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By Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Millions of people awoke to painfully cold weather in the eastern United States on Friday, with temperatures frigid enough in New York City and Washington to break decades-old record lows for Feb. 20.
New Yorkers hid much of their faces under hoods, hats and scarves but could not entirely hide their grimaces as they hurried down sidewalks to work. Parts of the East River had scabbed over with ice. Commuters' breath was visible on subway platforms deep below the ground and the wind.
A small crowd marveled at a water fountain in the middle of Manhattan, which the weather had transformed into a time-stopped gush of ice.
"It's beautiful," Robinson Milhomme said, bundled up, clutching coffee.
At his small grocery store in Brooklyn's Fort Greene neighborhood, Mohammad Islam, 30, anticipated selling a lot of hot coffee as the temperature outside hovered around 4 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 15.6 degrees Celsius), beating the record low of 7 degrees set in 1950 according to National Weather Service records.
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"I've never seen cold like this," he said unhappily, noting he had moved to New York from Bangladesh in 2003. "So much cold!"
In marched a customer wearing two woolly hats, two winter coats and many more layers besides, singing loudly.
"All I got to do is dress warm," Ludlow Chamberlain, a 76-year-old custodian at a nearby concert hall, said before counting off his layers on two hands.
Friends in his native Jamaica often ask him at this time of year when he plans to move back to the Caribbean. Never, he tells them. "We don't get it 365 days a year so we shouldn't complain," he said.
The National Weather Service said widespread subzero temperatures were recorded overnight on Thursday, from Illinois to western Virginia, and predicted that highs would struggle to leave the teens on Friday.
A 119-year-old record for the date was broken near the U.S. capital, with a temperature of 5 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 15 degrees Celsius) recorded at the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. The bitter cold cracked rails on the city's subway system, causing delays.
In Philadelphia, the Roman Catholic archdiocese deemed it too cold for children, and closed all the schools it runs in the city.
At least four people have died because of the cold weather in Kentucky, officials said, and at least two people froze to death outside in Pennsylvania.
Record lows were also reported in parts of Florida, although in some cases having to put on a sweater was the only hardship after dawn broke.
"It's actually pretty nice in the sun," Mitchell Bailey, a 23-year-old vacationer from Michigan, said as he ate breakfast at an outdoor cafe in a beach town on Florida's west coast.
Morris Armey, 52, warmed up with a cigarette and a can of beer on a beach near St. Petersburg, Florida, after a night of near freezing temperatures and no heat on the 36-foot sailboat where he lives.
"I'll take this over up north any day," he said.
(Additional reporting by Laila Kearney in New York, Ian Simpson in Washington, David DeKok in Pennsylvania, Letitia Stein in St. Petersburg and Tim Ghianni in Nashville, Editing by Lisa Lambert and Andrew Hay)