N.Y. Today: A cold, or covid?

What you need to know for Monday.

It's Monday. We'll look at why garden-variety symptoms of an ordinary cold or the flu have New Yorkers worried. We'll also look at the future of the Rikers Island jails once Eric Adams is sworn in as the new mayor in less than two weeks.

Desiree Rios for The New York Times

The slightest sniffle has people worrying: Is it a cold, or is it Covid?

It's a quandary for anxious New Yorkers as cold and flu season closes in. It explains the suddenly long lines at testing sites and the suddenly canceled holiday parties.

It also explains the thinly disguised panic among New Yorkers who have diligently gotten their vaccinations and boosters and worn their masks. Some really do have only a cold. But sniffles and sneezes could be symptoms of something else.

"Having other ailments in the middle of a pandemic feels almost like an insult," said Tal Lavin, a 32-year-old author from Manhattan, who has taken three at-home coronavirus tests — all negative — since she came down with an apparent cold last week. She said she had thought so much about the coronavirus in the last 18 months "that any potential brush with it feels a bit monumental."

Potential brushes with the virus kept New Yorkers worried over the weekend. "Saturday Night Live" went on without a studio audience "out of an abundance of caution" amid the surge of cases in New York tied to the highly contagious Omicron variant. The show wrote on Twitter that there would be "limited cast and crew," but did not say whether any cast members had tested positive.

On Sunday, Mayor Bill de Blasio predicted a "challenging but temporary" spike in cases because of the Omicron variant, while Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, warned of a major surge nationally, mainly among unvaccinated people. New York — where vaccinations are credited with keeping hospitalizations relatively low — reported 21,027 new coronavirus cases on Friday, the highest one-day total since the pandemic began.


And so New Yorkers find themselves in a quandary: Should they retreat into their apartments? How risky is eating out or going to a holiday party? At the same time, the flu and other garden-variety bugs are on the rise, according to public health officials.

They urge people with symptoms who believe they have been exposed to the coronavirus to get tested. "If it is not Covid, we still don't want these other viruses spread around," said Dr. Emily Lutterloh, the director of the Division of Epidemiology at the New York State Department of Health. "It is still prudent to stay home, and the same mitigation measures that will help Covid from spreading are likely to help stop these."

Sometimes, it is Covid. Parker Burbridge, an artist's assistant who lives in SoHo and is vaccinated and boosted, said the congestion that came on last week seemed tolerable. Still, on Friday morning, she got tested after waiting in line for two and a half hours.

"The fear is back, and everybody within a couple days has just completely lost it," she told my colleague Sarah Maslin Nir on Friday afternoon, adding that she was not too concerned.


Seventeen minutes later, Burbridge sent a text message. "Oh no I just tested positive," she wrote. "I take it back!"


It's a sunny day with temps in the high 30s. Expect a mostly clear evening as temps drop to the low 30s.


In effect until Friday (Christmas Eve).

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The future of Rikers Island

Uli Seit for The New York Times

Some of the anti-crime ideas that Eric Adams, the incoming mayor, has talked about appear to conflict with a push to cut the jail population. That is clouding the future of plans to close the troubled Rikers Island complex, which descended into chaos earlier this year. I asked two of my colleagues — Nicholas Fandos and Jonah Bromwich, who have been covering Rikers — for a status report.

The plan to close Rikers was supposed to be one of Mayor Bill de Blasio's signature initiatives. What will happen once Eric Adams is sworn in next month?

Fandos: De Blasio made closing Rikers official city policy back in 2017 and laid out a 10-year plan to make it happen and to erect four new smaller jails around the city. Eric Adams says he backs that plan.

But how closely he will actually hew to it is a big open question. There is a lot of tension between what the plan requires to close Rikers and what Adams wants to do to crack down on crime in the city, appease new members of the City Council and balance the city's budget. The close-Rikers plan could be in for a major rewrite or real delays.

What about the new, smaller jails around the city? There's almost always community opposition to a project like this. Has Adams indicated whether he's going to hunt for new locations? Who'd be served by that?

Fandos: Yes, there has been loud community opposition to building towering jails on several of the sites, particularly in Manhattan's Chinatown neighborhood and in the South Bronx. Adams is clearly attuned to that and has indicated he wants to take a second look at those projects, as well as show deference to two new City Council members who campaigned on their opposition to the proposed jail in Manhattan and another in Queens.

Each of these sites, though, has already gone through a yearslong city approval process. So if the mayor-elect decides to change them, he could inadvertently end up adding years to the life span of Rikers. And picking new sites risks opening up new fights with different neighborhoods.

What about the cost of outfitting new jails? Is Adams concerned that the cost would be prohibitive, since there's a budget shortfall?

Fandos: Our reporting suggests the answer is yes. The city is facing a multibillion-dollar budget shortfall over the next several years, and at a price tag of about $8 billion already, the jails overhaul is no small project. Given how much over budget projects like this can run, Adams is said to be planning a hard look at the building plans. But we are probably going to have to wait until he is in office to get a better sense of how he might try to drive down costs, if at all.

We heard a lot about the chaos at Rikers in the summer. In September, Representative Ritchie Torres sent President Biden a letter saying the situation had become a humanitarian crisis. Is there any reason to think the conditions have improved?

Bromwich: It's a complicated question to answer, especially given just how dire the situation became in the late summer and early fall.

There are definitely some signs things are looking up: In a recent phone call with a federal judge, a monitor charged with ensuring that conditions at the complex improve said that the city had made important changes. And the city itself has released data showing that overall, violence at Rikers Island is down.

At the same time, 16 people have died this year after being held in city jails, mostly at Rikers. One of those people, William Brown, died as recently as Tuesday. He was 55. It's hard to know how to greet news of moderate improvements in conditions while people are still dying.

Are there other alternatives to de Blasio's plan?

Fandos: We found that in private conversations, the state government has indicated to city officials that it would be open to giving the city control of two shuttered prisons in Manhattan — in Harlem and Chelsea — to help take some pressure off Rikers. The new mayor is going to have to decide if that is worth the political and logistical headaches that might create.

What we're reading


Good morning

Dear Diary:

I woke up in my 11th floor apartment on the Upper West Side and immediately smelled freshly brewed coffee.

I was puzzled since I live alone. I decided the smell must be coming through my open window.

Indeed, when I rolled up the blinds, I saw two construction workers having breakfast on a scaffolding.

"Coffee?" one of them said. "Bring your cup."

— Sergii Peshyn

Glad we could get together here. See you tomorrow. — J.B.

Melissa Guerrero, Jonah Candelario and Olivia Parker contributed to New York Today. You can reach the team at nytoday@nytimes.com.

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