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What stir-crazy New Yorkers are calling 311 to complain about now

April 27, 2020, 2:00 PM UTC

New York is a city founded on an ethos of “You do your thing, I’ll do mine.” But the coronavirus lockdown is leading New Yorkers to pay closer attention to one another’s behavior, judging by new patterns in calls placed to 311.

The city, the U.S. epicenter of the pandemic, has effectively been at a standstill since March 16 when restaurants, gyms, and most stores went dark. The statewide lockdown is in effect until May 15, though, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said it could be be extended.

And during this shutdown, New Yorkers’ attitudes toward calling out one another’s perceived misbehaviors are changing.

The city’s 311 nonemergency hotline got its first complaint about someone purportedly not adhering to social distancing rules on March 28. Since then, it has become the fastest-growing source of complaints, according to numbers crunched by data scientists at SAP SE. From that first complaint through April 23, some 17,682 calls have come in to say a fellow New Yorker has stood too close to another.

“Our worlds have been downsized to only our apartments, and we’ve lost our baseline level of control,” said Greg Kushnick, a New York City–based psychologist. “We resort to behaviors that will give us a sense of control.”

In the period from March 1 through April 23, the social distancing complaint tally was second only to the 23,623 people reporting loud music or parties in a residential area, a standby of New York life but perhaps one people with frayed nerves are less tolerant of now.

But calls to complain can also go too far. Other cities have seen big upticks in citizens complaining about one another on social distancing: Montreal’s police department set up a web page for people to place complaints about social distancing scofflaws, but the force, required to send an officer to investigate any complaint, soon found itself telling people this was for flagrant behavior, not for snitching or acting like Big Brother.

Another soaring, though until recently rare, type of complaint emblematic of our times: the behavior of retail stores. According to SAP, complaints here rose 12-fold to 12,130 calls in March and April compared with January and February combined. That’s hardly surprising given the crackdown on price gouging as New Yorkers stocked up on hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, masks, and everyday food like rice and milk. And in a sign some New Yorkers might be taking to the suburban-like quiet enveloping the city these days, complaints about loud talking on the sidewalk are way up.

Across all categories, calls to 311 were down 17% during that period because so many aspects of our daily life that what would typically keep 311 operators busy fielding calls are on hold.

The biggest decline is in requests for the removal of large bulky items because of the halt on construction. There have been fewer pothole complaints, partly because people are staying home more but also likely because of a mild winter. And complaints are down for a longtime target of New Yorkers’ ire: taxis.

With the suspension of alternate-side parking rules, which limit parking to one side of the street on different days, complaints about illegal parking have evaporated. And with driving way down, fewer New Yorkers are calling to complain about a blocked parking space.

While New Yorkers have shown their softer side by largely complying with stay-at-home rules and making a daily collective racket at 7 p.m. from their apartment windows to honor health care workers, they have not been shy about telling each other to zip it and calling 311 for reinforcement. Even in quarantine, New Yorkers are New Yorkers.

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