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COVID-19 Deepens a Longstanding Staten Island Divide

Disparities in fatalities and differing NYC reopening stances on the borough’s north and south shores tells a tale of a split island.

Staten Island’s Stapleton Houses, May 14, 2020.
Staten Island’s Stapleton Houses, May 14, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The divide between Staten Island’s north and south shores runs so deep that some residents refer to the borough’s expressway as its “Mason-Dixon line.”

The split now extends to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, with Staten island’s predominantly black northern neighborhoods making up a disproportionate share of cases and deaths — and the communities also divided on how the city and country should move forward.

The disparity came into focus after the city released coronavirus death numbers broken down by ZIP codes on May 18.

The six ZIP codes that encompass the northern section of the borough are home to 40% of its population, but as of June 1 accounted for 54% of all confirmed COVID-19 deaths, according to data from the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the U.S. Census Bureau. The same neighborhoods are home to more than four in five of Staten Island’s black residents.

Even accounting for fatalities at 10 Staten Island nursing homes — most of them on the North Shore — those neighborhoods still make up 53% of coronavirus-related deaths.

“The effects of racism, equity, and fair-share are deepened in this part of the borough,” said Kelly Vilar, founder of the Staten Island Urban Center. “Now throw COVID-19 into the mix and it just makes those issues deeper. Sometimes people look at Staten Island and they think of us as this white Republican borough where everyone makes $70,000 a year or more and that’s just not the case.”

‘No Surprise’

In the densely populated neighborhoods of Stapleton, Clifton and Park Hill, the COVID-19 mortality rate is the highest in the borough, with 372 per 100,000 residents.

In New York City’s only majority-white borough, those neighborhoods are mostly people of color and residents there tend to be poorer than other Staten Islanders, according to Census data.

Those neighborhoods are also home to the borough’s largest public housing complex, the Stapleton Houses, and its biggest Section 8 development, the Park Hill Apartments.

“It was no surprise to me that the numbers are what they are because of historic markers and generations of inequality,” said North Shore Councilmember Debi Rose, who said that she’s lost five local friends to the virus.

In suburban-like South Shore neighborhoods, where most residents are white and earn more than the average Staten Islander, the death rate is much lower. In the four zip codes that encompass the South Shore, the rate ranges from 84 to 96 deaths per 100,000 residents — about a quarter of Stapleton and Clifton’s fatality rate.

As of May 28, in the southernmost part of Staten Island, Tottenville, 14 of about 15,000 residents have died of COVID-19, compared to 163 in Stapleton, the northernmost neighborhood, where more than 40,000 people live.

On the South Side

It’s residents and officials on the south side who have been leading the charge for a speedy reopening.

About 200 protesters gathered in a parking lot in Staten Island's Travis neighborhood calling on New York State to allow all businesses to reopen. Courtesy of Flint Gennari

On Thursday, Bobby Catone, a tanning salon owner in Great Kills, briefly reopened his shop in defiance of the stay-at-home order. A large crowd watched as the owner ripped up a $1,000 summons from the police.

South Shore Councilmember Joe Borelli (R-Staten Island) contends that reopening small businesses like Catone’s as soon as possible is necessary to boost the city’s economy.

“His business is essential in keeping one more family off [Mayor Bill] de Blasio’s breadlines, and all small businesses are essential in closing our city’s revenue shortfall,” Borelli, who attended the attempted reopening, told THE CITY.

Several GOP candidates held rallies in May that drew hundreds calling for businesses to be allowed to reopen.

And nearly all of the borough’s Republican officials have demanded that Gov. Andrew Cuomo let the borough reopen before the rest of the city. Cuomo rejected the plea on Memorial Day.

Councilmember Joe Borelli (R-Staten Island) speaks at City Hall, Oct. 17, 2019.
Councilmember Joe Borelli (R-Staten Island) speaks at City Hall, Oct. 17, 2019.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

On the North Side

On the North Shore, activists and officials have focused on getting more local resources to help deal with the virus.

Activists Cesar Vargas and Yesenia Mata helped organize a “car rally” along with several unions that called for protections for all workers, including the undocumented who were left out of the stimulus payment given to most Americans as a part of the CARES Act.

Rose told THE CITY that she wants City Hall to support Richmond University Medical Center (RUMC) like NYC Health + Hospitals funds its public hospitals. Staten Island is the only borough without a public hospital.

“They function, RUMC, as our public hospital, serving the bulk of uninsured and underinsured folks in our community,” said Rose. “I want the resources to not be locked out of that particular funding stream.”

Councilmember Deborah Rose (D-Staten Island) speaks at a hearing on flood resiliency, Oct. 29, 2019.
Councilmember Deborah Rose (D-Staten Island) speaks at a hearing on flood resiliency, Oct. 29, 2019.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Kenaysha Jackson expressed her frustration with the lack of resources for her community while helping to hand out thousands of masks to residents at the Park Hill Apartments. Her father, Kareem Woods, runs the K Woods Foundation, which is dedicated to serving Park Hill.

The development lies within the 10304 ZIP code, where 154 have died from COVID-19.

“We’re trying to get rid of the stigma that nothing’s wrong,” said Jackson, who volunteers with the foundation.“We want to show them that this is still a serious matter, because we still have people outside hanging out with no masks on, no gloves on. Not any type of protection at all.”

A Difference in Demonstrations

Peaceful protests of the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police drew hundreds this past weekend on the North Shore.

The biggest rally came on Saturday when the Rev. Al Sharpton and Gwen Carr — the mother of Eric Garner, who died after then-NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo put him in a chokehold — led a march to the 120th Precinct, near the St. George Ferry Terminal.

To date, there have been no protests on the South Shore, though one is planned for Sunday at Conference House Park.

Rose and state Sen. Andrew Lanza (R-Staten Island) have called for the deployment of the National Guard to help police the city. Mayor Bill de Blasio has rejected the idea.

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