A few weeks ago, I shared a post about my fears coming back to NYC after spending six months away, and how sad it felt to see the impact of the pandemic on my hometown. One of my followers, Alex Durning, a Child Life Specialist who works at a major hospital in New York City, commented about her experience staying in New York throughout the pandemic and how the city feels vastly different to her than those who left and are now returning. I asked her to expand on her comment with a full post.
Everything changed very quickly in March 2020. COVID-19 cases and deaths were surging in NYC, businesses shuttered, and many people who could work remotely and had the means to leave the city left. Understandably so, I would have done the same if I had the option. But I, like all healthcare and other essential workers, couldn’t leave. We were in the epicenter of a pandemic, and it was my duty to stay. I was instantly promoted to “healthcare hero,” a title I never wanted or asked for.
With the mass exodus of NYC residents and the absence of tourists, it seemed like the entire city had shut down. Those that remained were terrified to leave their homes – anyone who has lived in NYC knows that social distancing is a tough feat in our city. For weeks, when I would walk to work in the morning I wouldn’t see a single person until I was within a few blocks of the hospital. There was no traffic or honking because there were no cars, just the constant blare of sirens as ambulances whooshed by.
The city felt deserted, desolate, and eerie. I couldn’t help but feel alone.
Then one day I saw a post on Facebook encouraging everyone to go outside at 7pm and cheer to show appreciation for the essential workers. “Would anyone actually do this?” I thought to myself. “Are there even enough people still here to make a significant amount of noise?” The answer was a resounding “yes”. That night, the city came alive with cheers. There were people everywhere— on the street, hanging out of their windows, and standing on their balconies. I saw people clapping, cheering, banging pots and pans, and shaking tambourines; there was even someone playing a bongo. I couldn’t help but cry.
The city was very much alive, just in a very different way than normal.
This continued every single night for over two months. I wasn’t alone after all. The immense feeling of love and support sustained me during those dark days. Work was physically and emotionally draining. It was absolutely devastating to witness the pain and heartbreak this virus was causing and I often walked home from work feeling helpless. Then every night like clockwork, the city would erupt in a cheer of solidarity and the weight of the pandemic felt just a little bit lighter.
Outside, virtually everyone wore masks and respected each other’s space. We stood on line to get into the grocery store and sanitized our hands constantly. New Yorkers were determined to do their part to slow the spread of the virus. COVID stole so much from so many, but it was clear that it would not steal our city’s spirit.
When the weather grew warmer and restaurants opened for outdoor dining in June, it felt like a whole new world. The streets were buzzing with people and energy. Couples went on long walks and explored streets and neighborhoods they had never been to before. Friends met up at the park for socially distancded reunions. Kids rode their scooters, attended outdoor music classes and story hours. Restaurants decorated their outdoor seating with string lights and flowers, creating full dining rooms on sidewalks, in bike lanes, and in parking spaces.
The excitement was palpable. New Yorkers are resilient, and we were finding joy in this new normal.
It’s one thing to have eased into this change over a few months; it truly did feel miraculous. But for those who were able to leave, and have recently returned, seeing NYC for the first time is a wholly different experience. Slowly, the people who left have started to come back and enter the oasis of our renewed city.
Except for them, it doesn’t feel that way.
Once the epicenter and the place to avoid, NYC is now a prime example of exactly how to live within the confines of the current environment. Those who stayed saw firsthand how the pandemic impacted every aspect of life, including simply leaving the safety of our front door and stepping foot in the hallways of our apartment building. We had months to adjust and find new ways to thrive in our city. Those who left are now seeing these significant changes for the first time; ripping the band-aid off and finding a deep scar where they expect to see a perfectly healed wound. I imagine they are a bit shell shocked, and again I don’t blame them. The city looks nothing like it did when they left. Many of their favorite shops have closed for good and restaurants “only” have small outdoor dining spaces.
To those who left, the city now feels dead. For those who stayed, it is anything but.
I’ve received countless comments from friends about how sorry they are that I’ve been “stuck” here all these months. How terrible it must have been. That everything is so empty and depressing here now. That the city has changed for the worse, and they aren’t sure they even want to come back. It’s difficult to hear so many negative comments, especially when my experience has been so different from theirs.
Being able to leave the city during this time was a privilege. There are many people in New York who couldn’t afford to leave or didn’t have anywhere else to go. There are also people like me who had to stay for work. I don’t fault anyone for leaving. During such unprecedented times, everyone did what they felt was right and what was in the best interest of their families. If I were in their shoes, I would have done the exact same thing.
However, in hindsight, staying was also a privilege. Those who stayed built the foundation of our city’s new normal. We figured out how to get as close to status quo as possible while still remaining safe. It’s certainly not what anyone is familiar with, but it’s still our city and I’m excited to see how we continue to persevere and reinvent the greatest city in the world.
I love this city and the people who live here. New Yorkers are tough and we will get through this together. We will rebuild. We will continue to rediscover the city we all know and love so dearly.
After all, we’ve done it before and I’m confident we are up to the challenge again.
Alex Durning is a Child Life Specialist at a major hospital in New York City. During the height of the pandemic, she and her colleagues provided support and guidance to the children and families of over seventy-five patients with COVID-19. Alex lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with her husband, Kyle. Follow her on Instagram @alexx_i.