The Heat Is Online

Central Park Concert Canceled by WNV Fear

Virus Shuts Central Park; Wider Spraying Scheduled

The New York Times, July 25, 2000

The nation's most famous urban park was closed last night -- and a New York Philharmonic concert postponed -- after city officials announced that they had found mosquitoes infected with West Nile virus in Central Park and would spend the night blanketing the 843-acre park with pesticides.

The spraying began at 10 p.m., and was to continue through the night, city officials said. The park was to reopen this morning, with the classical concert rescheduled for tonight.

The pesticide campaign will be extended tomorrow night to much of Manhattan, from 23rd Street to 110th Street, between the East River and the Hudson, as the city escalates its response to a mosquito-borne virus that killed 7 people in the region last year and sickened 55 others. There have been no human infections reported this year.

At a hastily called news conference yesterday, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Dr. Neal L. Cohen, the city health commissioner, revealed that West Nile had been confirmed in park mosquitoes and sought to reassure city residents that even if they were bitten by infected mosquitoes, the likelihood they would become seriously ill was remote.

No one seemed to be panicking in the park yesterday. Although hundreds of people who had arrived early for the concert were packing up, joggers, bikers and in-line skaters continued to enjoy the park as the sun went down.

"It's not a huge scare," said Gerald Ginsberg, an East Side physician who was taking his daily three-mile walk through the park. "You know what would have been more frightening to me? If they had found deer and deer ticks with Lyme disease in Central Park."

The mayor and the health commissioner urged city residents and tourists not to be apprehensive about visiting the park after the pesticide treatment had been completed. But they added that with an estimated 30,000 people expected for the New York Philharmonic's summer concert in the park last night, they felt it was best not to tempt fate.

"The chances, the risk, is very, very small," Mr. Giuliani said. "But to risk 30,000 people in the park, sitting there for two or three hours of music, that is another thing."

City officials also canceled a weekly youth track and field program scheduled for last night at Central Park and asked teams playing at 16 ball fields there to stay away.

"Of course we're disappointed, but public health is the primary concern," said Eric Latzky, a spokesman for the New York Philharmonic.

The extraordinary steps were taken yesterday after officials learned that a sample of mosquitoes collected on July 12 in Central Park, near 63rd Street and Fifth Avenue, had tested positive for the virus. Tests also detected the virus in two mosquito samples collected this month on Staten Island, officials said.

Those were not the first infected mosquitoes to be found in the New York region.

In the last 10 days, mosquitoes in Westchester, Suffolk and Orange Counties in New York and Stamford, Conn., have also been found to be carrying the virus. Throughout the New York region, more than 40 infected birds have also been found, with Nassau County added to a list yesterday that now covers eight New York and New Jersey counties in a circle around the city.

The growing list of West Nile confirmations -- while disconcerting to the public -- are to an extent an illustration of what city and state officials consider a successful public health campaign. By intensifying monitoring of birds and mosquitoes and then quickly moving to spread pesticides in surrounding areas, officials hope to prevent or at least limit the spread of the disease to humans this year.

People over 50 are at the highest risk of severe disease, but young children and people with weakened immune systems are also more susceptible, health officials said.

The city this year has mosquito traps in more than 70 locations, including two in Central Park. Infected insects have turned up only in lower Central Park and in Wolfe's Pond Park and Fresh Kills on Staten Island. City officials never detected an infected mosquito in Central Park last year, but the surveillance was not nearly as intense. Even without the finding, the city chose to spray the park with pesticides last year.

Dr. Cohen also said that the virus had probably been present in the area last year, because an elderly man who lived on Central Park South then was sickened by the virus.

One popular park attraction, the Central Park Zoo, has already been attacking mosquitoes with larvicide since last year's West Nile outbreak, a zoo spokeswoman said. Dr. Bob Cook, the zoo's chief veterinarian, said that animals are taken inside at night and that the virus primarily affects birds, not mammals.

Mr. Giuliani said that city residents should react to the news of the infected Central Park mosquitoes no differently than they did to reports of infected birds in the last week.

"We did not send everybody out of their homes and close down the area," the mayor said. "People should just go about their lives normally, except for one night, stay out of the park, let us spray it and it will be back to normal."

Pesticide campaigns -- using crews of city contractors that have sprayers mounted on trucks -- had already been planned last night in northeastern Queens and on Staten Island, in response to the infected birds confirmed last week. More spraying is planned for tonight in the Richmond Hill and Woodhaven sections of Queens and bordering sections of Brooklyn, but rain could delay this effort. West Nile-related spraying has also taken place or is planned in many surrounding regions, although some, like Nassau and Bergen Counties, are holding off on widespread treatment.

The city is using two synthetic pesticides, Anvil and Scourge, that officials say are similar in composition to a natural pesticide produced by chrysanthemum flowers and that quickly break down when exposed to sunlight or water or air. But the heavy reliance on spraying is evoking increasing protest from some environmental groups who say the mayor is overreacting.

"The city is taking an irresponsible course of action," said Kimberly Flynn, a researcher for the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project.

While Parks Department workers handed out pamphlets yesterday reading, "Public Health Alert," Central Park patrons expressed a mixture of support and skepticism about the city's pesticide campaign. Some said they were glad the city was moving to try to eliminate the threat. But Larry Thraen, 31, who was jogging, said that although he understood the need for officials to be cautious, he wondered whether authorities might be overreacting.

"I've never been bitten by a mosquito here,' he said. "I've never even seen one in New York City."

Mr. Giuliani and Dr. Cohen said they were confident the environmentalists' fears were unjustified. The spraying, Dr. Cohen said, will kill about 90 percent of the mosquitoes present, which means that a certain number infected with the virus may survive.

While city residents and visitors should continue to use Central Park without hesitation, he said, they should wear bug repellent and consider putting on long-sleeved shirts and pants, as well as socks.

The mosquitoes found in Central Park and on Staten Island are most active from dusk to dawn, when they are feeding, Dr. Cohen said.

"Given the choice, if you are going to be in the park, or in park areas, from dusk to dawn, it would be prudent to wear long sleeves and long-sleeved pants," Dr. Cohen said. He acknowledged that this may not be practical on hot midsummer nights.

"When it gets to 95 degrees, that would be tough," Dr. Cohen said. "There are some people who probably are going to wear winter clothes this summer. People are like that. And there are folks who are going to go in shorts and short sleeves and not worry about it. Somewhere in between probably falls the right, informed decision."