He was one of 750,000 people, give or take, who passed through Grand Central Terminal that day. He worked as an attorney in a high-rise on 42nd Street that had direct access to the station, where trains departed every few minutes to 122 towns in New York and Connecticut. He and his wife ran a small firm, specializing in estate law, on the 47th floor of the building; he spent his hours there helping people negotiate death. At the end of the workday on Friday, February 21, the man made his way to the platforms for the New Haven line, boarded a train, and rode 30 minutes north to a commuter town in Westchester County called New Rochelle. At that moment, there were 34 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the United States, all of them linked to international travel.
The next day, the man went to his synagogue, Young Israel of New Rochelle, as he did every Saturday. He and his wife had four children, though only two lived with them at the time—a son who went to college in Manhattan and a daughter who was still in high school. Despite the demands of his job, he was a family man, someone who was as eager to play Connect 4 with his kids as write a brief for whatever big case he was working on. His house was close to Young Israel, within the boundaries of the eruv, a symbolic perimeter identified by telephone poles, power lines, and other landmarks. Inside the eruv, some rules of the sabbath are relaxed, as if the whole neighborhood were a communal home.
The man was back at the synagogue at 11 the next morning for a funeral. Hundreds of congregants turned out to honor a Holocaust survivor who had died the day before at age 93. That afternoon, some of them returned to Young Israel for a joint bar and bat mitzvah. As the children played, the man and the other adults chatted, ate hors d’oeuvres, and drank cocktails. During the two events, health officials later estimated, the man came into contact with between 800 and 1,000 people.
“I felt a cough, which wasn’t crazy, and I thought it was allergies,” the man later told the New York Law Journal. When the cough didn’t go away, he thought about making a doctor’s appointment. But it wasn’t until February 26, when he developed a fever, that he, as he put it, “started to put two and two together.” He was due to travel to Washington, DC, the following week for the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, where he would be in the same room with members of Congress and heads of state. The trip never happened. Instead, a friend drove him to the hospital, where a few days later he tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. He was one of the first people in the US known to have gotten the virus through community spread.
In the days that followed, the case count in New Rochelle began to climb. The man’s wife and two children tested positive. So did the friend who had driven him to the hospital, along with members of the friend’s family. Anyone who had been at Young Israel the weekend of February 22 was asked to quarantine, but dozens were already infected, including two of the caterers at the bar and bat mitzvah. The son’s college shut down, as did the daughter’s high school. On March 5, the rabbi of Young Israel announced that he, too, had contracted the virus.
By this point, Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, was holding daily press conferences about the outbreak. New Rochelle had “probably the largest cluster in the United States,” he said. “The numbers have been going up, the numbers continue to go up, the numbers are going up unabated.” The state authorities drew a circle around Young Israel, a 1-mile radius inside which all schools and places of worship had to close and large gatherings were banned. The rules were different within this perimeter, but not for long: The residents of New Rochelle were living in a future that would soon come to the rest of the United States.