A nearly empty Times Square is seen on March 23, 2020 in New York City

New York (AFP) - Anxiety ratcheted up across New York, the epicenter of America’s coronavirus pandemic, Monday with streets eerily quiet at the start of the working week as officials warn the crisis will worsen.

As the number of deaths in the United States from COVID-19 soars towards 500, the Big Apple finds itself at Ground Zero in the fight to stem the fast-breaking outbreak.

With millions of residents ordered to stay at home, all non-essential businesses shut and schools closed, the city that never sleeps is bedding down for a long and uncertain slumber.

For Christian Hofer – and his wife and two young children – the most difficult thing is not knowing how long the unprecedented measures are going to last.

“It goes from a range of emotions, from feeling very nervous about the situation to feeling like how absurd it is,” the 42-year-old Wall Street trader told AFP.

New York City is now the focal point of America’s outbreak, with more than 12,000 confirmed cases and almost 100 deaths, after the outbreak first spread in Washington state.

As only non-essential workers, such as pharmacists, grocery store workers and nurses and doctors, headed to work Monday, rush hour in the city was more like a mid-afternoon trickle of traffic.

New York’s famous yellow cabs were out but passengers appeared few and far between with sidewalks virtually deserted. Underground, normally packed subway cars trundled along close to empty.

- ‘Scared’ -

Gray skies and soaking wet weather added to the fear and foreboding that hung over America’s financial capital, which has been through its fair share of disasters, notably 911.

“I’m scared for me and patients that this could go on” for months, said Lucy, a psychologist who declined to give her surname.

Anxiety and depression “all gets heightened at a time like this,” she added, one of the few hardy souls out and about on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

An empty New York Subway car is seen on March 23, 2020 in New York City

On the New York Stock Exchange, the opening bell, usually greeted by a cheering and clapping, was met with silence as the first day with no floor trading took place.

Only electronic trading occurred as stocks plunged deep into the red shortly after midday, with both the Dow and the S&P 500 down almost five percent.

The drops came after Mayor Bill de Blasio warned that New York was just at “the beginning” of dealing with the epidemic and as soldiers from the National Guard began converting a convention center into a facility with hospital beds.

“It’s going to be bad this week, it’s going to be worse the following week. We have to be honest about this,” he said.

- Worse to come -

De Blasio added that the city’s overwhelmed public hospitals have only enough medical supplies to get through the week and pleaded with the federal government to speed up production.

“I literally want to see hundreds of ventilators, I want to see first hundreds of thousands and millions of masks.

“If that doesn’t come in starting this week, we will get to a point where people can’t be saved who could have been saved,” he said.

He also called for President Donald Trump to enforced a nationwide lockdown similar to those introduced locally in New York, California and Illinois.

Army National Guard arrive at the Jacob Javits Center as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announces plans to convert the Jacob Javits Center on Manhattan’s West Side into a field hospital as Coronavirus cases continue to rise on March 23, 2020 in New York

Around a third of Americans are living under various phases of lockdown but Trump has so far resisted calls for a stay-at-home order for the whole country.

In Florida, which has 1,000 confirmed cases and 13 deaths, the governor opened a center where the elderly can drive their golf carts to get tested.

US Surgeon General Jerome Adams warned that the numbers across America were going to get worse before they get better.

“We really need everyone to understand this is serious, to lean into what they can do to flatten the curve.”