Though the Empire State is well versed as the focal point of crises, nothing could have prepared it for the cluster of chaos that would fall upon it in early 2020. Within a couple of months, residents witnessed some of the highest COVID infection and death rates in the world whilst businesses went bust and neighbourhoods were destroyed by looting and vandalism. What was once the city that never slept quickly transitioned into one that had drifted off into a three-month coma and woke up to a stockpile of toilet rolls. I grew up with NYC backdrops on the big and small screens, and never imagined my first year here would look like such a range of those films and shows I used to watch.
A glistening NYC
I arrived in New York with my spouse ready to savour every drop. We quickly settled in, finding the perfect Brooklyn condo with a rooftop facing the long Manhattan skyline. Everything moved at rocket pace thereafter, just as expected. It was the end of 2019 and I was out meeting new people, attending events, and working from a swanky Fifth Avenue office. Sure the city had its downsides (let’s not get into the filthy subway system and outrageous prices) but the upsides were better than up; they were The Devil Wears Prada glamorous. ‘Drink at Salon de Ning tonight?’ or ‘I’m at the William Vale pool, come join?’ my best pal Victoria, texted all the time. No prizes for guessing how often I fit in my OWN rooftop back home (i.e. never).
Stories from Asia
News reports started to circle around a new virus in Asia. “It sounds quite bad. Do you think it’ll spread here?” I asked a colleague during brunch at The Garden on 57th. “I don’t know. Isn’t it just a stronger flu? I wouldn’t worry too much about it.” She dismissed and changing the subject to pancakes. By the time things grew and spread into Europe and the West Coast of America, things remained unchanged in our corner. I remember sitting at a crazy packed NYFW show thinking, ‘if one person has it here, we’re all doomed’.
Carrying on regardless
Though the first coronavirus case was discovered in New York on March 1, things carried on as normal. On March 11, I took my final ‘Box & Flow’ class in Soho right before it closed. There were a lot of us sweating it out in the studio. I completed the workout and rather than socialise after, I headed straight out to grab dinner in Chinatown. Chinatown was the only empty place, as people steered clear thinking Asian communities were high risk. Little did they know that the following week, the entire NYC region would account for five per cent of the world’s confirmed cases, making it the epicentre of pandemic.
Stay home, stay safe
A mass shutdown began mid-March, but the curve had already zoomed up at an alarming rate. By early April, 500 people were dying daily in NYC from the virus. Like everyone else, we stayed home, filling consequent days with reading books, binge-watching Tiger King, and meditating to "Spirit Child of the Moon" on YouTube. At first, being away from the hustle and bustle was refreshing, but soon, I struggled with being confined within four walls. Apartments here are not exactly spacious (and this is where our rooftop became a godsend). We were still in a sense sheltered when we did venture outside by our little Brooklyn bubble; a community of Jewish-owned stores and takeaways. Initially, I only saw how the core of the city and landmark areas were hit via television, despite living a just subway ride away from it all.
It was about a month before we braved our neighbouring island, Manhattan. By then I was desperate for a change of scenery and took precautions to achieve it. We took an empty subway carriage, delighted that it was clean for a change, to Central Park. I was covered head to toe and used a super strong Amass hand sanitiser the whole time. What was surprising was how many other people had the same idea. The park was busy, but so big that (almost) everybody abided by social distancing rules, and free masks were handed out by police. When we left to stroll downtown, we noticed the streets were eerily quiet. Standing in the middle of Times Square with zero tourists was unreal. I don’t think many people will ever get to see such a sight.
The new normal
As summer closed in, more and more New Yorkers began going outside and enjoying nature. We embraced a new normal where sushi rolls in the park replaced our table at Zuma, waving six feet apart replaced hugs when greeting, and Amazon scrolling replaced wandering Nordstrom. We found socially distanced ways to make the most of the state’s charms safely. For example, renting a car and driving it up to Long Island to see the thousands of miles of beaches, and peddling Battery Park on Citibikes to admire the Statue of Liberty. New York may traditionally be known for the big and bold, but now, it was time to enjoy the small and understated.
The sirens grow louder
It wasn’t just coronavirus that wreaked devastation throughout the city, particularly in neighbourhoods of ethnic minorities. As restrictions began to ease, the metropolis was rocked furthermore with looting and vandalism. Sirens screamed through the night and helicopters circled above. We’d just run out of coffee pods, and I headed to a local Target store. “We’re closed all day to board up the place.” Said a chap hammering in nails to a board at the entrance. I realised that the stores lining the street were all doing the same thing. It was like the I Am Legend film shoot never wrapped up. Mayor Bill de Blasio quickly issued an 8pm curfew. One evening after supporting a peaceful protest, we found ourselves dashing back home to make that curfew.
A hundred days after the first COVID-19 case was confirmed, the reopening phase has begun. I stepped out of the station at Times Square to head to the office and passed dozens of news reporters waiting to catch first signs of business resuming. Things may not yet be back to how they were; signs order for masks to be worn, cleaners spray disinfectant obsessively, and people flinch if you step too close, but New York is tough. Its people have overcome everything that history has thrown at them and always emerged united and stronger than ever. We’re cranking up ‘New York, New York’ on Spotify. After all, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.