Marcia Moreno still had her suitcases packed. She’d planned to visit family in Costa Rica, though those plans were put on hold indefinitely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 84-year-old had immigrated to Staten Island from Costa Rica in her twenties and raised her family in the borough’s New Dorp neighborhood.

“She was gonna go,” said her 59-year-old daughter Anayancy Houseman. “She loved to travel.”

Moreno was living alone and diligently isolating for most of the pandemic, her daughter said. But she fell in October, and was sent to a rehab facility where she was diagnosed with COVID in late November. She was transferred to Staten Island University Hospital a few days later. 

“She was having trouble breathing,” said Houseman, who was permitted to visit her mom after begging hospital staff. “She had a mask on that was really, really tight, and they had tied her arms so she couldn’t rip the mask off.” 

Her mother died in the hospital bed on December 4th, one of a growing number of Staten Islanders who’ve succumbed to the virus, as hospitalizations and cases continue to rise in the borough.

I just wish that people would think about how people die and how they die alone. I saw my mother so I had to go into quarantine. So I haven’t had anybody hug me [since],” said Houseman. “She suffered. It’s an ugly death.”

Anayancy Houseman, her niece, and her great-niece

Staten Island residents now account for nearly a quarter of the all confirmed COVID deaths in the last week, despite making up just five percent of the city’s population. According to hospital officials, there are now more than 180 COVID patients at Staten Island University Hospital, up from just 20 a month ago. The percentage of beds—over 26%—occupied by COVID patients is also higher than any hospital in the five boroughs, according to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 

Thanks to a combination of new treatments and techniques that include steroids, the antiviral medication Remdesivir, and high flow oxygen and prone therapy, the hospital has drastically improved its ability to save people who catch the virus since the first wave, according to executive director Dr. Brahim Ardolic. 

But he added, “It doesn’t mean that no one’s dying, because that’s just not the case. There are still sadly some cases, when even after everything is said and done, they do end up on a ventilator and they still die.”

Listen to Gwynne Hogan's report on WNYC:

The hospital is less than two miles away from Grant City, where Mac’s Public House is located. Last week, the bar became the latest flashpoint over state restrictions imposed in an effort to quell the spread of COVID-19.

Hundreds of demonstrators, joined by Proud Boys and local Republican elected officials rallied outside the bar to show support for owners, who’d refused to close, after Governor Andrew Cuomo designated the area an “orange zone,” which prohibits indoor dining, hair and nail salons, and gyms. “The COVID is bullshit!” shouted one participant during a protest outside the bar last week. 

Local Staten Island figures attended the rally, including Councilman Joe Borelli, who has repeatedly urged his constituents to ignore public health advice. Another Republican, Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, who will soon represent the borough in Congress, praised the demonstrators on Twitter. Neither returned requests for comment right away.

Daniel Presti, the bar’s manager, has since been charged with assaulting a law enforcement officer after he allegedly hit a sheriff's deputy with his car while trying to flee arrest early Sunday morning. Even after his arrest, a small crowd of his supporters gathered again outside the shuttered bar Monday night.

“We’re not canceling Christmas, we’re not cancelling Hanukkah, even though they closed this beautiful bar for no reason, I’m very upset,” said Heshy Tischler, the notorious right-wing agitator who heckled public health officials in Borough Park in September, and later incited a group of Orthodox Jewish men to attack a reporter during anti-lockdown protests where masks were burned. 

“So I go to a restaurant, they gotta take my zip code number,” shouted Debbie Lobaito, who works at a construction company, to a handful of sympathizers. “Oh, I’m orange. Can I get in?”

Protesters outside of Mac's Public House on December 5, 2020

“This is Marxism. This is communism. It’s wrong. We need to open up,” yelled Christine Salica, an out-of-work makeup artist, to the handful gathered outside the restaurant and a swarm of photographers. “They want to contact trace us. I won’t do it. I won’t be contact traced. I’m not doing it and, Cuomo, I’m not taking your Corona vaccine either.”

While several demonstrators insisted the event wasn’t a political rally, Salica declared her unbridled support, yelling into the cold night: “President Trump is the people’s president and the people, 80 million plus people, know this.”

Fifty-six percent of the borough’s voters cast ballots in the general election for Donald Trump in November, who has repeatedly downplayed the severity of the virus and regularly spread misinformation about it. During his Wednesday briefing, Governor Andrew Cuomo took aim at Presti and his supporters, as well as the borough as a whole.

“Well maybe if we don’t follow the rules it won’t matter. ‘Okay let’s try it,’ says Staten Island,” Cuomo said. “More people are dying on Staten Island. That’s what this movement on Staten Island has done. That’s the fundamental point that is inescapable.”

Several other business owners in the Grant City section closed down, if their business were deemed high risk, and didn’t resort to elaborate fanfare, though they said they shared the frustration of Mac’s owners. 

“There’s only so much more we can all take before every one of us folds,” said Anthony Valois, owner Cornerhouse Barbeque, across the street from the Grant City Staten Island railway station and a few blocks from Mac’s Public House. “I can understand where people do lash out and rebel in certain situations.”

Jeanne-Marie Abinatti had to close her hair salon for the second time this year, as a result of the governor’s orange zone restrictions, though those same measures don’t apply to businesses just a few blocks away. She’s run the salon for twenty years, she said, but she’s not sure she’ll be able to reopen at all.

“None of this affects them. None of it,” she said, pointing to Dr. Anthony Fauci’s recent cameo at Cuomo’s press conference Monday, where the two joked about their favorite New York foods and movies. “So we’re talking about movie actors and pastrami sandwiches. I’m appalled. Like, at least pretend. At least act like you care. That would help.”

“In order to save us in one way,” Abinatti said, “you’re killing us in another.”

Dr. Dara Kass, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Columbia University, said it may be time to pivot away from targeting specific clusters, and focus broad-based strategies that eliminate indoor dining across the board, but leave open as many other “transactional” businesses as possible; ones where you go in,pay, and then leave, even if they’re non-essential. 

“Your restrictions are only as good as people following them, because if you’re then forced into enforcement mode, you are now distracted from the original goal which is to contain a virus,” she said. 

Kass pointed to the importance of framing those restrictions not as a punishment for wrong-doing, but rather in a way of letting residents contribute, though, she said, that’s proven to be a Herculean task with conflicting messages from the federal government and some local officials.

“You continue to inspire people to change their minds. You continue to remind people what’s at stake,” Kass said. “Inspire New Yorkers to be part of the solution.”