New York has tried to slow the spread of the coronavirus by closing its schools, shutting down its nonessential businesses and urging its residents to stay home almost around the clock. But it faces a distinct obstacle in trying to stem new cases: its cheek-by-jowl density.
New York is far more crowded than any other major city in the United States. It has 28,000 residents per square mile, while San Francisco, the next most jammed city, has 17,000, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
All of those people, in such a small space, appear to have helped the virus spread rapidly through packed subway trains, busy playgrounds and hivelike apartment buildings, forming ever-widening circles of infections and making New York the nation’s epicenter of the outbreak.
“Density is really an enemy in a situation like this,” said Dr. Steven Goodman, an epidemiologist at Stanford University. “With large population centers, where people are interacting with more people all the time, that’s where it’s going to spread the fastest.”
The challenge facing New York and other tightly cramped cities around the United States can be seen by comparing the country’s largest city to its second biggest, Los Angeles.
As of Monday, there were more than 13,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus in New York and about 500 in Los Angeles. New York reported 125 deaths; Los Angeles reported seven.
The population of Los Angeles is about half of New York’s, and it has conducted significantly fewer tests for the coronavirus. But researchers said one of the biggest reasons for the difference may be that in general, California residents live further apart from each other.
“Out here, we’re spread out,” said Dr. Lee Riley, professor of infectious diseases at the University of California Berkeley School of Public Health. “People use cars, the public transportation system is terrible. Whereas in New York City, you have the subways, the buses, Times Square, people living in your small apartment buildings.”
By almost any measure, New York has more bustling humanity living, working and playing side-by-side than anywhere in the country.
On an average workday, more than 5 million people jostle onto the city’s subway trains — as many trips as Los Angeles sees in half a month. Far more people live in cramped public housing units in New York — 400,000 — than in any other city. And nearly 40 million people visit Times Square every year, making it one of the busiest tourist attractions in the world.