who was out walking her golden retriever. “Everyone seems to know someone, if not infected, impacted.”
One bus driver said that passengers were sporting rubber gloves and freely discussing face masks they planned to wear on the train. Her passengers don’t think they’ve gotten enough guidance from officials.
“They say that they don’t know too much about it,” she said. “They’re not giving us too much information.”
Is she afraid?
“Yeah, I am. But I try not to show it,” she said. “I pray for the people to get better”
“I’m a little nervous,” said Martin Miller, a 40-year resident of Riverderdale.
“I have to go downtown a few times a week,” he said. “Subways are crowded – and you never know who you’re sitting next to.”
“You don’t know who’s sick,” said Miller, 89.
In a pharmacy near SAR’s high school campus, a sign advises “All masks and Purell out of stock.” Customers could be overheard comparing opinions on coronavirus.
“I have a case over there … in New Jersey,” said one man.
“I think the hysteria’s worse than the virus,” said another.
Back at Gruenebaum’s, the mother said there were efforts to restore normalcy despite coronavirus concerns.
Her children were attending class via video, she said. SAR children were using video chat to share their Purim holiday costumes with one another. She wouldn’t skip out on attending an upcoming Purim prayer reading, but might do so via Skype rather than in person.
“So, you’re spending shabbos at home?” Banin asked, half-joking.
“Locked up,” the mother said with resignation.