Skip to content
Subscriber Only
Justin Fox

Density Isn’t Destiny in the Fight Against Covid-19

Yes, New York City’s way of life seems especially susceptible to contagious disease. But packed California cities have been fending off the coronavirus pandemic.

San Francisco seems a little tight.

San Francisco seems a little tight.

Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

As a Manhattan resident, I’ll be the first to admit that New York City in general and Manhattan in particular are not optimally designed for social distancing. People here tend to get around not in their own automobiles but on foot or by bus, subway, taxi or ride-share. We buy our groceries mostly not in giant wide-aisled supermarkets but in cramped little stores. We live cheek-by-jowl in apartment buildings, with elevators usually too small to accommodate the 6-foot rule. Most of us don’t have our own outdoor spaces, meaning that walking the dog or just getting some fresh air requires venturing out in public. And surely Manhattan is the only place in the U.S. where having your own washing machine is such a luxury that even lots of people in the top 10% of income distribution don’t (not because they can’t afford it but because their buildings ban them for fear of overtaxing ancient plumbing).

I am skeptical of the argument, though, that density equals danger in this age of Covid-19. For one thing, a bunch of East Asian cities even more densely populated than New York have successfully withstood the initial onslaught of the disease, indicating that well-conceived and well-executed public-health measures can more than counteract the disadvantages posed by millions of people living on top of one another. For another, New York City’s density is so anomalous in the U.S. context that I doubt its trials tell us much of anything about which other areas of the country are best equipped to fight off a pandemic.