An insider’s take on New York in Quarantine

There’s sizzling grills and old black iron smokers emitting hearty aromas of barbecue and jerk chicken. Two oversized refrigerated trailers bearing the stars and stripes are parked on the road and an orderly queue forms at the vacant car park entrance. No, it’s not a festival or a celebration. Far from it. This is the face of the front line fight against Covid-19, the treacherous “invisible enemy” as the President calls it. This is New York in Quarantine.

The subway has always been a petri dish of bacteria with its crush of people

Perfect conditions to go viral

Corona Virus 19, the novel virus, is so much more than the flu or the “boomer remover” as internet trolls and conspiracy theorists tout and in New York City, it’s ground zero, far surpassing the figures of Europe and Asia (or at least the ones that have been officially released – there’s a complete lack of transparency globally, which has done even more to spread this pandemic). We used to say that we’d be screwed if a plague ever hit New York. The city’s one of the densest in population in the Western Hemisphere, it’s a cultural melting pot of people from literally everywhere – all of whom have different standards of hygiene. Every day, millions board overcrowded subway cars, faces jammed in the next person’s armpits, and then there’s the rats, mice, squirrels and vermin in the gutters, walls, subway tunnels and drains. If it can make it here, it will spread anywhere.

Aren’t we supposed to be united?

Sadly, this is happening in a time where America is at its most divided. Bipartisanship has gone out the window for an adamant and non-flexible left vs. right, us vs. them attitude that permeates every corner of society. Trust in information from both leaders and media has been completely eroded for these same reasons and a deterioration of collaboration between those that make the message and those who can spread it has led to a culture of disinformation. Then there’s the healthcare system, where there’s no universal Medicare coverage, many people can’t afford health insurance and the prices to see a doctor or buy medication are outside the reach of the poorer members of society – especially when the whole economy has ground to a halt, meaning a large portion of the population has now lost or had their health coverage curtailed.

The uneducated or tin-foil hat wearing keyboard warriors have blamed New York and California for being democratic and sanctuary states that allow in illegal immigration, but that argument is ridiculous. Los Angeles’ LAX and New York’s La Guardia, JFK and Newark (NJ) airports are the main point of entry for travelers internationally. It’s where everyone lands first  on long haul flights before transiting to the other cities. And while the government were good and proactive to close access from China early in the piece, studies have shown that the lion’s share of cases came from Europe, where people were given less than a week to return and flew into to Chicago, New York and LA en masse, with five hour customs queues. Coupled with spring break, which saw teens flock to the southern beaches and returning home to other states, it’s been the perfect storm for viral transmission.

Washington Square Park was alive with crowds just day before lockdown

The Last Days of Freedom

From early February, we were watching the news from abroad cautiously. It was when the virus took off in Italy, Germany, and Spain that people began to sit up and listen. It all changed around March 13. People were starting to stoke fear on social media and yet, on the Thursday afternoon, it was beautiful, the first warm day in months and Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village was crowded with NYU students and tourists as we walked to the subway.

To say that mixed messages were sent is an understatement

We were given the Friday off to stress test the servers and to determine, if it came to it, that we could all work from home. Come Saturday morning, the governor and mayor were holding serious conversations about shutting the state and city down, but at the same time, trying not to cause fear and panic. The bars and beer gardens were apparently packed for St. Patrick’s Day – the swan song for any social life for the foreseeable future. By Sunday, we were told to just chill at home. Tuesday, all bars and cafes were ordered to shut aside from takeout orders, with all tables and chairs packed away for those blasé enough not to get the message. Those with the financial means and families in other states fled early, the wealthier ones heading to their lake houses, upstate shacks or to the sunny climate of Florida and the Carolinas. For us, we chose to stay put and ride it out.

Hoarding TP

Australia had led the way with the panic buying of toilet paper – a bizarre commodity, which once seen on social media, promoted a global rush on poop tickets. A pipeline split in California caused a rush on bottled water sales and the local shop in our area had large families buying whole trolleys full of pallets of water. The other product rushing off the shelf was flour – which has sparked a baking trend not seen this side of the 80s.

Across the board, social distancing rules were implemented early, with a minimum of six feet to be kept from others – but the people in our neighborhood were very slow to respond. A diverse area, and consisting of a largely lower socio-economic demographic, families would still walk the streets five abreast, hang out on their stoops and attend church services against the orders of the mayor. It was no surprise to us to find that our area was one of the hardest hit, early on. Residents were spitting openly on the pavement, frequenting parks and many had to keep commuting on the subway to their essential jobs. It cemented our decision to take the whole quarantine/self-isolation order and follow it to the letter.

Once the death rates were finally hitting home, the streets were much quieter

Life on the inside

We’ve been lucky in many ways. For the first four years living in New York, we were in a tiny studio apartment in Greenwich Village – one of the coolest places you could want to live in Manhattan – just not in the middle of a pandemic. We’d moved out to the fringe of Brooklyn and Queens, into a brand new apartment complex with all the conveniences of a games room, laundry, rooftop deck overlooking the city skyline and our own private balcony. Quarantine started in late winter, but we were blessed with unseasonal warmth, more akin to spring than the usual snow squalls and sub-zero temperatures. It’s like mother nature wanted to give us a soft start to being trapped inside 24/7.

This was our home for four years. Thankfully, we upgraded for space and light.

Meet you on Zoom

Our work moved online, with daily team meetings over Zoom in the morning and the occasional end of day happy hour. We’d watch free live gigs, play computer games, card games or join friends for drinks over video call at night. For exercise, we’d join in free aerobics and Zumba classes, but it has been hard to keep off the chub when going from 10,000 steps a day to 200. For weekends, we’ve been lucky to have the occasional free entertainment from a DJ who does live streams from the next rooftop over. Accompanied with some homemade cocktails and a little afternoon sun, it makes the whole experience a little easier. We have both also had our birthdays in isolation – with friends joining us for quiz parties and generous friends and family back home sending lovely surprises for delivery.

Exercise has been hard
Hello? Yes, this is cat

It has probably been easier for us, than many. With the schools closed, parents have no separation from their kids, having to act as home schoolteachers and babysitters while trying to juggle work commitments and video calls. Everyone’s cooped up inside, causing a heap of stress and tension – with no real way to release it. Apparently domestic violence cases are up, which paints a horrible picture.

Having a balcony has been a luxury
Saturday sessions has seen a DJ perform over on the next rooftop

Trying to keep a sunny disposition

In general, sun has been fleeting. It’s now the middle of spring, but we’d be able to count the sunny days that have happened during quarantine on both hands. When it’s sunny, our whole mood changes, but on the rainy days, it can be tough to keep the spirits up. The main pain point is that there’s no separation of work and home life. We’re super happy to have work, but it’s more that there’s no escape from whether you’re at the table for breakfast or to work, as being New York, we have a bedroom, a bathroom and a main room which is your kitchen, dining room and lounge room (and now home gym). Weekends blur into weekdays and the only time we get outside is for fleeting runs to the corner deli. The rest of the time, food is ordered online and delivered to us.

The corner deli implements a rudimentary attempt at hygiene

No end in sight

Finally, yesterday, we ventured out for a walk, fully masked and ready to avoid anyone coming in close quarters. It was an eye-opener. There was a long line of people weaving around the supermarket car park and out around the corner, most people that I passed had masks, but some were wearing them around their neck, not their face. A local bar was serving up cocktails from its window, with a group of people gathered, smoking and bantering like there wasn’t a global pandemic and a hospital within two blocks of where they were standing. Which brings us full circle to the barbecue grills and refrigerated trucks.

A momentary escape also gave an eerie reminder to stay inside

It’s lunchtime

There’s a small queue waiting for a polystyrene lunch box each of delicious food. They’re all nurses and orderlies from across the street at the hospital. They look tired, but are in good spirits – and the barbecue smells delicious! What’s more harrowing is the presence of two giant refrigerated trailers. They are makeshift morgues, brought in to handle the excessive numbers of deaths in the area. The hospital car park fence is covered with white corflute materials to block the view of the people waiting not in air conditioned waiting rooms, but out in the elements for their COVID-19 test. The emergency staff have been incredible through this and it’s heart-warming to hear applause erupt across the city in honor of them at 7pm. It’s one of the most touching parts of New York in Quarantine.

Two mobile morgues and an obscured carpark paint a dark picture
The airforce honor the doctors and nurses with a citywide fly-by

Now is not the time

Every day, states are dealing with mass protests. We get it. Many people have lost their jobs, their livelihood and are having to teach their kids. The economy is taking the biggest hit since the Great Depression and we’re all keen to return to some level of normalcy. Whether uneducated or just selfish, these people are trying to force the government’s hand, but the sad thing is, that if we open preemptively and it causes another spike in virus cases, this whole last two months will have been in vain. As travel bloggers, we want to get back out there too, but for now, we can live off our memories, use the time to learn new skills and build relationships.

We always said we wanted to live in New York so we can be here to experience major global events from the inside – we just didn’t realize it would mean being stuck inside during a pandemic which has seen New York in Quarantine.

Stay safe, stay well, and stay inside!

Bernie and Jess Watt

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Jason Reid
4 years ago

Really interesting to see how things were on the other coast. I’m back in England now but I started this lockdown in Washington State. Hope things are beginning to improve over there. Most things are still closed here in England but I see Washington and NY have bother started opening things up.

4 years ago

I enjoyed reading about your perspective on how NYC is handling the virus. Here in the suburbs of Chicago, I don’t think they have been taking it as seriously as they do in the city. Over the past few weeks, there have been minor improvements. The most recent is plexiglass around the cashier stations.

John Quinn
John Quinn
4 years ago

You are so right about the protesters. There’s no point rushing a reopening as it will be to our detriment. But 117 steps? Omg. I was embarrassed by my low of 2000 one day. ? a well put blog, I concur with everything you said. Just wish I had a DJ neighbour.

4 years ago

Great timeline. One for the history books for sure. Yeah, BdB dropped the ball in March by urging folks to still go out and act normal, when Cali had ships with infected folks demanding her thing. My last outing was Mar 12 to Edge Hudson Yards & it was obvs the city was changing. Every cough was looked at in suspicion lol, sanitizers all over, some mask wearers and the subways had seats available…both rush hours! Let’s see what a re-opening will bring in 10 days.

4 years ago

A spot-on description of the timeline and all the confusion early on! It’s overwhelming to think how things could’ve been different, if only.

Justin and I are also thankful that we’ve been able to work from home, and we think about those who can’t every day. Glad you guys are staying safe and finding ways to have fun. Hang in there!

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