A view of eerily quiet and empty Times Square in New York amid the Covid-19 pandemic on March 31, 2020. Photo: NurPhoto

The clerk at the last local grocery that delivers fresh produce told me she was quitting. She was afraid to take the subway to work, because New York’s homeless have taken over the trains, as daytime temperatures hover around 6 degrees Centigrade. Homeless men living on subway trains were a nuisance before the epidemic as well as a health hazard. In January the corpse of an indigent man was found covered in bedbugs in a subway car.

With normal ridership down more than 90%, the Metropolitan Transit Authority is depending on a $4 billion bailout under the federal government’s aid package to pay interest on its bonds, and the homeless have turned the subways into a squatter’s paradise. New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio has a soft spot for the homeless and police don’t interfere. But that crowds out low-wage supermarket workers and puts the city’s food distribution at risk.

It’s no use ordering food from Amazon, which was supposed to up-end the grocery business with its “Amazon Fresh” delivery service. There isn’t a delivery slot available in New York for the next month. Fresh Direct, the other big home delivery chain, has no slots available, either. Fresh Direct is out of most long-life foods, but that doesn’t matter, because if they had them, they couldn’t deliver them. For those without the cupboard-full of dried beans, pasta and rice that I laid in before the crisis hit, it means risking the supermarket. Amazon still has hazmat suits in stock. Home delivery of food is almost as laborious as a trip to the supermarket because each item must be disinfected separately.

A hospital administrator reports that elderly people now comprise only a small fraction of coronavirus cases. The vast majority are in their 30s, 40s or 50s. And about a fifth of them show myocarditis – viral infection of the heart muscle. The coronavirus, European physicians learned several weeks ago, sometimes ignores the lungs and goes straight after internal organs – heart, kidneys and liver. The high death rate among the Italian elderly appears to be the result of a simple lack of ventilators. New York is not yet out of ventilators, but in many hospitals patients are lying or seated in corridors. But physicians are at a loss to treat viral heart infections that attack apparently healthy young people as much as the comorbid elderly.

Emergency calls have increased from an average of 3,500 a day to 6,000, and there still aren’t enough test kits to screen the emergency responders who have the most frequent contact with Covid-19 patients. As a result many Emergency Medical Service personnel are sleeping in their cars to avoid infecting their families, according to the president of their union.

Crime is up, except for rape – you can steal a car or mug a passerby and maintain the recommended distance of six feet from your victim. Robbery is up 29% but rape is down about 24%. Burglaries are up, presumably because so many shops are shuttered and vulnerable. Felonious assault is barely changed (up 8.5%), a surprising number considering how many criminals are self-isolating with their criminal roommates.

 20202019% Chg
Felonious assault1,4521,3388.5
Grand larceny2,9122,8133.5
Grand larceny auto46126375.3
Major crimes reported to the New York Police Department, past 28 days, this year vs. 2019

It’s worse elsewhere, to be sure. In Baltimore, Mayor Jack Young issued a public plea to the city’s residents to stop shooting each other and offered free intensive care unit beds for coronavirus victims. 

Stocks plunge

Meanwhile, hopes for recovery in equity prices vaporized as US stock prices fell sharply yesterday, the last day of the stock market’s worst quarter since 1987, and again today, when major indices were down about 3% at midday. Cracks continue to appear in important parts of the financial system.

Western Asset Management, a major US money manager, was forced to ask a major investor in its high-yield bond ETF to postpone a $190 million sell order because it would not be able to find buyers for the debt at anything but distress prices. Invesco, another major money manager, sold $1 billion on mortgage-backed securities this morning, as investors worried that tenants will be unable to pay rent on offices, hotels and other commercial properties.

Add to that the collapse of oil prices to around $20 a barrel, half the level required for most shale operators to stay in business. The accumulation of credit problems portends a prolonged slump. Most Wall Street firms have abandoned earlier forecasts of a V-shaped recovery.