20 March 2020

A Canberran in New York: escaping the epidemic in the Big Apple

| Emma Davidson
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New York subway

New York currently has well over 1000 confirmed cases of coronavirus. Photo: Emma Davidson.

Region Media writer Emma Davidson was in New York as COVID-19 hit and has shared her diary with us. She’s now safely home and self-isolating.

Tuesday, 10 March

Arrived in New York, staying with a friend in Brooklyn who took me to an event in a Park Avenue penthouse. It’s a smaller group than planned, but everyone is hugging hello and behaving normally. News reports 33 cases in New York City.

Wednesday, 11 March

New Yorkers are polite and friendly, business as usual. One of the people at the apartment I’m staying in recommends an off-Broadway play, We’re Gonna Die.

Thursday, 12 March

Some people have started voluntarily working from home, including the friends whose apartment I’m staying in. A resident’s girlfriend arrives home – the theatre show she’s touring with is cancelled, she’s now unemployed. Broadway shuts down.

Friday, 13 March

Catching the subway from Brooklyn to the Lower East Side, locals discuss the state of emergency declaration and rumours that the bridges and subway will shut from 4:00 pm. A handful of people came to see the women’s event on stage that I came to help with, and it was filmed for a documentary.

Made it home despite the bridge rumours, which are quite believable if you’ve seen a zombie movie set in New York. Watched Resident Evil with the Brooklyn apartment crew, who have a small stockpile of food to get through a week or two of lockdown.

Saturday, 14 March

There are now 269 cases in New York City and one death. The women’s group I’m with changed their flights and left today. My airline and travel agent are only taking calls from people travelling within 72 hours, and my flight home is next weekend.

I’ve moved into a Hell’s Kitchen hotel room that my group no longer needed, went out for pizza and literally dodged a fight between two homeless guys in the shop. Times Square is eerily uncrowded.

Sunday, 15 March

We’re bumping elbows instead of shaking hands now. Catholic churches have cancelled Mass, so I went to a small Baptist church in Harlem. Everyone sits five metres from each other. The minister invited a GP to talk about ways people can reduce transmission. An older woman says she’s offended by people telling her she shouldn’t leave her house. It doesn’t sound like the COVIDsplainers have offered to do her shopping, or watch a live stream of her church service.

Walked through Central Park, where I can see people without getting close to them. Was planning to meet people for dinner, but the restaurant closed an hour before our booking.

Monday, 16 March

Woke up to a message from home to say my flight to Sydney has been cancelled. Spent two hours getting another flight, but not until Friday. Better than no flight at all! No news about the USA from DFAT’s SmartTraveller SMS or email alerts.

Subway virtually deserted during peak hour. Had New York cheesecake delivered to my room for dinner. Went to the hotel bar for a drink before it shut down at 8:00 pm.

CNN reports New Jersey has called out the National Guard. New Yorkers are still not having pandemic panic, things are quiet but calm.

Tuesday, 17 March

More messages to say all Australians should get out now. Spent hours on the phone trying to get an earlier flight before deciding to just show up at JFK and try my luck. The only way was a 51-hour journey via San Francisco, so I took it. Not many people at the airport, but the tourists who are there have no chill – everyone just wants to get out.

Wednesday, 18 March

Arrived at San Francisco airport with a 24-hour wait for my flight home. There was a delay disembarking as paramedics helped an older man in first class. Received a text from SmartTraveller advising Australians to leave the USA now. If I’d waited for this advice to organise my flight home, it would have been too late.

Tried unsuccessfully to sleep on a bench in the mostly empty food court. I’m not leaving unless it’s on a plane to Australia, just in case security don’t let me back into the airport. Realised I’ve slept four hours since Monday and now have ‘No sleep since Brooklyn!’ stuck in my head.

New York’s Governor announces a 1,000 bed Navy hospital ship will arrive in their harbour in April, and is taking Army advice on increasing hospital capacity. You know things are serious when they order the casinos to close.

Boarding my flight home, I saw CNN reporting 1,000 new cases in New York City in 24 hours. A third of the people tested have come back positive. There are confirmed cases at JFK airport and Rikers Island prison.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in New York, it is that pandemics don’t stop spreading if you ignore them.

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