What it was like for those who stayed
Three years ago, right around this time of year, we began hearing about a lot of people getting sick in Wuhan, China. A friend who was teaching English in Shanghai at the time scoffed when I asked if he needed to worry.
"Wuhan is a thousand miles away from here. We're fine."
Actually, it's under 600 miles, but we now know that the virus wasn't worried about a little thing like physical distance.
According to editors at The Paper of Record by March 13, 2020, we had 154 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in New York City. It's probably a good thing we didn't know then that within about two years there would be over 6,000,000 infections and nearly 75,000 dead in New York City. Even so, more than 300,000 people left the city and many didn't come back.
That means that some 7,999,667,000 of us - give or take - stayed and rode this thing out.
There seem to have been two pressing questions on the minds of many who stayed: how freaked out should we be now and how much toilet paper and milk is still available at Trader Joe's?
Of the two, the more urgent one - at least in the first week - was the toilet paper/milk availability question. After all, this city has been on red alert since that beautiful Tuesday morning in September 2001.
It's going to get to the point when nothing short of a direct nuclear strike will faze us.
Ah, but there's always an upside. Suddenly getting a seat on the subway was no problem. In short order, MTA closed off the fronts of all buses so everyone entered from the rear door where there was no fare box. Free buses from March until August 2020. As to lines outside of Trader Joe's, oh please, that's business as usual most Fridays.
Even so, most people were taking precautions. At least we were doing what we thought might keep us from winding up on a respirator and waiting to die in some hospital where no one could visit us. At that point, the Centers for Disease Control hadn't figured out exactly what those precautions should be so we were flying blind. But many people - like me - still dutifully wiped their groceries clean after having stood six(ish) feet apart outside the local Fine Fare to stock up on toilet paper and milk.
It was also probably a wise move to close down Broadway shows, and Lincoln Center as well as the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
As of March 16, 2020, all schools, restaurants, bars, and gyms in New York City were closed. Gatherings of over 50 people are banned. There was talk of instituting a curfew which was driving my friend, Ramona, completely batty. “This is New York City! You can’t tell me I can’t go out of my apartment at night! This isn’t a prison!!” Ramona is on the business side of 80, weighs around 90 pounds, bikes everywhere and I’d put my money on her against any of New York’s Finest who might try to enforce their curfew.
In astonishingly short order we went from “oh, let’s not get too worked up about this thing” to having our hair on fire. It was disorienting AF that by March 17 - two days after closing the city down - The Mayor was warning of an imminent shelter-in-place order while the Governor was saying the state wouldn't allow it. Boys.
When they shut the subway down for the first time in 115 years, that got our attention.
Many of us began quietly picking up a few extra things here and there at the grocery and drugstores just in case. It wouldn’t be fun but, yes, we could ride out two weeks of total quarantine if we had to.
Not all our neighbors were in agreement about the need to quarantine.
A trip to Bed, Bath & Beyond was another lesson in this new normal. Any stores with communal hand sanitizer on the counter were fair game for a quick squirt unless the line outside stretched more than a block.
At that point, the thinking was that for each confirmed case of the virus, another five to ten cases were silently shopping, working, sitting on the subway next to us, and who knows how many people they are in turn infecting? It's not as if anyone was getting tested. One friend who got very sick early on was told by her doctor that unless she was running a temperature of 104 degrees, they wouldn't be able to test her.
She made it through and is ok today.
I developed an immediate case of the heebie-jeebies thinking we'd have to stay IN the apartment 24/7. And yet that was absolutely how life was in much of Italy and other parts of Europe. Our new reality was jarring enough especially since it had the annoying habit of abruptly changing from hour to hour. Nuisance aside, under the gritted teeth and behind the rolling eyes was the certainty that this was going to get worse. Maybe a lot worse.
With jobs shut down and businesses shuttered while qualifying for loans and grants to keep from going under, we still had no idea if or when the government was going to start bailing the rest of us out. Or if they would even bother. Ironic now to see how much more actual help we got from the Trump administration than from the Biden administration.
By mid-April, there were 16,617 confirmed cases in Manhattan with 1,541 dead. That’s not the five boroughs. That was Manhattan. No traffic on the streets other than the constant stream of ambulances with sirens filling us with the dread certainty that we were next.
We live less than six blocks from one of the biggest hospital complexes in the city - Mt. Sinai on the upper east side - where the conditions had to have been unimaginable, while we sat tight in our apartment and waited. Friends had been desperately sick and recovered. Elderly relatives of other friends did not. There would be no visiting hours or funerals.
Other than the empty streets, the masked people, the strung-out lines at the few stores still open, and the heaviness we all felt pressing down on us, life somehow went on.
Except most of us aren’t working. Which was weird.
Then the cheering started at 7 pm every day. We had read about it and saw the YouTube videos of it happening in Italy and China, but it took a while to get started here. First yelling and cheering, then noisemakers left over from New Year’s Eve, and then people beating on pots and pans as well as one guy on a tuba. Cheering for the exhausted and poorly equipped doctors, nurses, nurse aides, patient escorts, cleaning professionals, and even the administrative staff at all the hospitals caring for our sick and dying.
Cheering for the underpaid and almost certainly uninsured workers at all the places which had been deemed “essential” so we could keep our cupboards and refrigerators filled.
That lasted well into the summer, but after the promised two-week shutdown became a month-long shutdown that then mysteriously just lengthened into who-knows-how-long-this-will-last, the novelty and excitement wore away.
Eventually some of those who left trickled back into the city. Eventually, most of us lined up and got the vaccines. And eventually, most of us have gotten sick and most of us have also recovered. But those terrifying days of nobody being out in the streets and tent hospitals being set up in Central Park are now memories that will someday get written about by historians.
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