Just over one in three hundred New York City residents died of COVID-19. In a city of approximately 8 million, around seven times more people died than in China, population 1.4 billion. Wealthier people caught the virus first, as it was carried in by world travelers (early in the pandemic, COVID-19 was called “the rich man’s disease”). At the start of the spread, “New York was the primary gateway for the rest of the country,” said Nathan Grubaugh, an epidemiologist at the Yale School of Public Health, and most of those leaving the city were people with the resources to do so. Additionally, before lockdown, tourists from all over the country were still packing attractions and taking the virus home with them.
More people died here than in any other U.S. city: mothers and fathers and grandparents, all manner of people who loved and were loved, died alone and gasping for breath in hospitals defunded over many years by the disgraced “Love Gov,” our very own Andrew Cuomo.
Their bodies were carried onto ice trucks. Sirens rang out like nightmares in the daytime.
Schools closed, child abuse went up, more people died from drug overdoses—ex-addicts raised the nearly dead like the saints of old, administering Narcan on public sidewalks.
Restaurants closed and undocumented workers were thrown into dire poverty without resources; city rats lost their usual food source of restaurant trash, grew hungry and brazen, and fought out in the open on Park Avenue.
To talk of reopening as some politicians do, as some insurance advertisements do, in sentimental tones, with eyes full of stagey hope, is a little mendacious. We need a period of mourning in the Sioux fashion, with all of the city gathering each week in order to outdo each other’s grief, wailing louder and louder until we reach a pitch commensurate with this bitter, broken year.
That the city seems to be leaping into motion is nonetheless a cause of irresistible happiness. One cannot help but feel joy at getting a haircut again, joy at people playing craps on Sugar Hill, at drag shows resuming, at children running through schoolyards.
Tension between the need to remember and the desire for freedom characterized many of the interviews I conducted with New Yorkers throughout the city, about the pandemic and the reopening. The following interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Amanda Musmacher and her boyfriend, Akir Stuart, sat hand in hand on a bench in Washington Square Park, playing the soundtrack to Twin Peaks on a portable speaker. Amanda had plucked yellow tulips from the lawn, tucking one behind her ear and the other behind Akir’s. It was Akir’s birthday.
Akir: It feels like the city is going back to normal.
Amanda: And that’s not a good thing.
Akir: It’s really scary that we’re going back to normal. Fair warning, we’re young, I’m at NYU, and we’re, you know, youth super leftists. And it was just, like, heart-wrenching to go from four years of Trump presidency to the trial of Derek Chauvin to … it’s just like we’ve never taken a time to step back and analyze how we run the country. Like what does it mean for us to go back to normal? And yeah, I don’t know, I kinda got disillusioned with some of the politics from 2020.
Amanda: We’re constantly being told to raise awareness, raise awareness. That’s all we’re told to do. Now we’re all hyper-aware, but we’re stuck. We need better healthcare, we need housing to be a human right, we need food and shelter and like, plain decency for people. I think it’s just too far gone at this point. I think Biden is a pretty moderate candidate, but after all we’ve seen it’s like, how is anything in this world supposed to be moderate?
Akir: I know this is the idealistic young person thing to say, but we really need radical change. The earth is deteriorating at a rapid pace.
Kotaro Irishio: “Here there is more respect for artists.”
Kotaro Irishio, stage name Osaka Vagabond, moved to New York from Japan because he didn’t have to pay to perform in venues. He said, “Here there is more respect for artists.
“When all the venues closed down I really didn’t have the opportunity to perform. I used to have an open mic event in Chinatown, called Yosemic, at the Silk Road Cafe. It closed. I lost many gigs. I lost money. My drummer lost his granddad to COVID.
“My friends—one is a painter and one is a dancer—started performing here [in Washington Square Park], and I was like, can I join you guys? And they said, “Oh, welcome!” So I started performing here. I didn’t perform like this before the pandemic.
“There are different types of joy and excitement in the street. Here I can see people smiling, different facial expressions.
“Once, when I was playing on a rainy day, a guy who was collecting cans stopped to watch me for 10 minutes, in the rain, and gave me a wrinkly bill, a five-dollar bill. He told me, “Buy new guitar strings.” I know how much those cans are worth.
“I don’t know how to describe it, but I had emotions that I had never felt. It gave me so much courage. I had more passion.
“Even when the venues reopen, I’ll still perform in the street.”
An English teacher at a Harlem high school reflected on reopening, having just seen his students for the first time a week ago. He wished to remain anonymous.
“For education, reopening is not a return. It’s basically like a natural disaster occurred. For us, reopening is like the crew that comes in to repair right after that disaster. The people who had to care for downtown after Sandy, that’s like what we have to do with children.
“Whole families became dis-regulated. It wasn’t just that the kids were going to bed at 4 a.m. and waking up at 4 p.m., it was like the whole family was going to bed at 4 a.m. and waking up at 4 p.m. People were terrified and traumatized and they heard the sirens all the time, their relatives dying, and they try to numb it with TV, and maybe they’re drinking a little bit, and everyone stays up watching TV and you don’t want to ever close your eyes because of the horrible things that start to float in front of them when they’re closed.
“So many kids who did so well in person just disappeared, fell off.
“Teaching kids in a classroom, it’s just so different … I was trying to explain what teaching is to my therapist.
“And I was like—imagine that you had all of your patients in one room and had to do therapy with each one of them at the same time. But you have to get them all there, and do therapy with every one of them, and then you have to teach them Capoeira [laughs].
“But I love it. It’s so much fun. It’s so much fun. It’s like really the most fun. There’s so much life in a school. My days are so filled with life. I missed it so much.”
Cheila Rochez and her business partner, Adela Díaz, got hit hard when their combination salon and tax service closed for four months. But as customers come back, they already have plans to expand their unique business model to another location.
Cheila: When we reopened, we did lots of promotions for customers, and made everything safe for them. We wear masks. We take a few customers at a time. They are starting to come back. But it’s hard. We didn’t get no help from the government.
Adela: They still don’t help! I do taxes in the back of the shop, and my business really fell off. I know they was giving out loans for the businesses. The people that really needed it didn’t get it and the people that didn’t need it did. They probably lied a little on their applications [laughs].
Cheila: The big shops was getting the help, but barbershops, beauty salons, braiding shops, we wasn’t getting no loans.
What’s the good thing about us is we are the only shop in the Bronx dedicated to dreadlocks. They have more in Brooklyn, in Manhattan, but not the Bronx. So almost everybody in the Bronx comes here.
Little by little, our customers are coming back. I do their hair, and then I tell them to go back to do their taxes.
I think it’s gonna go good. We’re ready, we all ready for it. We’re trying to open a second shop, Dreadlocks by Cheila and Taxes by Adela.
Ira Salom began his career at Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center on Randall’s Island, and later became the chief medical officer at a hospital on the Rosebud Sioux reservation in South Dakota. Now he visits homebound patients throughout New York City.
“I’ve been working more because of COVID. At one point, I was working seven days a week, 12 hours a day, every day of the week, all over the city. But it’s a fascinating job.
“There was one day when the first visit was with a 90-year-old woman in a fifth-floor walk-up in Chinatown. The building was built before 1900. The hallways are two-and-a-half-feet wide, there’s five people in one room, the grease on the walls is 80 years old. At the end of the day, the last patient—I’m not exaggerating—had a penthouse on Park Avenue South, with a German maid. It looked like Nick and Nora Charles’s place from The Thin Man!
“You see quadriplegics, people who have no other visitors. I’m sometimes the only one they see —they’re so grateful. There’s a lady who after I see her always says, come in, come in, have tea, have biscuits.
“So reopening means something else to homebound people. The window they see the city through is different from yours and mine. They only have a few points of contact. You know the story of the blind men and the elephant, one feels the leg, one feels the trunk. They see the world through different … peepholes. Through TV, through family, if they have any left, through the radio, through home health aides. The view from a walk-up in the Bronx is different from a penthouse.”
Apratim Sahay, senior policy manager at the Green New Deal Network, advises cities on environmental and health policy. He followed the pandemic closely, in dialogue with scientists around the world.
“You know that famous New Yorker magazine cover—there’s the city, and then everything else is terra incognita. That’s New York’s mental image. It sees itself as the city of the world.
“But the very things that make it unique and powerful and rich and hyper-connected are the same things that led toward the pandemic spreading very rapidly. New York will get maybe 500 flights from Europe, 100 flights from Asia, daily. There was a very brief window of time to act and we didn’t.
“The numbers I remember are: If we were active, shut down world travel, tested and traced two weeks earlier, we might have had 90% fewer deaths. That’s fucking Cuomo and de Blasio, but obviously not just them.
“I was very struck by the reporting in The New York Times when the U.S. death count hit 100,000 people. Names of the dead were listed, how old they were, a line about them, and the newspaper ran on and on.
“For the half-a-million deaths mark, the front page was just a series of dots. It was the famous Stalin line: ‘One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.’
“This crazy collective experience shouldn’t just be happening on, you know, the pages of a newspaper—it should be a physical place, a memorial for people to mourn together.
“The city is recovering, of course, and I think we’re going to see huge outbursts of energy everywhere—social, economic, and erotic energy, parties on every corner, sex with strangers in bars, everything. But that same energy might cause this experience to vanish from memory.
“New York can’t just be living high off the rewards of being the center of the world. We have to use our resources, our researchers, everything that makes it special and beautiful and a place we all want to live—we have to use it responsibly.”
Enid Caballero and Mabel Rosario are pediatric dental assistants at Bellevue Hospital. They worked throughout the pandemic on emergency cases.
Enid: During the pandemic, we saw just the worst cases, like very little kids, a five-year-old who doesn’t understand why he’s in pain. But it was scary. We didn’t know what was going on. Even for a simple exam, a simple X-ray, we found
COVID could be transmitted.
Mabel: It was spooky, too. It was so empty. It didn’t look like New York. It looked like one of them towns….
Enid: It looked like a ghost town. Half the people that work here are clerical, and they worked at home. You wouldn’t see people in the hallway. We all had to stay in our rooms, not see our colleagues.
Mabel: I was so anxious one day I couldn’t sleep at all—just up in my bed till
5 a.m., a full 24 hours without sleeping. I couldn’t go to work. Everything was changing so fast, the cases were going up so fast, the rules were changing constantly, the bodies on top of bodies.
Enid: We had a lot of trucks back there. A lot.
But they did stuff to make us feel better. We had free televisits. Me and Mabel would listen to relaxing music, like meditation music. They would ask us in the mornings, “How are you doing?”
And they would play music all day from the loudspeakers. When somebody got
COVID and was able to go home, they played “New York,” by Alicia Keys. So if you heard that, that was a relief, it gave you some hope. They would play it over the whole hospital.
Mabel: The other one was if someone survived and went off the ventilator, they would play this other song, what was it?
Enid and Mabel together: “Don’t Stop Believing”!
Enid: When they were taken off the ventilators they would play that. But you would never know if someone passed, they didn’t play music to that.
Now things are going back to normal. Morale has gone way up. The vaccinations, the testing. At first it was crazy but now everything is moving smoothly.
Just the fact that most people are back now, that patients are COVID-tested, and everybody has to wear masks 24/7. Just seeing everybody back. The park is open, the back is open. We can sit outside. Life is better.
Bootsie Lefaris is a drag queen who has performed regularly in New York City for 16 years. She said she expected a “drag renaissance” in the coming months.
“I had so many shows—solo shows, choreographed bar shows, singing shows. I went from eight shows to absolutely zero. I went from all of that to, you know, being confined to the apartment.
“It was hard because you have drag family, you have relationships with your co-workers. You know, it’s like, ‘Girl, can you help me zip up this outfit?’ Or, ‘Where did you get that hair? Can you help me with this mix?’ We lost some drag queens, some security guards, people who worked the bars.
“But I think this chance to just reset as a human population, to be forced to be by yourself, it can be a good thing. I believe we’re coming into a drag renaissance. I feel like it’s gonna be a complete rebirth.
“I added so much more love to the show. There’s some shows where I was being a sassy drag queen. I didn’t totally drop that, but I just started saying, ‘Y’all are so beautiful. I see so many beautiful faces, I’m so thankful to all of you.’ Spreading love instead of judgment.
“Just last week at Playhouse Bar, I was with one of my guests, Vinnie Gaga. Her father and her two sisters came to the show, just to support her. And she introduced me to her dad and I was like, ‘Hey daddy,’ and he was like, ‘No, I’m actually her daddy.’
“We all started laughing and laughing. Just seeing the support, that to me was totally beautiful.” ❖
[Correction: In the print edition, both Ira Salom’s and Apratim Sahay’s names were spelled incorrectly. The Voice regrets the errors. Additionally, Mr. Sahay felt his estimate of the number of international flights coming into New York was too high, and the text here reflects the change.]