Life in the Time of the Coronavirus

COVID-19 is here. Broadway shows have gone dark, sports events cancelled, large gatherings have been banned, schools have been shuttered. The number of confirmed cases ratchet up daily, but life goes on,  only altered.  In this space, NYCityLens will document how New Yorkers are going about their daily lives in the time of the Coronavirus.  Visit us often, as this page will be continually updated. The most recent items are at the top.

Connecting in Our New Normal 

Tuesday, March 24th— In the Coronavirus age, we are being asked to stay home and self-isolate. But humans need other humans. We need to keep moving, to keep working, to keep sharing stories or virtually clinking glasses of wine. So, we have found new ways to connect and socialize, breaking up our long days with much needed laughter and camaraderie, online. We are connecting in ways we never dreamed of, turning to our screens to connect with old friends, finally getting to visit with those we’ve been meaning to see but somehow never got around to.

At a time when everyone feels far away, distance suddenly holds less meaning. And technology is helping us cross that distance. This March, with the coronavirus crisis, we’ve all added two new words to our vocabulary: social distancing and Zoom.

Zoom, which went public just one year ago, is now where I take classes, attend meetings, meet with professors, talk to my family and friends. In the past month, its stock price has increased by 30 percent— and universities, including mine, high schools, and businesses are using the technology daily to attempt to carry on “business as usual.”

But it’s not just helpful for work and school. It’s helping people reconnect, too.

In the past week, I, for one, have seen more of my college friends than I did in the nine months since we graduated from Princeton last June. Keeping in touch since leaving campus has proven more difficult than we all thought.  Of course, on that beautiful afternoon, we promised to be in constant contact. But life got in the way, as it always seems to do. We talked when we could, but we were all busy living our new lives. Now, I have been seeing them almost daily through an app I hadn’t heard of until two weeks ago.

It’s also played a critical role in helping me and my friends get over a sudden change of plans. The week before New York started shutting down, we had all been looking forward to reuniting from our disparate corners of the universe to celebrate our friend’s wedding engagement. Many of us had flown to New York from San Francisco, England, Boston, Rhode Island, Charlotte, even China.

But the world had other plans. So we made the agonizing decision that it was best not to expose our friend’s family and one another to possible infection. With heavy hearts, we slowly traversed back to our homes or where we are now sheltering until the COVID-19 wave passes.

Since then, my phone buzzes constantly with new Zoom meeting reminders, or impromptu FaceTime calls. My friends’ faces pop up in the little black squares on my computer screen and phone almost daily. We have banned the “c-word” and try to talk about other things: a google doc of events to look forward to, games to play, fun ways to pass the time (think book club, portrait swaps, collaborative storytelling). I’ve been able to catch up with most, despite miles and miles of distance.

Princeton University Tigressions from the Class of 2012-2023 meet via an impromptu Zoom meeting on Sunday night. Photo courtesy of Beth Wang.

And it’s not just my immediate group of friends who have been saturated in these connections. There have been birthday calls, cousin meetings, even a cappella reunions. On Monday, I found myself in the strange predicament of being double-booked for a coveted 9 p.m. Zoom call slot.

This past Sunday, as I was hopping off the treadmill, I got a notification that my college all-female a cappella group was doing an impromptu Zoom call. “5 mins!” the text read. I booted up my computer, plopped down on my stomach, and flattened my sweaty hair. Within minutes, at least 20 women spanning from the Class of 2012 to 2023 (and even one from the Class of 1986) filled the screen, some meeting each other for the first time.

We each introduced ourselves, talked about where we were staying, and what was going on in our lives. We waved as familiar faces appeared— a friend in medical school in St. Louis I hadn’t seen in a year, a woman who was a senior my freshman year now doing an MFA program, a classmate in Boston. One woman talked about her pregnancy and law school, while another talked about moving in with a boyfriend for the first time. As people trickled off to prepare dinner for families or finish up homework, we each signed off, a little happier, a little more relaxed, a little less distant, promising to do this again soon.         — Currie Engel

Updated to reflect correct stock price of Zoom as of 3.25


Sunday, March 15 —The first date would have been a classic New York affair—a coffee and hot chocolate at a bakery, a couple of hours walking through Central Park, chatting on a park bench, drinks and dinner afterwards, and maybe even a hug or a kiss good night to cap it all off.

Too bad there was an elephant between them. A third wheel tagging along: COVID-19.

Coronavirus can make dating even more awkward than it already is. Drawing by TuAnh Dam

Coronavirus can make dating even more awkward than it already is./Drawing by TuAnh Dam for NYCityLens

Coronavirus, of course, doesn’t stop relationships. But for a new couple,  its presence can be palpable—and complicated.  Do you hug? Do you kiss? Hold hands? It adds an additional layer of awkwardness and second-guessing.

We planned to meet up at the Time Warner Center at noon, but I wanted to stop by Levain’s Bakery on 74th Street to buy him a belated birthday cookie. I got there early so the lines wouldn’t make me late, but there was no one else there. I pulled a crisp $10 bill from my wallet to pay—a chocolate chip cookie with walnuts for him, a double chocolate chip one for me—but the cashier asked if I could pay with a credit card instead. They were limiting cash flow, he said, because of COVID-19.

I was 45 minutes ahead of schedule so I walked the last 20 blocks. A twinge of guilt swept through me. Was I being irresponsible by going on this first date instead of social distancing? Should I just cancel and meet up with him some other time? He had asked me if I wanted to wait, and I said I didn’t.

I made it to Columbus Circle 20 minutes early and took the time to wash my hands. “Happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me,” I sang quietly to myself, twice, as the cold water flowed over my hands.

When he arrived we surveyed each other awkwardly, silently trying to decide whether or not to hug. We chose not to and continued into the park, where despite the crisp breeze and clear weather, the paths were empty. We walked, keeping a running tally of people who coughed without covering their mouths (five) and people talking about coronavirus (twelve). 

We left the park shortly after, looking for a bar. We stopped outside of the ABC news station instead. On the big screens was Mayor Bill de Blasio, giving the city the latest virus updates. He announced that city schools would be closing.

We ended up at an Italian restaurant. It was empty, just four waiters, a bartender, and us. We held hands for the first time, sitting at the white marble countertop, coronavirus fears forgotten for a few minutes, nerves calmed a little by a White Russian and Cranberry Vodka. We put our arms around each other as we headed towards the subway station.

That night, we texted each other almost simultaneously. It wasn’t an invitation to meet again or a sweet dreams message. Instead, each of us wanted to get something off our chest.

“Ha ha, did it bother you that I hugged you in this coronavirus era?”

“Did it bother you that I kissed you in this coronavirus era?” 

— TuAnh Dam


An Unusual Saturday in the City

Saturday, March 14—There were more bags of groceries on the M4 bus than people:  the bus driver and one passenger to three paper bags loaded with supplies, including toilet paper, frozen chicken, and gallons of water. Just a day after the president declared a state of emergency, New York City,  normally packed on a sunny 55 degree Saturday afternoon, was strikingly bare. 

Every other subway seat was empty. Meanwhile many New Yorkers avoided the subway altogether, but spent the day braving the streets in search of groceries and toilet paper. They tried to keep distance between other shoppers.

Duane Reade had empty shelves by early afternoon Saturday.

Duane Reade had empty shelves by early afternoon Saturday/Photo by TuAnh Dam

Still, customers freely gave out advice to each other.  One woman told the person in front of her, for example, that Duane Reade was out of sanitizer and toilet paper, so don’t go there. CVS was her next stop, she said, but she wasn’t optimistic. The packages at C-Town supermarket, she added,  were “cute” and tiny, but not enough to last to fill her family’s needs for long. But they had things, she told a fellow shopper, so go there if you really need them.

Restaurants were notably empty. Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio had mandated that restaurants seating 500 or less cut capacity in half, leaving tables vacant. Community Food & Juice, right across the street from Columbia University, for example, spaced people out as much as possible inside. At noon, a family table in the middle of the restaurant was only a third full. Some customers wore masks, even inside, until the food came. 

Romance may be on the back burner too, for awhile any way.

“Are you still free tomorrow and want to get together?” one man was heard asking a woman, before pausing and continuing. “Or would you want to wait until this virus thing dies down a bit?”     

— TuAnh Dam


Heading Home 

Saturday, March 14—Newark International Airport Saturday morning was devoid of its customary long lines and bustling terminals, although several people still trickled through security. A sanitation worker in the women’s bathroom carried an industrial size cleaning solution, rubbing the sinks down vigorously as she made her rounds. A sign posted out front of the bathroom reminded people of coronavirus risk and encouraged sanitary practices.

At the other end of a flight, in Charlotte, N.C., things seemed to be business as usual. The panic doesn’t seem to have hit this southern city with the same force it has hit New York.

Photo by Daria Shevtsova from Pexels

But New York-area passengers boarding a full flight to Charlotte, on Saturday morning sported a range of protective gear—from gloves and masks to no protection at all. At least 13 passengers wore face masks, in many shapes, colors, and sizes. As the plane took to the runway, flight attendants huddled together at the front of the plane and rubbed sanitizer onto their hands. However, they did not wear gloves while serving food and drink.

Another woman in first class began wiping down her seat, armrests, and window with a sanitizing wipe the second she got on board.

—Currie Engel


Shopping Frenzy and Empty Shelves

Thursday, March 12—A day after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a global pandemic, New Yorkers headed to grocery stores and pharmacies to stock up on food and necessary supplies. Store shelves around the city quickly emptied—and lines to get in to stores lengthened. 

At the intersection of West 72nd Street and Broadway, a surge of customers flooded Trader Joe’s and the Duane Reade Pharmacy and lines developed outside.  Trader Joe Employees ushered customers into the store in groups of approximately 10 people throughout the day. “People have been saying congratulations, thank you for being here, more that sort of thing than the opposite,” said Christine, an employee manning the door. She did not want to give her last name.  Many customers reacted with shock when they saw the line, but seemed surprised when they got inside within five minutes.

Jason Kassimir exited the store with a cart full of large containers of water bottles and toilet paper, and multiple shopping bags.  “Everybody is taking it seriously. They’re being civil and that’s what you’ve got to do,” said Kassimir.  He said he just wants to be prepared with basic goods in the case of an emergency, but he firmly believes stress is not what the immune system needs.

Tommy Rotham and Emily Davidson, both Columbia students, each carried two large bags as they came out of the Duane Reade store onto Broadway.  The bags were full of basics like soap and paper towels, they said, but they added that the  pharmacy was out of hand sanitizer and face masks.  “We’ll have to get those on Amazon,” said Rotham.  Both young men said that they felt that contracting the virus was probably inevitable. “I read one out of three people are going to get it,” said Davidson.  But he added, “with the way it’s affecting different ages, I’m not that worried for myself, but more my parents.”

Nearby, Charles Chessler, a professional photographer, sat on a bench at the 72nd Street transit station plaza.  He had just come from the subway and said that he felt comfortable on his ride, for the most part.  “But if I heard someone cough,” he added, “that’s when I’d get out of that car.”                 

Aryana Noroozi    


Social Distancing? Never heard of it.

Friday, March 13—Despite closures and the coronavirus, some New Yorkers are still going out at night. Club promoters have started to see a dip in attendance, but the party has not stopped in the city that never sleeps.

According to Taras Martiniouk, a nightlife entrepreneur, New York City clubs are operating at 50 percent capacity these days. Last week, clubs operated at around 80 percent, according to Martiniouk. Some clubs, ones that accommodate 500 people or more, have shut their doors to comply with Governor Cuomo’s ban on large gatherings. The House of Yes in Brooklyn, for example, a popular nightclub, had its last dance until further notice on Thursday night.

Katya Bouazza-Salve, 23, and her roommate went to TAO downtown nightclub on Wednesday night. Bouazza-Salve said everything seemed normal. She could only feel the threat of the coronavirus in one part of the club—the women’s bathroom. One woman made sure her friend washed her hands and double-checked that she scrubbed under her nails. Another pulled a hand sanitizer out of chic clutch before opening the door with a tissue. 

Mike Rubbalotta, 24, went barhopping and clubbing Tuesday night. His company asked him to work remotely for the rest of the week, so he was not worried about waking up early in the morning. He was not worried about the coronavirus. either.

“I’m young,” he said. “Now is my time, and if I get sick, I get sick.” According to a report released in February by China’s Center for Disease Control, only .2 percent of people aged 20-29 have died from coronavirus. Rubbalotta likes his odds.             

Jenna Gyimesi