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  • Sebastian Martin

New York City, Before Things Went Viral

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March 2020 was anxiety-inducing, to say the least. The first coronavirus patient had died in the United States on February 28th, and the number of global cases rose to nearly 87,000. As a teacher in New York City - the most populous city in the country and an ideal hotbed for infection - the atmosphere was tense (xenophobic distancing from Asians and anyone with the sniffles rapidly normalized in packed subway cars), but full-fledged panic had yet to go viral. High school students joked about the end of the world, and casually infecting each other with corona in the hallways. Elbow bumps and foot-daps trended as a novel conversation-starter and form of social interaction. Students that were out sick were jokingly questioned and ostracized by their friends. The Trump administration had discouraged travel to Italy and South Korea, and banned visitors from Iran, but my school and the city at large functioned as usual. We were two weeks away from Spring Break, and my Design 4 Impact students and I were preparing to travel to Austin on March 8th to present at the prestigious SXSWEdu Conference.




On March 1st, the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in New York: a 39 year old health care worker that had recently visited Iran displayed symptoms, and had gone into home isolation with her husband. On March 3rd, a second case was confirmed: a lawyer that worked in Midtown and lived in New Rochelle (just north of the city) had been diagnosed with pneumonia and then released into his community after testing negative for the flu. New Rochelle would soon after become the epicenter for the East Coast outbreak, and become ground zero for some of the most strenuous and heavy-handed measures taken by the government and National Guard to contain the virus. Panic buying started in the city: with anxious shoppers stockpiling canned goods, toilet paper, tampons, condoms, hand sanitizer, and over-the-counter medicines. Subway cars and bars in the city began to look eerily empty. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency, and made New Rochelle a “containment zone”; the city in Westchester county began to look like a biological war zone, with strict quarantine orders enforced and soldiers in Hazmat suits abound. As confirmed COVID-19 cases in Italy exceeded 10,000, on March 11th Trump banned the entry of European countries into the United States (with the notable and peculiar exclusion of Great Britain).





Within the orbit of our school based in Manhattan, moods and measures shifted accordingly. Our trip to SXSWEdu was cancelled, just hours before the entire conference was cancelled in Austin, Texas. All international school trips scheduled for the two-week Spring Break were cancelled. As the number of coronavirus cases in New York State jumped from just over 100 to 4,000 people in the first week of March, on the 7th public schools in Westchester county and several universities announced their early closure. As public schools across the city and state followed suit, our school decided to close two days before our regularly scheduled Spring Break. The day before our closure was announced, our faculty discussed the possibility of shifting to remote learning solutions in case things escalated throughout the second half of March. We were advised to take our laptops and essential teaching materials home with us for the break.





My girlfriend and I had a relatively simple plan for the break: to visit my family in Silver Spring, Maryland, a few state lines to the south (just outside of the Washington DC metropolitan area where I was born and raised). My parent’s home is outside of the hustle and bustle of the capital, nestled in the picturesque woods with a plethora of flowers, birds, cats, and even deer. It seemed like an ideal place to hide out until things blew over, and I looked forward to avoiding the financial stress of NYC living and the psychological duress of NYC panic. Our family fridge in Maryland was always well-stocked, and I looked forward to being close to loved ones during this time of crisis. I also looked forward to completing two major creative projects: a hip hop album that I’ve been producing with my brother for years, and a second recorded album with my buddy from college, James, who was also my former band mate (together, we form the dynamic lyrical duo, Schools of Thought). James was going to fly into DC on March 20th to knock out the album within a week. After a 15 year hiatus, we were making a comeback.



Schools of Thought performing in Leamington Spa, England, circa 2007



So we cleaned up our house in Astoria, arranged for our lovely first-floor apartment neighbors to feed our cats for a week (my girlfriend would return after a week in Maryland), and snapped on the latex gloves and grabbed the Purell and sanitizer wipes for our journey. We made it to the BestBus stop on 34th and 9th Ave (truly, the best bus service between NYC and DC). After wiping down all of the leather on our seats with Lysol, we settled in for the four hour drive to Union Station in Washington DC. It was Friday March 13th, and President Trump had just declared a national emergency making $50 billion in federal funds available to states and territories to combat the spreading virus.


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