Divergent death tolls in New York’s Rockaways show Covid-19’s uneven reach
The disparity between the haves and have-nots on this 11-mile stretch came into stark relief this week, when the city released statistics documenting coronavirus deaths neighborhood by neighborhood, confirming a chasm in how Covid-19 has struck the edges of this ocean-front swath of New York City.
In Far Rockaway, predominantly black and Hispanic New Yorkers head to jobs in nearby nursing homes and medical centers, which are hot spots for the spread of the virus. They earn less than the average Queens resident and are living in one of the hardest-hit areas across the city, with 443 people per 100,000 dead in their 11691 zip code, according to a News Journos analysis of city and Census data.
Yet residents of the insular Breezy Point neighborhood just a few miles away on the western end of the peninsula were largely spared from the ravages of the virus. The death rate in their 11697 zip code was among the lowest in the city, and nearly eight times less than that of Far Rockaway. In raw numbers, that means 287 people have died on one end of the peninsula and two on the other.
The dichotomy offers one of the most striking examples of the racial and financial inequities the virus has exploited nationwide, turning this small strip of New York City into a case study in the disproportionate toll of Covid-19.
The statistics came as no surprise to City Council Member Donovan Richards (D), who was overwhelmed hearing one story after another of his constituents dying in Far Rockaway.
“I knew my community was hard hit, but this right here speaks to the negligence of every part of government,” Richards said in a tearful interview. “Just because you live in public housing or a nursing home doesn’t mean your life should be expendable. Just because you live in poverty doesn’t mean you should die over Covid.”
Other than an accident of geography, the two communities could not be more different.
Far Rockaway is home to some 67,000 people, more than half of whom are black or Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. An average household earns $46,000, far less than the Queens standard. Many residents live in public housing complexes and apartment buildings, and 21 percent are considered impoverished.
Breezy Point, by comparison, was described in a 2017 article as “Quaint, by the beach and notoriously hard to get into.” It is home to just 3,540 people, almost all of whom are white, according to census figures. The median household income of $103,000 far exceeds that of the borough’s average. Residents live in single-family homes surrounded by gated streets, making it an uncommonly private neighborhood in a cramped city.
Hours after his administration released the death count breakdown, Mayor Bill de Blasio acknowledged the disparities throughout the city and highlighted the lopsided quality of health care between the wealthy and poor.
“We’re seeing these horrible, painful statistics mirror exactly what we knew before the coronavirus,” he said during a weekly televised interview Monday night. “Exact same places [that] are suffering now have suffered before. The exact same health disparities we saw previously are now playing out with the coronavirus.”
Rockaway is home to only one hospital, St. John’s Episcopal, after Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration shut Peninsula Hospital Center in 2012. The site is now slated for a sprawling mixed-use development.
But the shortage of medical facilities isn’t felt equally: Those who could afford to drove off the peninsula to seek care at private medical facilities, while people who rely on mass transit were initially encouraged to stay home if they developed mild symptoms of the virus, Richards said.
“The vast majority, if not everyone, in the Breezy Point area has access to good medical health coverage, whereas people in the 92, 93 or 91 do not have that accessibility,” said Evan Gray, pastor at Macedonia Baptist Church in Rockaway, referring to three of the peninsula’s five zip codes that are home to lower-income residents.
Gray said his congregation lost five members, including his 75-year-old mother — a public housing resident and four-time cancer survivor whose lungs were overtaken by pneumonia in a matter of days. “She still was fighting till it was just too much,” he said. The Rev. Al Sharpton paid a visit to speak at her funeral, which was streamed online.
Gray said people already struggling to pay their bills are less likely to visit a hospital, out of fear of “astronomical” medical costs.
“You’re dealing with one hospital on the peninsula and many of them may not have transportation to go elsewhere,” he said. “The hospital is overrun.”
He said several congregants have died in their homes of suspected Covid-19.
Richards pressed de Blasio to provide more testing kits to his community in early April. As he faced resistance from the mayor, the two ended up in a profanity-laced fight on a conference call with dozens of other Council members, according to three attendees.
An infuriated Richards reportedly told de Blasio, “Stop telling black communities to stay home and suffer,” one attendee recalled. He also admonished the mayor for “leaving us behind.”
The mayor responded by saying Richards is not a medical expert, the attendee said.
It was a notably divisive exchange between the two, who are more often politically aligned than not.
Freddi Goldstein, a spokesperson for de Blasio, would not discuss the details of the exchange. She said the mayor’s advice for New Yorkers to stay put unless their symptoms were severe came at the height of the spread, when hospitals were overrun and tests were in short supply from the federal government.
“We couldn’t risk everyone going out and spreading the virus,” she said. “Our focus was on the people who needed care most urgently. … We just didn’t have enough.”
The mayor said during a press conference Tuesday that a new Rockaway testing site would be opening June 1. There are currently no city-run sites on the peninsula, according to its resource page on Covid-19, though residents could get tested at the Joseph P. Addabbo Family Health Center.
“I’m grateful and I’m appreciative that the city is finally moving but I believe we could’ve saved a lot more lives if we moved faster, if the city moved faster,” Richards said.
Part of the problem in Rockaway is the racial disparity in accessing quality doctors, said Dr. Laurie Zephyrin of the Commonwealth Fund, a health policy foundation.
“The question is why?” she said. “It’s not about defective people. The disparities are a result of systemic inequities.”
A study conducted by Doctors of the World and Columbia University in 2014, two years after Hurricane Sandy wrought destruction on the Rockaway peninsula, found Hispanic residents were the least likely of the area’s largest ethnic groups to have health insurance.
“When we think about economics, black Americans are more likely to work in service sector jobs that may be considered essential,” Zephyrin added. “Also, people of color are more likely to live in multi-generational households. Density can also be a challenge. If someone comes home with Covid, there’s a high risk of spreading the virus to the family.”
That trend held across Rockaway, where neighborhoods with heavier concentrations of apartment buildings reported higher death rates than those with predominantly single-family homes.
One outlier was the 11694 zip code, home to Neponsit, one of the priciest neighborhoods on the peninsula. That section bucked trend lines with a relatively high death rate, 354 people per 100,000, despite being a predominantly white and well-to-do area.
The discrepancy appears rooted in one of the virus’s equalizers — its stranglehold on the elderly. As of Tuesday evening, four adult care facilities in that zip code reported 31 deaths, accounting for nearly half the total. In the Rockaways’ other four zip codes, nursing home deaths played a smaller role.
The center of Rockaway, home to many civil servants, is a mostly white neighborhood with a median household income of $59,000. There, in the 11693 zip code, the death rate straddled the two extremes, clocking in at 202 people per 100,000.
Council Member Eric Ulrich (R), whose district encompasses the west side of the peninsula, insisted race is not the only factor determining the outcome of Covid-19. People on the eastern side tend to have preexisting health problems and live in public housing, he said — though both those factors do correspond to race.
“There’s so much more apartment buildings there. There’s NYCHA on the east side. There’s no NYCHA on the west side,” he said, referring to the New York City Housing Authority.
Gray, the pastor and a longtime community fixture, said the virus has highlighted the need for more medical facilities to accompany the growing population of out-of-towners flocking to Rockaway for its beachfront homes, trendy coffee shops and surf culture. And it’s those on the eastern side of the peninsula who need it most, he said.
“This Covid is rough; it’s brought devastation to some of the most vulnerable and the weakest in our community and it’s taken down some strong folks as well,” he said. “It’s two different worlds, two totally different worlds.”