Close to the midpoint of 2020, Tropical Storm Isaias served as a sign that this year would not let up on South Queens.
And yet in spite of the numerous layers of hardship, in the late summer, as New York City was able to contain the spread of Covid in a way that returned some semblance of normalcy to the lives of New Yorkers, attention grew around schools, and how to support small businesses and those in need.
But as South Queens began the process of recovery, a second wave of the virus surged, taking root in several of the area’s neighborhood and reminding residents that the city still has a long way to go.
Here’s a look back at what the last six months of 2020 looked like in South Queens.
In June, Mayor de Blasio created an initiative allowing restaurants and bars to expand outdoor seating on sidewalks and patios.
Over the next month street and sidewalk space in commercial corridors across the borough became populated with tables, tents and makeshift shelters for diners
A look at South Queens, however, made it clear that not every business district was equally compatible with the new normal. While some corridors, like that of Cross Bay Boulevard in Howard Beach, had the luxury of wide sidewalks and busy clusters of restaurants, others have noisy trains overhead or narrow streets, like Jamaica Avenue in Woodhaven.
“To be honest the boulevard is more alive than it ever was. Now there are tables outside down the boulevard,” said Cross Bay diner Greg Sinacori of the scene.
As of July, the Woodhaven Business Improvement District did not have the same crowds.
Another win for summer: Rockaway Beach reopened. After a month of keeping it off limits, the mayor sanctioned sunbathers to remain socially distanced on the ocean shorefront.
In the weeks following the June 23 Democratic primary, as the absentee votes were tallied, it became clear that two new barrier-breaking candidates would go on to the general election on the Democratic line.
Khaleel Anderson (D-South Ozone Park) won the primary to represent the district stretching over Ozone Park, Rosedale and parts of the eastern Rockaways as the youngest black assemblymember ever to be elected to the chamber. Anderson won in November.
“There’s always this idea that, ‘Oh, the left can’t win in Southeast Queens,’” Anderson told the Chronicle. “I am the left.”
Jenifer Rajkumar (D-Woodhaven), an Indian-American lawyer who lives in Woodhaven, won in her bid to unseat incumbent Mike Miller and become the first South Asian woman to be elected to the chamber. She also won the general.
At the same time, community groups worked furiously through the circumstances to get out the count in South Queens after it became clear that in the Richmond Hill, South Richmond Hill and Ozone Park nexus, 12 Census tracts lagged behind the city average by a considerable margin.
Though those neighborhoods had historically been undercounted as a result of language gaps, a digital divide and a lack of outreach to immigrants, Census workers reported to the Chronicle a heightened government distrust within immigrant communities.
August started off with a gust. Tropical Storm Isaias swept through New York City early in the month knocking out power for more than 73,000 reported Queens households, more than any other borough.
Southern Queens was especially hard hit by the outages, including thousands of customers who lost power in and around Woodhaven, South Ozone Park, South Jamaica and Laurelton. After 48 hours, Con Edison had only restored power to 59 percent of households in Queens, where 30,000 customers remained powerless.
Acting Borough President Sharon Lee gathered federal, state and city legislators in front of Borough Hall a week after the storm to call for a full rebate of August Con Edison bills for Queens residents who lost power in the wake of the storm.
As the pandemic and the recession spread to South Queens so did a rise in violent crime. By the end of the first week of August, Woodhaven had become the site of two fatal shootings in less than two weeks. Gun violence spiked in Queens in July. In the NYPD’s Queens South Borough Command, the number of shooting incidents had more than doubled by mid-July compared to the same time period in 2019, according to NYPD Compstat statistics.
In August, another political first was announced. Howard Beach resident and Queens Civil Court Judge Tracy Catapano-Fox was nominated by the Democratic Party for the New York Supreme Court, meaning that she was on track to be the first female state Supreme Court justice to be elected from the Howard Beach area.
As the pandemic began to affect the city’s budget and cuts were made to sanitation, the results began literally piling up in South Queens. It took the sanitation garage in coordination with state Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach) over a month to pick up trash bags that residents had taken the time to organize along the Joseph P. Addabbo Memorial Bridge. Since the Queens West 9 Sanitation garage, which covers Woodhaven, had to reduce its pickups along the Jamaica Avenue business corridor from seven days a week to around three, illegal dumping began increasing.
The Woodhaven BID heeded the call and organized a cleanup. Elsewhere in the borough, Howard Beach, Richmond Hill, South Ozone Park and Jamaica residents all were performing similar efforts to combat similar messes.
Mayor de Blasio’s announcement that public schools would be reopening in September initiated a standoff between his administration and the principals and teachers unions. After the teachers union threatened a potential strike leading up to the previously planned Sept. 10 full reopening, Mayor de Blasio delayed the reopening until Sept. 21. The deal set up a monthly medical monitoring program that includes random Covid-19 tests for students and staff.
Meanwhile, in South Queens hunger continued to grow. The turnout for the Ozone Park Residents Block Association’s weekly food distribution had nearly doubled over a two-week period in September after the federal CARES Act unemployment benefits had run out for many in the neighborhood.
As the signs of a recession were rippling through the neighborhood, so were efforts behind a recovery. Gov. Cuomo lifted the indoor dining ban at the end of September. Struggling restaurants were allowed to start serving customers indoors at 25 percent capacity beginning Sept. 30.
When Cuomo announced that casinos and video lottery terminal facilities would be allowed to reopen on Sept. 9 with a 25 percent occupancy limit, the staff of South Ozone Park’s Resorts World Casino breathed a sigh of relief.
The return of the casino marked one of South Queens’ biggest economic generators and employment for many of the casino’s workers, over 80 percent of whom live within a 10-mile radius of the facility.
As the autopsy of the city’s response to Tropical Storm Isaias continued, it was found that 3,370 trees managed by the Parks Department came down during the storm across the city. South Queens legislators and expert arborists blamed the neighborhood’s massive outages on rotten city-owned trees. The problem extends beyond Isaias. South Queens Community Districts 10, 12 and 13 have consistently ranked as having the most outages for years, according to Community Board 10 Chairwoman Betty Braton.
By the end of September, the sense of recovery had ebbed as the citywide Covid rate started to spike, with several South Queens neighborhoods especially.
The ZIP codes encompassing Howard Beach and Lindenwood experienced a 213 percent increase in Covid infections over two weeks, the fifth-largest increase in the city. Daily infections in Ozone Park also increased by 200 percent.
Cuomo began a localized response to the upticks in New York City by declaring hot spots. Woodhaven and Richmond Hill were designated a yellow zone, meaning increased testing in schools, and a warning for everyone else without many hard restrictions.
By the end of October, city data showed that South Queens had exceedingly low rates of Covid testing. Five neighboring ZIP codes in South Queens were among the 10 areas with the lowest rates of Covid testing in the whole city. Lawmakers and community leaders said their efforts to set up more sites in the area had met bureaucratic resistance.
As cases ticked upward, residents began to organize against rising concerns of public safety and social alienation caused in part by the pandemic. A 23-year-old Woodhaven resident, Michael Pereira, decided to volunteer his time helping neighborhood kids socialize and avoid trouble during the pandemic by forming a weekly basketball meet-up at Equity Playground.
Community advocate Joe Thompson brought the Howard Beach Civilian Observation Patrol back to life. Though the group began regular neighborhood patrols in August, by October Thompson had resumed his contact with the 106th Precinct and the recruitment of new members.
Covid concerns continued to surge in South Queens in November. When the city Department of Health updated its website to show real-time data on Covid positivity rates by ZIP code in the second week of November, it showed that Richmond Hill had the second-highest seven-day Covid rate in all of New York City, at 4.43 percent.
Meanwhile business continued as usual at the community board level. Howard Beach was one of several neighborhoods that the city had targeted in an effort to help prepare for the next Hurricane Sandy. In November, the Department of City Planning presented a new rezoning plan to Community Board 10, which the board voted in favor of at its December meeting.
Both tragedy and heroism unfolded at the Crossbay Express, an Ozone Park smoke shop, when a disgruntled homeless man allegedly shot Mohmediyan Tarwala, a 26-year-old store clerk, who later died from his injuries. Police Officer Jason Maharaj, an off-duty police officer, happened to be at the scene of the crime, where he intervened to wrestle the gunman down and disarm him before he could take a second victim’s life. Local groups later gathered to honor Maharaj’s bravery at the event outside the Deshi Senior Center, about a mile from the store.
The end of the month dealt a major blow to de Blasio’s school strategy as the rate of people testing positive for the coronavirus over a seven-day period surpassed 3 percent, triggering the closure of all school buildings. After Thanksgiving, de Blasio reopened pre-K, elementary and District 75 schools.
A year after one of the biggest South Queens stories of 2019, when raw sewage flooded over 100 houses in South Ozone Park, destroying basements and belongings and displacing residents to hotels, the victims said they had not been reimbursed by the city fairly
A group of residents from the neighborhood rallied with elected officials at 133rd Avenue and Inwood Street Nov. 28 to raise concerns over the way city Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office has handled the process of reimbursing residents for resulting damages.
And while the transmission of Covid continued to worsen throughout the month, a light began to appear at the end of the tunnel when the first vaccination in the entire country occurred in Queens. Sandra Lindsay, a critical care nurse from Northwell’s Long Island Jewish Medical Center, received the first vaccination on Dec. 14.