A year on: Reflections on the pandemic in New York

Not all of us have the good sense to write a diary as we live through history, and the COVID-19 pandemic is a historic moment. A year on though, reflecting on everything, I felt it was important enough to capture my experience. Not that it’s more interesting or worthy than anyone else, but maybe it will be of interest to someone, somewhere, one day.

Personally, January 2020 started with a business trip to CES in Las Vegas. There was a lot of talk about a virus, I don’t think we formally talked about it as being COVID-19, but there was definitely discussion about it being a mysterious virus from China. Having lived in China (Guangzhou) myself, and familiar with concepts like SARS and Asian Bird Flu, I wasn’t overly concerned so the news fell into the background.

In February, the whole family had a trip from New York to Sydney, Australia. It’s one of the joys (sarcasm alert) of being an expat, the regular pilgrimage to the US Consulate. We flew on Etihad, via Abu Dhabi. There was no heightened screening at any of the airports. The airports and flights felt normal, except for a major storm in Sydney that resulted in the flight being diverted to Melbourne. What followed was a lot of stress trying to get to Sydney, via Canberra, on Qantas – with more delays, lost bags, etc. but suffice to say the consulate appointment was honored and the ability to work in the US granted.

The US Consulate appointment only had one new question, which was “in the past 14 days had we been to or transited through mainland China”. It shows how low-key concern was at the time. No questions about fevers, headaches, breathing difficulties, flu-like symptoms, etc. all of which, in a short space of time, would become normal screening questions everywhere.

We were in Australia up until the end of February to allow for sufficient time to process the US immigration documents. Returning to the US, again via Abu Dhabi, on the 1st of March.  The return flight was uneventful, but it was increasingly clear something was not right. There were a few people on the flights wearing masks, the airport at Abu Dhabi felt more subdued, and masks were not being worn on mass but increasingly obvious that people were opting into wearing them.

Arriving back in New York I picked up some sort of stomach bug on the journey home. I was really ill for a few days and actually went into ER because I couldn’t keep food down. I was given a mask at the hospital admissions desk, an IV, monitored for a few hours and sent home. The hospital was unconcerned.

Monday saw me back to work and later that week I had an Amtrak trip to Boston on business. Amongst those of us on the train, the approaching pandemic was a hot topic of discussion. The reports out of Europe were not sounding good and there were cases increasingly popping up in the US. There was definitely a rising sense of anxiety. I remember distinctly stopping in at a CVS near Penn Station before boarding the train and picking up 2-3 very small bottles of hand sanitizer, the only size they had in stock, just as a precaution. A week later, hand sanitizer was worth its weight in gold as shortages hit.

It was March 5th that I returned to New York (from Boston). The weekend came and went and the news about, what was now known as COVID-19, was rapidly gathering pace. In the office, there was one website we all monitored that tracked US and global cases. It was operated by some university, I forget which, and it was like a macabre stock ticker of doom. I do recall there was a map of the US showing cases being confirmed by US State and at some point, the Westchester area of New York lit up. I’d passed through Westchester on the train back from Boston a week ago.

As COVID-19 spread, so did the earnest discussion around the office. There was no panic. More than a few meetings across leadership on planning for potential work from home scenarios. It was on one of these calls that I remember a colleague from San Francisco sharing that the city had declared a “Shelter in Pace” emergency. That was probably the sign that things had suddenly changed. By Thursday the 12th, there was general agreement in the office that Friday would be a work from home day when just before lunchtime I got a call from my son – his school was closing, immediately, and everyone was being sent home and asked to bring their personal belongings with them. I agreed to meet him at Union Square, packed up all my stuff, and left the office, collected him, and went home. The subway home felt the same as always.

That afternoon I went to the supermarket to pick up supplies “just in case”. It was busy, not chaos, orderly busy – like pre-snowstorm. People in New York know how to handle a crisis. The shelves were starting to get stripped bare of dry pasta, flour, potatoes. I managed to get the basics. I vaguely remember also stopping in at another supermarket, either on the way home or early the next day and being able to buy some, rather expensive, lamb chops. Americans don’t really cook or eat lamb – so not sure if the lamb was ignored by others or my timing was just lucky. I also got some flour. I do remember I couldn’t buy potatoes in any supermarket, but walking with my son on, possibly the weekend, I got 5-6 potatoes from a street-side fruit vendor (one of the common sights in New York).

As an aside, one of the things that was selling out everywhere was toilet paper and paper towels. It’s sort of the big joke of the pandemic. I wasn’t party to the great toilet paper hoarding panic of 2020, as always well stocked and our bathrooms have bidets – but it’s odd to watch people panic buy in response to others for no reason. Toilet paper panic buying seemed to hit fever heights in Australia, at least according to the news. It still makes me laugh because despite all of the health issues that can be caused by COVID, crapping oneself to death is not one of them.

Saturday, the 14th I had to go into the office to print some paperwork. The subway was quiet and mid-town Manhattan was dead. I had a feeling that this would be the last time for a long time I would ever venture into the office, so took a few photos. I remember feeling a tinge of sadness as I took the photos. Just because I didn’t know when I would be back and there was a growing sense of uncertainty about how everything would play out.

The other thing I did when I was in the office was call Juniors to try and buy a cheesecake, but they were sold out. That’s not a sign of the pandemic, just a random piece of trivia.

I caught a yellow taxi home from the office. It was still quiet and getting a cab was easy. Misinformation was clearly starting to spread, the taxi driver was telling me if you drank water infused with garlic then I would be safe. I wasn’t convinced but held back on arguing. I got the taxi to drop me off at Whole Foods to see if I could get a cheesecake. I did! Yes, I may be cheesecake obsessed. I also stopped in at CVS and picked up some chewable Vitamin D tablets, figuring that if we were locked up at home, Vitamin D deficiency would be a real risk.

The balance of the weekend, I did go out shopping picking up what I could and did some laundry. I had started wearing a mask. The mask thing was another stroke of luck. Australia had been wracked by terrible bushfires the previous year. Prior to heading to Australia, I had picked up N95 masks for the trip. So myself and the family worse these every time we ventured outside of the apartment. I also took to wearing a disposable rain poncho and disposable gloves when I went to the supermarket or laundry. This may seem like the height of paranoia, but keep in mind facts about COVID were limited and misinformation was rife.

At this point, it’s worth digressing to talk about US leadership at the time. In short, President Trump did not inspire confidence. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Chief Medical Officer, was great but everything else seemed horribly disorganized, chaotic even. It was about the 16th of March that everything half shut down and by the 20th, that New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo shut down the state and non-essential businesses were closed. My dry cleaner sent an SMS to his customers saying they were closing for the short term and to stay strong. His business didn’t survive the pandemic and closed permanently about 6 months later.

I remember feeling a sense of loss when the full shutdown hit, because all of the things that make New York special, namely, museum and Broadway, closed.

In my apartment building, the gravity of the situation was starting to hit home. Emails started coming in to say that overnight the front doors would be locked and everyone was asked to pick up a front door key. There were requests for volunteers for maintenance tasks e.g. rubbish removal, mail sorting, etc. This was not because staff were abandoning work. It’s just the practicalities of a pandemic. If you have young children who are no longer at school, it can be impossible to leave the house. We were fortunate, my son’s school offered remote learning but not everyone has that good fortune.

Staying healthy and exercising was a concern. Under the shutdown people were allowed out for about an hour a day for exercise but only in small groups. I had an exercise bike delivered, just so we had something else to do when at home. I also picked up a copy of a 10-pin bowling game for the Nintendo Switch, something to keep the family entertained. Supermarket shopping shifted online and online grocers buckled under the demand. It was difficult to order, either because websites timed out or you just could never get a delivery slot. Booking delivery typically required being awake at 3am to grab a spot when a new one became available and buying whatever you could get in your cart in the time.

Life gradually fell into a routine. Microsoft Teams or Zoom calls with work or clients. There was a lot of bad news in the first few months. Deaths, hospitals calling for donations of personal protective equipment, friends being laid off or furloughed, salary cuts, and health scares as people either had contact with someone or contracted COVID. New York became a real hot spot. Unfortunately, New York is primed to be a hotspot for viruses – the density, people in proximity, etc. make it a perfect breeding ground. Hospitals were reaching capacity, refrigerated trucks were being used as a morgue, and there were field hospitals set up in Central Park and the Javitz Convention Center. The general feeling was not “if” you would get COVID but more “when” would you get it and hoping that if you did, it would be a mild case and not kill you.

There were some highlights though. Every evening around 6 or 7 pm, New Yorkers would bang pots and pans outside their window to thank and celebrate essential workers. Creating a sense of community and togetherness, despite us all being apart. There was a Blue Angels fly by, and some person or company drove around the city singing “New York New York” on the back of a flatbed truck. COVID taught us who our friends were and checking in on people to make sure they were OK was asked more often than any other time that I remember.

Now it’s over a year on, we have a new US President, we’re vaccinated, and despite the concerns over new COVID-variants, life feels like it’s going to be OK. If there’s a lesson from all of this, it’s listen to science, don’t panic, and accept the short-term sacrifice.  All of this also barely touches on 2020 – which as far as years go, was a tough one. The murder of George Flloyd in Atlanta, Black Lives Matter protests, Trump’s war on democracy, and his lies about the election – all exhausting.

On reflection, I hope that all of 2020 was the birthing pains of better times to come.

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