I Watched New York Shut Down Around Me Because of Coronavirus
I watched the city that never sleeps finally drift off.
We were in New York when the World Health Organisation announced COVID-19 as a pandemic. Not only that, we were the only customers in a diner in the middle of Manhattan. It was so quiet the staff had turned on the news. We knew Coronavirus was coming, we just didn’t realise how soon.
Monday 9th March 2020
The pilot announces that we’ll shortly be starting our descent into JFK. Immediately I turn off my movie, open my window blind and pretty much glue my face to the window. Don’t worry, I had the row to myself – I’m not that person. That should’ve been a sign of what was to come, but I was far too excited for that.
There I am, peering out of the window, my eyes darting everywhere, looking for proof that I was nearing the most famous city on the planet. I didn’t know what to expect, or the geography of the city. Would I see the Statue of Liberty beneath me? Skyscrapers galore? I was scared to blink, I didn’t want to miss anything.
The countdown to landing was still on my TV screen. If we were so close, why couldn’t I see anything yet? It was all fields and trees.
I squinted against the sun. Was that…? No way. Was that actually New York’s skyline on the horizon? I’d never entered a city this way, usually you fly over it or the airport was on the outskirts. But it was. New York, of course, had to be dramatic. And I loved it.
What a way to leave a first impression.
Tuesday 10th March 2020
I met my gang late last night and we started the day in the most American way (if movies are to be believed) – with pancakes and waffles! We were staying at The New Yorker Hotel, and there’s the Tick Tock diner attached to the lobby. It’s not bad, but it’s not good either. I just kind of feel that it needs to up its game if it’s going to be associated with a hotel that’s made such a name for itself. If it was down the street a bit, then fair enough.
Like I mentioned earlier, our bearings of New York weren’t great, so our plan was to grab a Hop On/Off bus and get a feel for the place. Top View didn’t have good reviews online, and Big Bus were a bit expensive for our budget (although I used them in Abu Dhabi and they’re very good!) so we went with Grayline’s City Sightseeing. The touts on the street will try and lure you in with a “special child price” for $49 for a 24 hour ticket, but they all do it so don’t feel like you have to go back to the same guy. Included in this ticket is Downtown Tour, Uptown Tour, Brooklyn Tour and Night Tour. Also a free boat ride (more on that later).
The bus was full but we managed to get a top on the open deck (winning!) and we spent the next 2.5 hours learning about Downtown New York through our earphones. I was loving it. We got on at Times Square and went by Macy’s, the Empire State Building, Flat Iron Building (mostly hidden by scaffolding), Greenwich Village, Soho, Chinatown, Little Italy, City Hall, The World Trade Center, saw the Manhattan Bridge for a few seconds, Battery Park and the Statue of Liberty (get off here for the Charging Bull and Wall Street), Lower East Side, East Village, United Nations, Waldorf Astoria Hotel (preferred the New Yorker we were staying at 😉 ), Rockefeller Center and Radio City. It was a great tour to see where everything was and helped us plan where we should hop off in the future.
We got off at Times Square and had a wander around, found a Bubba Gump Shrimp Shop which is a Forrest Gump shop (and seafood restaurant I think) which was cute. I may have bought a cuddly shrimp plushie! We also went to the Hard Rock Cafe for a look around, and had a nosy in some old cinemas and concert halls. We didn’t spend too long here because we knew that we’d be back to see Times Square in all its glory – at night!
We decided to do the Night Tour because we only had one chance to do it on our 24 hour ticket. I hate to give negative reviews but, oh my god, if you can’t sit on the upper deck then don’t do it. Apart from that the windows have adverts on them so you can’t see out, the fumes were horrible. Everyone on the inside of the bus was coughing and complaining and were taking turns to breathe in air at the bottom of the stairs. That was a very uncomfortable hour and a half. Plus, it wasn’t even dark yet so nothing was lit up. The only plus was that I got to see the Manhattan Bridge for a bit longer this time.
We finished the day with a walk around Times Square in the dark. WOW! Not only the amount of lights and screens, but the quality! I’ve never seen HD like it. Apparently it’s so bright that astronauts can pinpoint it from space. I’m not sure how true that it but I like it all the same. And, if you want your shop or billboard or whatever to be in Times Square, there’s a minimum light requirement you have to meet. Oh, and one more thing while I’m here fangirling Times Square. It used to be called Long Acre Square and was renamed in 1904 because of the New York Times buildings’ new location there.
And then we had a cocktail in a Cuban-themed bar called Havana, got pizza at a deli and went to bed.
Wednesday 11th March 2020
We still had a couple of hours left on our bus ticket so we decided to get the bus to Battery Park and check out the free ferry ride included in our ticket. We got to the park and there were people with uniforms on directing people to certain boats. We showed our ticket and they pointed through the park and said to go to the boat on the right. However, when we got there the people who worked for the boats were confused and said it wasn’t for their boat, and the same with the other workers on close-by boats. So we gave up and got the free Staten Island ferry instead.
The Staten Island ferry was great. Sure, we didn’t get as close to the Statue of Liberty as we might have wanted, but we got fantastic views on the New York skyline, and Lady Liberty (albeit a bit smaller in the photos) and it was stress-free. We even hung around Staten Island for a couple of hours because it seemed quaint there. I don’t know if that’s how it usually is or if it was quieter because people knew something we didn’t.
We arrived back at the ferry port and walked towards the Charging Bull, New York Stock Exchange, Wall Street, One World Trade Center, 9/11 Memorial, St. Paul’s Chapel of Trinity Church (oldest church that survived 9/11 and served as a refuge for recovery workers), the Woolworth Building, City Hall and City Hall Park (where I fed squirrels!).
We popped into the New York City Library too. Apart from it being an impressive building both on the outside and the inside… Ghostbusters!
Later that day, the staff were videoing the empty seats in the diner as we ate our dinner. They couldn’t believe we were their only customers. Then they turned the news on.
WHO declares Coronavirus / COVID-19 as a pandemic.
Thursday 12th March 2020
Broadway goes dark. All shows have been cancelled.
All museums have closed their doors.
New York City Library and all other public libraries are closed.
We got the subway to Coney Island. Unfortunately there are (at least) 2 Coney Island stations. We, of course, arrived at the wrong one without realising. After walking aimlessly around a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood (something different for us) for an hour or so we thought we’d grab a snack for breakfast (peanut butter croissant – yes please!). Oh my god. Talk about crazy. We found a mini mart and the place was in chaos. Everyone’s baskets were overflowing and they were all pushing into each other like buying that (insane) amount of fruit was a matter of life or death. It all made sense when I went on Facebook that evening and learned about “panic buying”.
Anyway, the Coney Island station we actually wanted, turns out, was so far we had to get another train there. The lady in the booth didn’t charge us though which was super nice of her. This was more what we expected – the Wonder Wheel, the Parachute Jump and a massive billboard announcing Coney Island! Finally, we’d made it!
I still don’t know if Coney Island (the streets, boardwalk and pier I mean, not the actual themepark) was empty because it’s abandoned, or empty because of Coronavirus. But I didn’t care right now. I had things to do! Firstly was coffee and pancakes at Ihop, and then I had to find the Mr Robot locations, and a Zoltar machine to see if it would make me Big. Or just tell me my fortune. Missions completed! Coney Island was so cool. I didn’t know it existed but I also ended up finding Harley Quinn’s headquarters (or something like that) without even meaning to thanks to the friendly guy who let me inside F Society (the Eldorado Arcade).
We got the subway back to near the beautiful Chrysler Building and Grand Central Terminal. We’d timed it a bit wrong and ended up being there for rush hour. This was not how I pictured rush hour in Grand Central Terminal:
Friday 13th March 2020
US President Donald Trump declares a national emergency.
I was obviously excited about everything about New York. But the two things I was looking forward to the most were the Brooklyn Bridge and the Top of the Rock. Today was my day!
I woke up excited (as I’m sure every tourist visiting New York does), pulled open the curtains to my usual city view, and I was met with fog. Every day had been sunny up to this point. I digged it though, a ghostly picture of only half skyscrapers. I expected it to have cleared up by the time we reached the bridge, but I was wrong.
The Brooklyn Bridge is only 1.1 miles (1.8 km) long so it’s an easy walk for most. If you’re uncomfortable with heights, water or walking on a wooden walkway above traffic, you can get good views from DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass).
I had planned to go up to the Top of the Rock at the Rockefeller Center rather than the Empire State Building simply because it you do it that way, you’ll have the Empire in your view. I wanted to go up just before sunset so I could get day, dusk and night photos. It costs an extra $10 this way but seemed worth it. We got to the queue and the cashier said that we couldn’t go up until 20:00 and it would’ve been dark by then so we said thanks, but we’ll try again tomorrow. That night, I tried to book tickets online and was having difficulties doing it so we agreed to wait and try again in the morning.
We walked around Radio City (“around” being the key word here – it’s a bit pricey!) and the Rockefeller Center. Even managed to walk into NBC as they were filming The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Which, when I Googled to see what celebrities might have been inside, turns out to have been the last one filmed in the studio due to the virus.
My aunt loves the Art deco style and she was very excited about seeing the Chrysler Building during our stay in New York. I had spent a couple of weeks searching for rooftop bars in Lexington area but most of them were closed because it was winter. Anyway, I eventually found one that was open because it was indoors but with floor to ceiling windows for the view. Upstairs at the Kimberly was lovely and it definitely had the views we wanted, but the staff were a bit lacking and they charged $12 per bottle of water (yet offering it like it was free)! The cocktails were nice and story though! I would still recommend it if you’re going in winter, otherwise I’m sure there are ones a bit better.
Saturday 14th March 2020
I woke up to a screenshot my aunt sent me from the website of the Top of the Rock. Top of the Rock has closed due to Coronavirus. NOOOOO! We missed it. I was heartbroken but by this stage I was understanding the seriousness of the pandemic – and that we had to act fast! So today we were going up the Empire State Building!
The Empire State Building was really good – and there were no queues! Like… At all! You go through a museum first, with lots of information about the ESB being built so fast and how it was, it’s more interesting than it sounds, trust me! There’s even a room filled with screens showing every movie, show, music video that has shown it. Then when you go up to the 86th floor (standard ticket for $42) the ceiling of the lift turns into a screen, kinda 3D and shows the top of the building being built in front of you. On the way up it stops at a floor (I’ve forgotten which but it’s pretty high up) and you get the views of the city through windows. Then once you’re on the 86th floor you can go outside and take better photos without reflections. You can see Central Park, Chrysler Building, Rockefeller Plaza Building, One World Trade Center, Statue of Liberty, the New Yorker Hotel – pretty much everything apart from the Empire State Building itself! Oh, and 5 states: New York (duh), New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.
For $72 you can go to the museum on the second floor, the 86th and 102nd floor.
What was crazy though was looking down rather than across. The streets were empty, there were no people below, no traffic, no nothing.
We nipped into Little Italy Pizza for, well, a slice of pizza. I’ve read since that this area is supposedly bad for pizza but we liked it! It’s on East 33rd Street, more or less across the road from the ESB. They do crazy tasty garlic knots too! Ugh, getting hungry now thinking about it!
Next we headed to the Dakota Building near Central Park. We “headed” for there. I’m not saying we succeeded at first! To New Yorkers (and probably many Americans), I imagine the street system is fairly foolproof. You have not met us!
So the Dakota Building is on West 72nd Street. We got on an express train and ended up at 125 Street Station, thinking we must be close by because 72 isn’t that far from 125… How wrong can you be?! For those of you who don’t know, we were three a half miles away, somewhere between Harlem and Queens!
Anyway a lovely New Yorker was going that way and more or less escorted us to Columbus Circle Station and put us on the right train. She didn’t leave until she was certain we knew where we were going! She saved our ass!
After all that excitement we finally got to the Dakota Building, entered Central Park there via Strawberry Fields. We saw where John Lennon lived, and died. We saw the memorial, a mosaic with the word “Imagine” and there was a man playing the same song on the guitar. It was a lot more calm and peaceful than I had imagined.
From there we had a small walk around Central Park, up to Bow Bridge. We couldn’t stay too long as my aunt and her partner had to catch their flight in a couple of hours, but I knew I could come back tomorrow if I wanted.
After I saw them off at Penn Station, I went back to the hotel as it was less than 5 minutes away. I was trying to think what was close so I walked to The High Line. It’s a park that’s built into an unused, elevated railway line. Sounded cool, right? I got there and it closed 5 minutes earlier! It pays to look things up people!
This was my last night, so I decided to venture around Broadway and Times Square one last time. Cliché I know, but to be honest I didn’t feel that comfortable walking by myself late at night. Turns out I was right too as I was catcalled by two guys on the street, another guy who was “asking” (but more telling) me to go to a bar he knew with him, and one more guy who worked in a shop suggesting that if my flight gets cancelled I can share a bed with him. New York is fantastic but we still have to watch ourselves.
Aside from that, I had a nice time roaming around, even if the theatres on Broadway were closed and Times Square was half empty.
Sunday 15th March 2020
I wasn’t sure what to do with myself today. We’d covered most of what we wanted to see already. I packed my bags, checked out and left my luggage at the hotel. I thought it would be easier for me if I took the train back to the airport from the same station I arrived at by the hotel. Less chance of effing it up!
I had to get the subway to Brooklyn from 34th-Herald Street station instead of Penn’s subway because it was closed. Another adventure! But it ended alright this time. But as I walked by Madison Square Garden for the last time I saw that the entrances had been barricaded off and the entire building seemed to be surrounded with barriers and police. I knew then that I was lucky to see as much as I had.
So I got the subway to the far side of Prospect Park and walked through it into downtown Brooklyn. My boyfriend had texted me earlier after me telling him where I was going, saying that the first people in NY to die from Coronavirus had died on Friday in Brooklyn. But I didn’t see that message for a few hours, and to be honest, it wouldn’t have stopped me anyway.
Prospect Park is nice. There’s a big lake, people riding horses there, lots of dogs running around, people enjoying picnics. You wouldn’t have known there was a pandemic about to go down.
I crossed over into Brooklyn because I wanted to see what it was like, and I had strategically planned my route so I would go by Bergen Street. I love the show Brooklyn Nine Nine and the police station on Bergen Street is the exterior they use for the 99th Precinct. I’m such a dork.
Once I’d wandered through the ghost town that was supposedly Brooklyn I hopped onto an express train (purposely!) to Times Square so I could walk to Central Park. I know I didn’t have to walk but it was the only station I recognised so with my track record, it was probably quicker that way.
I walked through some more of Central Park, saw the fancy horse and carriages at what I assume is the main entrance (by 5th Avenue), and had a lovely stroll around. I made sure not to go too far though as I had to be on the airport train by 16:00 and it was already 14:30.
I headed over to Trump Tower because I was curious about it and it turns out it’s at the Central Park end of 5th Avenue so I didn’t have far to go. Also – free toilets! I had to have my bag scanned at security, fair enough, and the guys there were really friendly. I didn’t have a clue what to expect. I certainly didn’t think there would be glass cases of merchandise from his presidential elections, more than one restaurant, souvenir shops and a Starbucks!
So I left, and hung around the square on the corner of Central Park and 5th Avenue for a little bit, watching the horses and the very few people that were braving the streets, and wishing I didn’t have to go already.
We spent most of the week wondering if we were going to be “stuck” in New York. Flights were being cancelled left, right and centre. I was on the last flight home. The plane was crammed full and I heard people saying they had to change their flight to this one because they had no other option. It was crazy.
Little did I know there would be makeshift morgues in Manhattan a week later.
I feel like I saw everything attraction-wise in New York, and I totally fell in love with the city. You (or me anyway) can’t walk around without feeling a little bit badass.
But I feel I missed out on the vibe a bit, through no one’s fault. For the first few days there were people around, there was traffic, I even saw the human rush hour across the road from Macy’s coming up from the subway. I’d watched vloggers telling me how to walk on the streets without annoying people, cross the roads safely, prepare me for the insanity of New York – and I never got it. I didn’t even need a green man to cross the roads, there were no yellow cabs screaming at me to “get outta the way!”.
I will go back and I will get shoved off the sidewalk by a pissed off Brooklynite and I will love it.
I’ll see you when you wake up, New York. Sweet dreams.