Ebola Panic in Small-Town New Jersey

by John Stillman


The Peasant Grill in sleepy Hopewell, New Jersey, is a popular destination for hot drinks, baked confections, and sandwiches. It’s usually packed during lunch hour, but it’s been relatively empty since October 9th, when a black Mercedes with a woman wearing black sunglasses behind the wheel pulled up and disgorged a man, who went inside and picked up an order of soup. Some days later, the woman’s name, her children’s names, and the address of her home — a short drive from The Peasant Grill — appeared on posters hung on the public boards throughout downtown Princeton:


Dr. Nancy Snyderman is NBC’s chief medical editor, a correspondent on several of the network’s shows, a surgeon, a businesswoman, the author of five books, and number thirty on the Reader’s Digest ranking of Most Trusted People in America. Earlier this month, Dr. Snyderman visited Monrovia, Liberia, to report on the ongoing Ebola epidemic; she was exposed to the disease by her cameraman, Ashoka Mukpo, who had become infected with the virus. (He was transported to a hospital in Nebraska, where he recovered after two-and-a-half weeks of treatment.) Upon returning to the U.S., Dr. Snyderman agreed to a self-imposed quarantine in her home until 11:59 on October 22nd, according to an NBC memo (the same night that a Manhattan doctor named Craig Spencer, despite feeling slightly under the weather, would go bowling in Brooklyn). But on the Thursday after her quarantine began, she was sighted in public on the now-infamous soup run.

The first case of Ebola in New York City was a sensation, but not a surprise; big cities around the world have been treating such cases as an inevitability. Princeton-Hopewell, however, was not expecting Ebola. Its specter did not loom over this relatively pastoral town. “I felt bad for everybody in Texas,” the manager at Boro Bean, a cafe located five doors down from The Peasant Grill, told me. “And then Nancy comes for soup!”

Though the Peasant Grill’s owners have refused to publicly comment on the matter, one longtime customer said that the establishment has received harassing phone calls since Dr. Snyderman’s soup run. Another recent lunchtime patron said that people drove by and shouted “harassing things at people who are just trying to eat there and have a good time.” Fancying myself and my constitution invulnerable to such scare tactics, I visited the restaurant on a recent Friday afternoon. I can confirm that the chicken barley soup, which comes with a dunkable crostini on the side, is definitely worth the risk.

It had been eight days since Dr. Snyderman’s still-unidentified soup-fetcher darkened the Peasant Grill’s doors, and business was still suffering noticeably. A young woman at the Peasant Grill used the opportunity to Windex the glass in the restaurant’s front door. Once they sparkled, she came inside. “I think we’re safe,” she said.

“We’re good?” Michelle, the owner, asked.

“No more fingerprints,” the employee said.

A customer entered, ordered a sandwich, and offered his condolences to Michelle. “They’re saying that a lot of hysteria just creates a lot of uncertainty in the world,” she said.

“It’s crazy, right?” the customer said. “I don’t get it.”

Considering the circumstances, the novelty signs on display in The Peasant Grill seemed to augur the eventual visitation of such a curse. “Mental Ward,” read one behind the counter. By the register, a souvenir-size tablet read, “Life is all about how you handle plan b.”

In the bathroom, there was a framed notice:

Employees must wash or remove hands before returning to work

Just a little Health Department quirk.

Everything that comes in contact with an Ebola patient must be incinerated. Protection begins with basics pic.twitter.com/XDbOEMxssU

— Dr. Nancy Snyderman (@DrNancyNBCNEWS) October 1, 2014

By Dr. Snyderman’s own reckoning, she posed “no risk,” but this assessment was difficult to trust from someone so close to the situation — someone who had just returned from what she referred to in a tweet as “the belly of the beast for Ebola.” While there, and assumedly in in close contact with Mukpo, she tweeted, “Everything that comes in contact with an Ebola patient must be incinerated. Protection begins with the basics.”

People did not expect Dr. Snyderman to self-incinerate, but they did expect her to follow the CDC’s protocols and chill out at home for three weeks. Her failure to abide by the quarantine — the most basic protocol of all — was not taken lightly. “Why didn’t Dr. Snyderman have any regard for people?” Barbara Ficarra of the Huffington Post asked. “They want transparency and honesty; they don’t want someone taking advantage of their elite status.” A family practice physician from Ohio started a Change.org petition calling for NBC to fire her; another petition asked the Obama Administration to “arrest Dr. Nancy Snyderman for 318,883,000 counts of premeditated attempted murder for Ebola quarantine violation.” This latter effort garnered four signatures. Middle-aged people took to Snyderman’s Facebook profile to post things like “Shame on you!”

When the state of New Jersey, in conjunction with the CDC, upgraded her quarantine from voluntary — which hadn’t meant that it was optional, just self-imposed — to mandatory, the Princeton Police Department began monitoring her neighborhood. Initially, this was to ensure that she did not escape again. But later, Sgt. Steven Riccitello clarified in an interview that the police patrol was motivated by concerns that fear-mongers would take matters into their own hands. “As a national figure, she could be the target of threats to her family,” Sgt. Riccitello said. “We look at Nancy as a citizen. We’re here to keep the peace.”

Strolling along the main streets of Princeton and Hopewell, it seemed like Riccitello has been perhaps too successful in doing so: It was dead quiet. Workers at Da’s Thai restaurant, Hopewell Valley Bistro and Inn, and Boro Bean, all said that business just hasn’t been the same in the two weeks since Dr. Snyderman blew through. At Jack and Charlie’s, a Hopewell Central High senior scooping ice cream said that his friends’ parents, dismayed by the whole ordeal, had called it “a bloody mess,” which it was not yet, thankfully. A congregant of a local church told me that one fellow parishioner objected to the hand-holding circle ritual that customarily concludes group meetings. “And these are educated people!” the woman said.

Of course, even the best education — or even a medical degree — does not make you immune to hysteria, or necessarily properly equip you to respond to close contact with Ebola. I couldn’t get a taxi to come to Hopewell during rush hour, so I hitchhiked and landed a ride back to Princeton with a pastor who said that he had once been in the entertainment industry. He claimed to have worked at ABC during Dr. Snyderman’s tenure there, and remembered that she had a reputation for stubbornly insisting on doing things her way. “That’s the irony of it,” he added. “She’s a doctor.”

John Stillman is a freelance journalist. He used to enjoy bowling.