The COVID-19 epidemic has led to a lot of argument about the role of urban form; defenders of the Sprawl Faith argue that New York’s high infection and fatality rate is proof that transit and density are bad, bad, bad. On the other hand, urbanists point out that within the New York metro area, there is no correlation between transit use and COVID-19. Manhattan is the most dense and transit-oriented part of the metro area, and yet every outer borough, including car-dependent Staten Island, has higher death and infection rates. In fact, three suburban counties (Nassau, Rockland, and Westchester) are also worse off than Manhattan. Two more (Suffolk and Orange) have higher infection rates but slightly lower death rates. So it seems obvious that density and transit have been blamed a bit too much by some people.
But this argument has led to a counterargument: that all the Manhattan statistics are useless because most Manhattanites are rich people who fled the city, so of course there are few records of Manhattan infections.
This argument contains a grain of truth. In fact, more people did leave Manhattan than the outer boroughs: according to a New York Times story based oha few estimates based on monitoring smartphones, between 13 and 19 percent.
But the gap between Manhattan and the outer boroughs is far greater. Currently, Manhattan’s COVID-19 death rate is 11.7 per 10,000 residents. By contrast, the Bronx’s death rate is 21.3 per 100,000- 82 percent higher. The Queens death rate is 20.6 per 100,000- 76 percent higher. Brooklyn’s death rate is 17.9- 53 percent higher.
It could be argued that even if borough-wide data is still useful, neighborhood COVID-19 data is not, because some Manhattan neighborhoods lost far more than 20 percent of their population. For example, the neighborhood that has lost the most population is the student-oriented East Village,* where population has gone down by half. I haven’t found any data on COVID-19 deaths by zip code, but I have found data on infections.** The East Village corresponds roughly with zip code 10003, which has 757 diagnosed cases per 100,000 residents. By contrast, the worst off outer-borough neighborhoods have over 4000 cases per 100,000 residents. In other words, even if we double the East Village infection rate to account for people who left (to 1500 per 100,000), its infection rate is still less than half that of the hardest-hit outer borough neighborhoods. The East Village is hardly atypical; as of May 12, only one zip code south of Columbia University had over 1500 cases per 100,000, and many had under 1000.
*One interesting area for further research is: who is (disproportionately) leaving town? Is it students with parents who have a spare bedroom? Seniors with country homes? Or families with children? The East Village is younger than the average city neighborhood, but this is less true of other Manhattan neighborhoods where many people have left, so we don’t really know. It could be argued that everyone who left is an old person with a house in Suffolk County (the most common location for vacation homes in metro New York). But according to Census data, there are just over 53,000 housing units used for “seasonal or recreational use” in Suffolk County. If you assume that each unit is used by two Manhattan residents (which may not be the case) that’s just over 100,000 people, still only 7 percent of Manhattan’s population. This is of course a silly assumption since presumably some of these units are owned by non-Manhattanites; on the other hand, some Manhattanites might have country homes in other places.
**Which is less reliable, in my opinion, because there are far more people who suffer from COVID-19 than there are who have been tested for it.