NEW YORK - As I was gathering material for a live television report, I saw a group of tourists who were celebrating St. Patrick’s Day. They couldn’t dine at a restaurant so they were sitting outside, eating take-out food. The street near Times Square, usually bustling with people, is empty. An unusual sight for a New Yorker like myself. A bit haunting, even. This is the new normal in the time of coronavirus.
I see a woman dressed as Minnie Mouse and a man dressed as the Nintendo character Luigi chase a few potential customers walking the streets to see if they can snap a selfie and maybe score a tip. Then the iconic “Naked Cowboy” strolls by - wearing a mask! The buff, long haired man is a fixture in one of New York city’s most popular tourist spots. Wow! Even he has changed his habits, heeding the warnings from city officials who say the number of COVID-19 cases are increasing fast.
In the city that never sleeps - my city - movie theaters, gyms and nightclubs have closed their doors. I see a few retail stores are still open - they haven’t decided to close up shop yet. People who used to dine out are resorting to ordering take-out or having their food delivered - in accordance with the directive to avoid social gatherings of more than 10 people. As I walk past McDonald's, the attendants look tired, the customers carrying bags of food seem stressed out.
Out in the streets, journalists, photographers and videographers are documenting the scene. We’re all using the unusually empty outdoor tables to upload images to our laptops to be distributed to people around the world who have never seen anything like this.
As I stand in the very same location where I have covered massive protests and the famous ball drop on New Year’s eve, I can’t believe how different this feels. Instead of regular people, it’s we journalists who are out and about in the heart of the Big Apple. There are police cars parked on the side of the road, but the anti-terrorism unit isn’t patrolling on foot as they usually do at 45th and Broadway which, on a normal day, would be packed with thousands of people.
The worst is yet to come, they say.
I see food delivery bicycles speeding down the street. They outnumber the iconic New York yellow cabs, who have few customers these days as many New Yorkers are teleworking.
Our momentary peace is shaken by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s coronavirus live updates about the number of infections. Today we learn that four basketball players from the Brooklyn Nets, among them Kevin Durant, has tested positive. It’s as if we are watching a horror movie, only this is real life.
The governor says the outbreak is expected to reach its peak in roughly 45 days. That worries me.
My childhood friend, who works at an Upper East Side hospital, tells me he’s been seeing patients with flu symptoms since March 9. He texts me that the hospital is overwhelmed. “Everyone is demanding to be tested, the hospital is full of people,” he says. He works in the Emergency Room. City officials are pleading with people to visit the ER only if they are severely ill.
Our personal fear of this deadly disease makes New Yorkers panic. We head to the stores to buy hand sanitizer, anti-bacterial wipes and toilet paper. That’s what everyone is looking for. But some of us decide to skip the long lines at the supermarket - and opt for online shopping instead.
Just before President Donald Trump declared a national emergency I boarded a plane for Miami, where I spent the weekend. Too busy to shop at my local store, I filled my Amazon shopping cart online with Clorox wipes, a month’s worth of my favorite potato chips and toilet paper. I ordered canned food too, just in case I need to shelter in place at some point. My order was delayed twice because items were out of stock. When I returned home, my doorman - wearing gloves and a mask - handed me a cart full of Amazon boxes. It was another reminder of the strange times we are living in.
At this point, so little is known about this deadly virus that I’m beginning to wonder if I myself am a silent carrier. Who knows? Over the past 90 days, I’ve traveled for work to Zurich and Davos in Switzerland, to Madrid, Spain, to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas, and Miami, Florida. Some of these places have confirmed cases of coronavirus.
I don’t have symptoms, I have not been exposed to anyone who has it - or have I? My anxiety about catching the virus makes me clean every surface I encounter on my trips. I wipe down my plane seat, I wash my hands every chance I get, I avoid physical contact with loved ones and cancel dates with friends who have asthma or are considered to be vulnerable to coronavirus.
Today, I question myself after interviewing Olga Viles, an 80-year-old Ecuadorian grandmother, who lives with her son in Manhattan. She left home to go to the bank. I film her on the street.
Afterwards, I replay our interaction in my head - I kept my distance and used a handheld microphone. I did not let her grab it as she reached out - instinctively - to hold it. As she walks away, she smiles and says this terrible situation saddens her. She agrees that sheltering-in-place is a good idea.
I keep asking myself whether I stood far enough away from her. I’m a globe-trotting journalist, half her age, standing close to her in the times of coronavirus. It is as dangerous as sleep walking across a busy intersection. Should I be scared? Just days ago, we learned that coronavirus has reached all 50 US states.