NEW YORK — Only a trickle of cars and bicycles occupy streets that normally would be teeming with traffic and pedestrians.
So, on a cool recent midday in Manhattan, FDNY Ladder 26 easily glided its fire engine to the corner of East 79th Street and Third Avenue.
A moment later, owner Luigi Militello stepped out of Luke’s Bar and Grill with a few of his employees carrying to-go orders – lunch on the house – for the appreciative Harlem-based fire company.
Earlier this week, similar orders were packaged for Ladder 40 on the West Side, and Engines 22, 44 and 53 on the East Side.
The NYPD, New York Housing Authority, local hospitals and EMS have also been on Luke’s list, providing a meal and a few minutes oasis for those on the front lines of New York’s COVID-19 crisis.
“It’s pretty much the worst it’s been since 9/11,” said Joe Lanzi, an FDNY EMS lieutenant at Battalion 10. “The only thing close was during Hurricane Sandy, and that’s not to the level of this.”
This is the kind of project Joe Carey would have readily assisted, adding his personable touch.
“A very down-to-earth kind of guy, happy-go-lucky,” said Jim Leyritz, a friend of the Luke’s longtime employee from his Yankees days. “Someone who’d lend a soothing ear to hear your stories.”
Carey passed away suddenly last St. Patrick’s Day, and his friends at Luke’s decided to honor his memory with an initial donation to get a meals program started.
The operation quickly expanded to online donations and T-shirt sales to keep feeding first responders across the city, from an establishment long favored by Yankees residing on the Upper East Side.
“And to do this in Joe’s honor – he’d have been the first one out there, giving his effort behind this,” said Pat Kelly, a 1990s Yankee teammate of Leyritz and friend of Carey’s who also backed the project from its start.
“This is someone who dedicated his life to making people happy,” said Kelly. “I wish every restaurant could do something like this.”
But unlike other galvanizing events, this must be done at a distance.
“A hug and a handshake are so natural for us, people banding together for support,” Leyritz said. “This is completely different.”
When the Luke’s delivery arrives at nearby Lenox Hill Hospital, the medical staff has 20 minutes to get through a meal before getting back to the business of saving lives.
“The minute you enter your unit to the end of your shift, it’s just nonstop,” said nurse Christine McLawhorn, treating COVID-19 patients. “Nobody has time to go anywhere,” so the meals have provided a welcome relief to medical staff.
The hospital is past its capacity, transforming other areas into ICUs; over 70 new patients had arrived overnight Friday.
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“Our goal is to try to get patients to have normal oxygen levels,” McLawhorn said of stabilizing people and moving on to the next wave of COVID-19 cases.
For now, there is just enough personal protective wear and ventilators at Lenox Hill.
As for surgical masks, “we definitely have to use it as long as we can,” said McLawhorn. “I wish we could use it like we normally do.”
A mother of three, McLawhorn spoke by phone on a rare break.
When she gets home, “it sounds crazy, but I make it a point not to watch the news,” McLawhorn said. “Because, I feel like I’m getting so much of it every day” at work.
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