Mark O’Toole graduated from UCD in Bray, Co Wicklow, where his family owned the Harbor Bar. He has lived and worked in New York for almost 25 years. He is currently making a documentary on life in the city under Covid-19 and his experiences during the pandemic. He is a New York-based writer and producer
Sunlight is intense today, with noticeable beams filling the spaces left by the towering trees of Central Park. Nature is in full bloom; Bright yellow daffodils against green grass, cherry blossoms a resplendent pink, adding a splash of color against the blue sky. The ducks waddle before heading to the pond. The voices are audible. The children play and laugh. The joggers walk past. A crystal blue sky serves as a canopy for the stage. Life in New York is back.
This is all in stark contrast to a year ago. I documented this dark scene for Irish Times Abroad. The curled up masses of New York who yearned to breathe safely were either locked inside or simply packed their bags and left the Big Apple for the less affected areas. And the statistics were on their side. NYC has faced a growing number of deaths. On some days, nearly 1,000 deaths were added to the tally; one of them a family member.
At first, little was known about how the virus was transmitted. So, out of caution or irrational fear, the deliveries were wiped down with a disinfectant, along with any Lysol disinfectant wipes that could be found. We worried about food shortages, toilet paper became the currency of the kingdom, homeschooling became the new normal. And we wondered if our government was lying to us. A crisis within a crisis.
We always wear masks and practice social distancing. New Yorkers are not yet ready to fill Yankee Stadium. So there is no euphoria, but there is cautious optimism
Then, on the way to the apocalypse, a funny thing happened. Towards the end of June of last year, green shoots were spotted. Shops, hairdressers and restaurants have started to open to the outside. My birthday in February was celebrated outside in a snowstorm. The heat lamps worked in conjunction with alcohol to warm my frozen toes or just forget about them.
New York recently allowed 75% of in-person meals. The cinemas are open. The museums are open. There are no travel restrictions. I am able to do my daily 10 mile run unobstructed. A full reopening is scheduled for July 1 – rightly so, just in time for Independence Day.
But these freedoms were difficult to obtain. Some 50,000 people have died from Covid in New York State. So there is no going back to the old ways. We always wear masks and practice social distancing. New Yorkers are not yet ready to fill Citi Field or Yankee Stadium. So there is no euphoria, but there is cautious optimism. Ireland may be on a low ebb right now. More than a year after the start of this pandemic, we are all tired. But help is on the way. Vaccines are being deployed.
What a difference a year makes. The new Biden administration has begun the process of restoring confidence in good government and the American “can do” spirit. The whole response is a testament to American ingenuity, allowing the development and delivery of all new vaccines in less than a year. Anyone in New York City aged 12 and over is eligible for a shot. I just received my second injection of the Moderna vaccine.
But the best-laid plans of mice and men have almost gone wrong. On the day I was due to take my first photo, my family attended a close friend’s St. Patrick’s Garden brunch. It was two couples and their children. It was a lovely hot day and we spent it mostly outdoors with the exception of trips to the bathroom and grocery shopping. Later that day, as we received our coveted snaps, we were informed that our friend’s maskless nanny had tested positive for Covid. We were all overcome with a paranoid fear for ourselves, the kids, our friends and this other couple. How could this happen? We started to think about the day – what did we touch? How many times have we been inside? How close were we to this nanny? Our friend? Each other? The irony of being exposed to Covid right at the finish line didn’t escape me. And entirely my fault. The allure of Irish sausages could have been my downfall. For the next 10 days, we were isolated. I was pissed off at my stupidity.
New York City doesn’t look like the mausoleum it was last year. Of course, the number of tourists is still dropping, but it feels like village life is coming back within the confines of the big city.
A PCR test wiped us all out of Covid. With tampons stuck in their noses, my kids thought it was a nose-tickling party because she came with pacifiers afterwards. My friend, who organized the brunch, was not so lucky. He tested positive. But as luck would have it for the Irish, he developed nothing more than feeling tired. No serious illness, no hospital visit. He got lucky.
But it was an alarming reminder that this virus, with its more infectious variants, is still around, unresponsive and present until we reach a certain level of herd immunity. Although that light shines at the end of the tunnel, it was a premonitory reminder that until I was fully vaccinated, I was still in danger for myself and others.
It is disheartening to see Ireland in the same position as New York 12 months ago. I feel for my mother, essentially isolated from her family. My now three-year-old daughter has no memory of meeting Nanna. The last time was when she was one and a half years old. Facetime is not a substitute for human connection.
Even if I wanted to, I can’t go to Ireland now, no exception even for fully vaccinated people like me, because of the new quarantine policies. Everything is designed to keep us away. Even despite these restrictions, with infection rates continuing to spread, the actions of so few have never had more impact. Now that the vaccines are available in New York, we look forward to the day when we can all come together and come to Ireland.
Meanwhile, 3,000 miles away, New York City doesn’t feel like the mausoleum it was last year. Of course, the number of tourists is still dropping, but it feels like village life is coming back within the confines of the big city. The unconditional residents remain. Sightseeing tours have made a cautious comeback, this time on a more private and intimate basis. Spring is in the air. There is a bounce in my step.
If I keep my head down for a few more weeks, maybe I’ll have this summer vacation after all and my kids will have the chance to meet their grandmother again. And maybe you too. Keep hope alive.
Mark O’Toole’s blog is now part of the new York Collection of the Museum of the Historical Society. Its digital journal is the first the company has published.
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