'It's like a ghost town here': Inside the containment area in New Rochelle

U.S. National Guard troops deployed to New Rochelle, N.Y., have begun their mission to distribute food to those affected by closures resulting from the spread of COVID-19. The community just north of New York City is home to the state's largest cluster of cases.

U.S. National Guard troops help distribute food as New York looks to contain its largest cluster of cases

A U.S. National Guard soldier places bags of food on a table outside a community centre in New Rochelle, N.Y., to prepare for distribution to families affected by the closure of schools due to the spread of COVID-19. The governor declared a containment area to try to deal with the state's largest cluster of cases. (Steven D'Souza/CBC)

Candace Jones was shocked and slightly fearful when she first heard the news that the National Guard was coming to New Rochelle, N.Y., because of the spread of the novel coronavirus. But as she drove her car up to one of their food distribution stations Thursday, she thanked the soldiers for their help.

"We are very grateful, New Rochelle — we need it. They put three schools out of business for two weeks and there's a lot of kids that need to eat," said Jones, mother of a 11-month-old and a 13-year-old.

She works at one of three schools shut down within the containment area in the suburb just north of New York City. The containment area was instituted this week by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Westchester County, which includes New Rochelle, is home to 148 of the state's 325 cases of COVID-19.

Schools and places of worship are closed, and other large gatherings are cancelled. On Thursday, the New Rochelle school board announced all schools would be closed until March 25.

On Friday, a drive-thru testing facility opened in a park in New Rochelle, about six kilometres from the containment area. Believed to be the first of its kind on the U.S. east coast, the facility will operate by appointment only, with those in or near the containment area given first priority. 

The new measures — the latest steps in the effort to contain the spread of COVID-19 — marked an escalation in government efforts to encourage social distancing and limit in-person contact in an area that's seen a huge spike in cases on the doorstep of one of the country's most densely populated cities.

The National Guard arrived in New Rochelle on Thursday to begin their mission to help deal with the spread. Their deployment consists of assisting in food distribution and cleaning public facilities. 

Candace Jones receives a bag with three days' worth of food from a National Guard member outside New Rochelle High School, inside the containment area set up to slow the spread of COVID-19. (Steven D'Souza/CBC)

Unlike strict quarantines and lockdowns in China and Italy, anyone is free to come and go from the area. But with hundreds in self-isolation, the streets feel empty. Along the main strip, traffic passes by banks and stores that are closed. 

"It's sad, it's dead, it's like a ghost town here," Jones said as she picked up a food for her family that should last three or four days. 

WATCH | Steven D'Souza reports from the New Rochelle, N.Y., containment area:

Town in New York state shut down after cluster of coronavirus cases

3 years ago
Duration 2:05
New Rochelle, a town in New York state, has been declared a “containment zone” after a spike in coronavirus cases, putting hundreds in voluntary quarantine.

She works at Albert Leonard Middle School, one of three inside the containment area, which stretches out in a 1.6-km radius outward from the Young Israel Synagogue in New Rochelle. That's where the cluster of cases can be traced back to, originating with a single patient, a lawyer from New Rochelle who works in Manhattan. He was the state's first case of community spread when it became clear he had no link to any of the countries hit by the virus.

At three sites on Thursday, the National Guard set up tables outside to hand out some of the estimated 181,000 kilograms of food gathered by local agencies to help the estimated 2,800 children affected by school closures in the area. Many of those children rely on free or reduced-cost breakfast and lunch programs offered through the schools.

"We're really trying to eliminate the insecurity of where that next meal is coming from," said Daniel Bonnet, director of WestCop New Rochelle Community Action Center, one of the distribution sites just outside the containment area.

Local agencies are handing out breakfast packets consisting of food that students would have received through free or subsidized school breakfast and lunch programs. (Steven D'Souza/CBC)

Each family is given a bag containing rice, macaroni and cheese, canned goods and other non-perishable foods, enough to help a family of four for at least three days. Local restaurants have also chipped in with prepared meals. 

Louis Andrade came to volunteer and help hand out food. "This is the time you stand up and support the families that are significantly impacted," he said, noting that no one is turned away.

Kenny Rivera lives and works outside the containment area but was still able to pick up food. 

A purple ribbon with the words New Ro Strong hangs outside the Young Israel Synagogue of New Rochelle, which is at the epicentre of the largest cluster of COVID-19 cases in New York state. (Steven D'Souza/CBC)

"I don't think everybody is as scared as some people are," said Rivera, who was happy to see the National Guard troops weren't armed.

"One thing people were really concerned about was seeing soldiers with weapons — so far, so good. I heard a couple of people were freaked out by helicopters that flew overhead," he said.

'It's not going to be martial law'

At his barbershop inside the containment area, Vinny Aizza said business is down 85 per cent, even though he washes hands in between each customer and offers to wear gloves as he cuts their hair.

"It's definitely affected business, It's definitely making everybody scared," Aizza said of the containment area.

He welcomes the idea of the National Guard. 

"If they help to come and clean businesses and give products, maybe it'll make people feel safe. Then it'll be all right, as long as it's not martial law, which I don't think it is," he said.

National Guard troops hand out food at a drive-up station located at New Rochelle High School. (Steven D'Souza/CBC)

Driving through the containment area, Virginia Capozi stopped her car to make sure the message was getting out that life was continuing as normal.

"We don't need to instil fear in the people. We need to keep calm, we need to keep vigilant, but fear and panic don't help anyone," she said.

Social distancing and reducing density

Experts say social distancing, limiting personal human interaction through measures like closing schools, working from home or banning large public events can help break the chain of transmission and slow the spread of a virus like COVID-19.

In an urban area as densely populated as New York City and its surrounding areas, New York state Gov. Andrew Cuomo said people will always be within a short distance of someone else so more aggressive measures, like the containment area, are needed.

"The spread is not going to stop on its own. It is fully dependent on what we do. We're going to make our own destiny. And like it or not we're going to have to make some tough decisions and we're going to have to start to act united to reduce the density," he told CNN on Wednesday.

A further effort to reduce density led Cuomo to ban all public gatherings of 500 people or more beginning Friday afternoon. The ban applied immediately to Broadway, where theatres of 500 seats or more were shuttered until April 12, joining a long list of venues in New York City shutting down to stop the spread of the virus.

Living life as normal

Sarah Langlois brought her two-year old and four-year old into the containment area Wednesday to get ice cream, determined to continue life as normal. 

"For the most part, as long as you don't have any underlying health conditions, you're acting like everything is fine," said Langlois, who is also expecting a third child. "It hasn't really affected us, we went to the doctor's office, we went to the library this morning and here for lunch and ice cream."

Langlois lives a block outside the containment area, but her four-year old's school is inside the area, so she questions how effective it will be.

"We have students who are in school and their sibling's schools are closed so I don't see how it's containing anything," she said, speaking to CBC the day before the school board shut all schools city-wide. "My husband took Metro North [commuter rail] to work today, he's in the city every day, I don't think it's going to do much, seems like more political grandstanding."

Stephen Madey lives on the south side of New Rochelle and said he thinks it's only a matter of time before the containment area is expanded.

"Everything is going to get worse before it gets better," Madey said, noting the area will get through this, "as long as people stay calm and use universal precautions — washing hands and ensuring you're clean and sanitizing the best you can."


Steven D'Souza

Senior Reporter

Steven D'Souza is a Senior Reporter based in Toronto. Previously he was CBC's correspondent in New York covering two U.S. Presidential campaigns and travelling around the U.S. covering everything from protests to natural disasters to mass shootings. He won a Canadian Screen Award for coverage of the protests around the death of George Floyd. He's reported internationally from Rome, Israel and Brazil.