Magazine
May 20, 2020

Coronavirus Cities: In New York, the Lights Went Out In the Blink of an Eye

Moya Mawhinney on how her Study Abroad in New York was cut short by the virus – and how every adventure suddenly became a last.

Moya Mawhinney Staff Writer
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Sky Kawano

St Patrick’s day this year didn’t quite live up to expectations. My friends from home were meant to be flying over for the celebrations: rumour has it New York’s Paddy’s day parties are bigger than Dublin’s, and you can bet that we were all ready to be milking every bit of being Irish in tacky midtown Manhattan bars.

I had the green glitter ordered. The under-21s had their IDs secured. Free shots were guaranteed all round. And somehow on March 17th I found myself in JFK with two overweight bags in one hand (precariously balanced) and a last-minute plane ticket back home in the other.

Everyone is going to have their story to tell about this time – where you were, what you were doing, the moment that you realised the coronavirus was going to completely alter your next few months and maybe your life. Sometimes it seems insignificant, some stories feel lost in the universal grief, overshadowed by current tragedies.

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I know everything that I was upset, annoyed, frustrated about came from a privileged position of having things in the first place, and I know how lucky I was to be there, and how lucky I am to be safely home. But goddamn, I miss New York City.

I know everything that I was upset, annoyed, frustrated about came from a privileged position of having things in the first place

One week before I left, I was sprawled out in Central Park on my friend’s lap, the sun glimmering off the high rises and onto our arms. We all cheered with our bottles and cans in paper bags, celebrating the premature start to spring break. Columbia University, our Study Abroad institution, had emailed us earlier postponing midterms and making classes momentarily online as a precaution to the rumoured coronavirus outbreak.

That whole week it seemed to remain a rumour in New York. I was in denial that the city that never sleeps could ever possibly shut down. So we drank and laughed and the world seemed to keep spinning. Crowds of people gathered round in their own groups on the grass, enjoying a piece of post-work sunshine. Runners passed us by. Extremely tiny, well-groomed dogs yapped noisily at the trophy German shepherds. Their owners gave quick, apologetic half-smiles, simultaneously yapping obnoxiously into their airpods. The city kept moving, blissfully unaware of what was coming.

Each day brought different news – we were constantly checking our emails for updates on what we should do. From the outset, our college took the stance that if you went home for spring break, you should remain there for the foreseeable future but threw in a quick comment that you were more than welcome to stay on campus, if you were still around.

I took “more than welcome” as an open invite to wait it out in New York. At that point, my parents weren’t really concerned either. Like me, they thought: “Well, you wanted to be here and you worked so hard and put so much money into this, so why not wait it out and see?” My friends changed their minds on the daily, fluctuating like the news.

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Some were determined to stay. Others were told to go home by their parents. The most frustrating thing at the time was that neither our study abroad college nor our home institutions were providing any solid advice on the situation or making a resolute decision.

I realise now how difficult it must have been to provide consistent advice in the heat of such a novel and evolving situation, but each day we recieved different emails. They varied from “you are more than welcome to stay, everything will remain open”, to “here are the restricted hours for libraries and dining halls”, to a suggestive “maybe you should go home if you can, but don’t worry, Columbia will remain open”. My favourite came from Trinity on about day four of the confusion. In summary, College brushed off all responsibility and told us to do whatever our host university was advising (I was neither shocked nor comforted by the abundance of support Trinity offered).

I think I would have preferred the approach universities like Harvard took by immediately closing everything down and telling their students to leave, ripping the band-aid right off in one clean sweep rather than letting information out in a slow drip. That week everything remained our decision, and we kept going back and forth over what was possible. Should we go? Is it bad enough to leave? Can we wait it out? Can we still make it to Tulum and back? (This was the finest example of not facing reality – we were initially determined to live out our spring break dreams and quarantine in a beautiful villa overlooking the jungle. We soon came to realise this was well and truly over.)

However, overnight, Columbia retracted its “more than welcome” policy and decided to close campus, leaving us with just a few days to move out. Of course, it was the right thing to do but it didn’t make it any easier. Despite our plans to be in New York all summer, everything started to become our last. The last time we’ll take the Subway, the last crappy coffee we’ll drink, the last cream cheese bagel, and the last stroll through campus.

Despite our plans to be in New York all summer, everything started to become our last.

Sky Kawano

We can always go back, I know, but – and I hate to be a pessimist – we’ll all never be this young in New York ever again. There was a mad rush to try and do everything we possibly could in the remaining time we had together. An all-encompassing ride on the Staten island ferry ticked off the Statue of Liberty. Late-night karaoke in K-town was swiftly followed by drunk crying on the subway home. Spontaneous tattoos in Brooklyn were another tick on the list.

On one of my last nights, I grabbed a farewell dinner with a friend I had made during my two months there. We sat with sad smiles in an empty Soho restaurant – unheard of for a Saturday night. The four waiters eagerly crowded our table, accidently checking in on us multiple times since they had no other customers to worry about. We elbowed our goodbyes and I went home.

I left on the very day that bars and restaurants officially shut down in the city. Even though it was quiet during my final moments there, it’s unfathomable to imagine New York as a ghost town. Paris remains mysteriously and magically quiet at night. In London, the British respect their neighbours whether they want to or not, but in New York it just never seems to stop. It never sleeps. That’s when I truly realised the gravity of the situation. And one might say, looking at the news now, that I got out in the nick of time.

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