I had not been to New York since January 27th, 2020. That day, I boarded a flight back to Sweden with a box of face masks I had hunted down after watching increasingly unnerving news reports about a mysterious flu-like illness spreading in Wuhan, China. In the ensuing months, this virus would be classified as a global pandemic and New York would become one of the hardest-hit places. I’ve refrained from traveling since March 1st, but my daughter’s second year of college necessitated an essential trip to the United States. Although classes would be held online and there would be no on-campus housing, the six-hour time difference convinced us it would be better for her to be in the right time zone and try to have a safe, responsible student experience.
Needless to say, I was nervous about going back to New York. I had read the local papers online, followed Governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily press conferences religiously, and reeled from the images of sickness, death, and economic damage. My trepidation was ironic considering I lived in Sweden, a country whose own coronavirus strategy has raised controversy for being less stringent than the rest of the world’s. For example, there was no national lockdown. Sweden does not have a mask mandate, and schools from nursery to 9th Grade have been open throughout. The Public Health Agency counted on citizens to follow recommendations and voluntarily social distance, wash hands, and stay home if you were feeling sick or experiencing Covid-19 symptoms. Vulnerable populations such as the elderly and those with underlying conditions were told to remain secluded as much as possible.
Although Sweden does have one of the highest rates of death per capita, things seem to be turning a corner at the moment. The same can be said for New York, a city with a population of 8.4 million (to Sweden’s 10 million) people circulating in a densely packed environment. New York City suffered over 23,000 coronavirus deaths, but the strict lockdown, cautiously phased reopening, and mask mandate have gotten the infection rate down to less than 1%. By this metric, New York City seems safe for travel and occupancy, but a flurry of articles this past summer proclaimed New York was “dead.”
Many New Yorkers, who had the option and means, decided to weather the pandemic’s most harrowing months outside of Manhattan. Others were moving to the suburbs or out-of-state for good. The lure and appeal of NYC had diminished for many; casualties of the population density, exorbitant prices, and potential long-term absence of cultural attractions. If companies were encouraging their employees to work from home, then they could work anywhere, trading in the hustle and bustle for a more peaceful and spacious quality of life.
Comedian Jerry Seinfeld famously wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times deriding those who had given up on NYC and I didn’t want to give up on it either. I was one of those suburban kids who dreamed of the Big Apple and after spending nearly ten years in Manhattan (from college to my first professional job), I felt like a true New Yorker. No other place in the world feels more like home, but I was wary of stepping into an apocalypse riddled with crime, empty streets, and boarded-up storefronts.
So, what did I find?
First of all, my observations and experiences are IN NO WAY conclusive and perhaps not even representative. I visited specific neighborhoods Uptown, Midtown, and Downtown, and my time in each was relatively short. However, I can say, unequivocally, that the New York spirit and power of resilience are alive and kicking. Many reports reference the flight from the city, but I wonder if these journalists have taken the time to really see the people who have remained instead of focusing on the ones who have left? The storekeepers, restaurateurs, taxi drivers, waiters, dry cleaners, handymen, nurses, doctors, hotel staff, delivery personnel and other front line individuals who do not have the possibility to ride out this pandemic elsewhere. People who are fighting to keep their businesses alive and others who are struggling to earn a living–no matter how reduced. These individuals wore masks in stifling heat and personified kindness and service. I remember the Uber driver who told me customers stole his hand sanitizer or emptied it out into their own bottles during rides! So disrespectful! What kind of person does that?! But he carried on, securing his precious sanitizer with industrial tape.
Hotels are finding new and safe ways to welcome back guests in a corona-secure environment and I didn’t mind the “room service only” rule to reduce the risk of infection. When I did go to restaurants, I marveled at the creative, socially-distanced outdoor layouts since indoor dining was not allowed. Whole sidewalks and parking spaces had been taken over and the end result, festooned with plants, string lights, and canopies, was very charming. Curbside dining Downtown was particularly lively!
People, masked and distanced, walked, jogged, and rode their bikes in Central Park. Not to mention the roller skaters twirling to dance music or people just chillin’ out on the Great Lawn. These New Yorkers made me smile and gave me strength and hope. They had lived through one of the strictest lockdowns with death and despair at their doorsteps, yet had ventured out again, adapting prudently to their new reality and not giving up. Life in New York is curtailed, restricted, and uncertain, but people are trying to move forward.
That’s not to suggest real and significant problems don’t exist. Far from it! But their existence has been entrenched and atrociously disregarded for years, only to be laid bare and dispersed by this pandemic, shocking those historically unaffected by racism, discrimination, income inequality, inadequate healthcare, homelessness, drug addiction, food insecurity, education inequality, domestic abuse, or unlawfulness.
This pandemic is a wake-up call to fix the structural problems plaguing society. Desperation hovers precariously above the perseverance and in our eagerness to return to some kind of normal, I fear we will miss this crucial opportunity to demand more of our leaders and make comprehensive reform. When the next global health crisis hits, we must be better equipped to manage not only the immediate, urgent needs, but also the aftermath. As always, please stay safe and healthy!