I haven’t ever lived in Manhattan, though I must have made nearly 40 trips to the city. Trips lasting from a weekend to several weeks. Over years I have developed my most loved restaurants and bars and even train routes that I am more familiar with. By the time I landed in JFK on 29th February 2020, I had begun to feel at home in the city. I mostly stayed and worked downtown, so was very familiar with the area. I wasn’t staying at my usual Club Quarters but the Millennium Hilton. A tall hotel with a beautiful view and a usually very crowded lobby – something that wasn’t a factor when the bookings were made.
Covid had been a China problem in January and there were some murmurs of issues in Korea and Singapore. The rest of the world enjoyed reading about it on news sites and hear “experts” talk endlessly about how screwed they were. In February Europe began to show some worrying early signs and questions begun to crop up about my work trip to NYC. There was also some worry about an upcoming personal trip to Egypt in the last week of March. The day I was going to board my flight little Italy had begun to feel like China town. There were several of us flying and while a couple canceled the flights a bunch of us braved on. There were a handful of cases in NYC, but that felt ignorable in a large city spread across 5 Burroughs.
Landing at JFK was as normal as it could be. There were no temperature checks, no medical teams, and just the usual crowds. Masks weren’t the “in” thing yet. The immigration officer asked me casually if I had been to China in the last 14 days. He heard me say no, stamped my passport and I walked into the city that was about to be in the news even more than it usually was.
The hotel was warm and inviting in the cold weather. The upgraded room was on a very high floor with sprawling views of the Hudson River and Jersey City across it. A quick shower and a couple of colleagues and I were out for breakfast. We found a small french place nearby and enjoyed some avocado on toast, croissant with ham, fresh orange juice, and brilliant coffee. It was a tiny place packed with people. Tables were close enough that you had to keep elbows to yourself. The cozy setting provided some welcome relief from the cold breeze outside, especially when new customers walked in and opened the double doors.
We walked around the city in the day, spent time in the largest Macy’s shopping for some clothes, had lunch at my favorite Thai place and I even bought new ASICS running shoes in preparation for some focus on health. We were cautious of the crowds but never made too serious an attempt to avoid them. We even went for dinner at a sports bar – though it wasn’t too packed on a Sunday night.
Monday morning I woke up early – still jet-lagged. Breakfast was in the office and then work started. In the middle of non-stop meetings, the topic of Covid kept popping up. A colleague who was usually quite friendly declared that she will not sit in a chair next to me. My boss had a candid conversation with me about the risks of Covid – the risk wasn’t as much of us having a serious Covid outcome but of passing it onto someone else who does. The guilt of impacting someone else’s life could be devastating. He was also quite happy that he was always into fist-bumps, no handshakes. That distance changed a little when another colleague flew in from Toronto and decided to greet most people with hugs, including me.
Every passing day the office became emptier. The lunch lines in the cafe got shorted and people I had flown in 8000 miles to meet were talking to me on the phone. Much less impacted was the post-work routine. We still hung out and found some nice places to eat, only it was easier to get a table at the restaurants.
I met a college friend at the Penn Station TGIF. While we had a lot to catch up on, most of the focus was on sanitizing hands and other Covid related events. He mentioned that a guy behind him in the morning train was coughing. He was scared. I was scared too. I met another friend at an outdoor bar felt better. Dinner at a fine-dining French restaurant made me forget COVID for an hour- that was nice. I met an ex-boss at the Eately restaurant near the Oculus. The uniform of the wait-staff had on the back “Italians are everywhere”. Given that Italy was the center of the Covid outbreak for the non-China world, that just seemed a little time inappropriate.
By the middle of the week, it was getting apparent that things are falling off the cliff. My friends who were coming along for the Egypt trip had started the cancellation discussion and numbers were rising by the day in NYC. There were rumors of two positive cases in my office building, though not in my company. On Friday, the office was a ghost town. I left a little early and bought some cheese to carry back home. After a little rest in the hotel, a few of us got together and made what in hindsight was not the smartest decision of the trip…
We took a train up to Times Square – the most crowded place in NYC, to enjoy some food, drink, and lights. Fortunately, there wasn’t much of a crowd as most people were more sensible than us. We ended up having wings at a relatively crowded Buffalo Wild Wings and then Mexican food at a relatively empty place in Hell’s Kitchen. In my defense, I had kept my hands in the jacket pocket through most of the journey and pretty much touched nothing. I had sanitized my hands dozens of times and kept away from most-touched surfaces. Only if the CDC had figured out earlier that it was the mask that mattered more.
Saturday morning was the flight back. I got a cab service to the airport. There was still no sign of Covid related changes at the airport. The lines were still the same, no change in the security procedures – social distancing was not a thing yet. The flight was full and I was happy to be on a direct flight back- business class helped even more. Some of my colleagues connected via Europe and one more was flying out 2 days later via Dubai. They were in for a more adventurous ride. The in-flight experience though had still not changed for me.
Delhi airport felt much more like a post-Covid airport. We were greeted by a self-declaration form and a temperature check. Business-class meant early disembarkation and no waiting at the checkpoint. I was smart/ stupid enough to pick up some scotch from Duty-Free, wasn’t going to get that chance in a long time. Back at home, I was initially told I should stay home a day or two before I came to work. Those 2 days quickly changed to a week and then to two. I also decided to quarantine, even though the government didn’t mandate me to. The day my quarantine ended, the lockdown started. The rest is history… It has been 15 months since I sat elbow to elbow in a restaurant with other diners. I wonder if I ever will…
PS: First set of the pics on this page are not from the trip.