Staying in NYC during the COVID pandemic didn’t make me a hero, and leaving the city doesn’t make you a villain

NYC stroller snow covid
A man carries a child in a stroller over snow in Brooklyn, New York on February 2, 2021. ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images
  • I stayed in NYC with a family of five during the pandemic. It sucked.
  • Some people who left the city are returning, and NYC “authenticity cops” want to shame them.
  • That’s dumb and wrong. It was rough here, and godspeed to anyone who felt they had to go.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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Just as everyone’s doing this week, I’m marking the one-year anniversary of the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which feels both like yesterday and a hundred years ago.

I stayed in New York City during the coronavirus pandemic, and am still experiencing COVID quite literally in the present tense.

A few weeks ago I tested positive and immediately quarantined in my bedroom for more than a week. I was asymptomatic, but isolated from my family, left with not much to do but manage the waking nightmare that is a head full of life-in-quarantine anxieties.

The wholly coincidental yet uncanny symmetry of my catching COVID now – despite a full year of practicing diligent social distancing and mask-wearing – was not lost on me.

But if isolation has gifted me with anything, it’s a renewed lust for life.

I want to go back to Los Angeles and see a show at the Hollywood Bowl. I want to go back to Sicily and buy my daughter the customary gelato for breakfast. I want to take my family dozens of places around the world, even knowing we’ll probably never get around to seeing most of them.

The common thread: despite my undying love for the city I’d very much like to get the hell out of New York – at least in the short-term.

The city and I need a break post-COVID. And unlike some other writers, I don’t see it as a sign of weakness nor do I judge anyone who bailed on Gotham over the past year, because it was rough here.

The gentrifiers who become NYC authenticity cops

An essay in The New York Times this week is part of a rich tradition of recent transplants declaring themselves the arbiters of “authentic NYC” and shaming lesser, poseur New Yorkers who lack their newly-inherited urban grittiness.

In this instance, the “bad” New Yorkers are the ones who fled the city during the pandemic, with the exception of “immunocompromised people who felt safer in the suburbs or those who needed to take shelter after losing their job.” Everyone else is bad, especially those who left and came back.

The author – who moved to New York in 2016 and namedrops a Brooklyn subway stop to prove it – offers half-tongue-in-cheek punitive policies to “make them pay.”

Among them, a “resettlement tax” and a “Borough Swap,” so that rich Manhattanites can be “punished” with “some good old-fashioned Brooklyn living.”

It’s a silly, but apparently serious, exercise in obliviously un-self-aware class warfare against the people who went “back home” or have the proximity to wealth allowing them to take pictures from jealousy-inducing Instagrammable locations.

There were worse things about living in New York over the past year than being triggered by social media FOMO and a sense of moral superiority over those who chose not to stay.

The unusual appeal of nostalging bad times

It’s been almost 20 years since 9/11, and I’ll admit to occasionally experiencing bittersweet pangs of nostalgia for the bizarrely atypical patience and unity among New Yorkers in the immediate aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center.

Just as most of the unflattering cliches about New Yorkers bear a good deal of validity, the image of the stubborn, stoic, resilient city lifer often fits.

“Tough, with love” is how a lot of New Yorkers like to see themselves.

But the thought of getting nostalgic about COVID life right now is kind of like Andrew Cuomo writing a book about leadership during the pandemic last summer – which is to say, it’s obscenely premature.

Sure, some rich swine are slinking back from their self-imposed Hamptons exiles, and they may act like they never left. But the city didn’t “empty out,” 95% of its residents stayed, and we don’t deserve badges of honor just as those who left for a time deserve don’t deserve our scorn.

The city was just devastated, that’s all.

Lockdowns led to over a thousand businesses closing for good. The business, financial, and tourism sectors are shells of themselves. Refrigerated tractor trailers filled with bodies were a regular sight through last spring and summer.

There were also weeks of riots throughout the city last summer, which effectively destroyed numerous independent Black and brown-owned businesses.

An internet conspiracy theory drove a panic about fireworks going off in the weeks before the Fourth of July.

And the NYPD didn’t exactly cover itself in glory with its “Shake Shack poisoning” hoax and violent response to peaceful protesters.

Public schools are not “open” in any meaningful sense and there remain no guarantees they will be open in September. Children are at risk of losing a substantial part of a THIRD YEAR of their education and social development.

Nearly all of the cultural advantages that make New York worth enduring remain unavailable until further notice, leaving millions of people confined to tiny living quarters and meager public spaces.

Bill de Blasio is still the mayor.

And we’re going to judge anyone who chose to leave this all behind? Fuhgettabout it! (I’m sorry.)

Let’s not romanticize this past year just yet, ok?

There is a certain kinship among those of us who stayed. And maybe at some point when the pandemic is over and the basic functions of society are again humming along, nostalgia for “those crazy COVID days” will make sense.

As one of two gainfully-employed adults with health insurance in my household, I fully recognize I’m a lottery winner in the pandemic sweepstakes – even with a bit of a post-COVID brain fog.

Though my family and I have lived under circumstances we would have never previously imagined, we’re thriving.

But personally, I could have done without this “character-building” endurance test.

I’m still not ready to romanticize how life was (and is) in this city during the pandemic.

And as much as I’d love to puff my chest out at how “New York tough” this year has made me, I can’t recommend the experience. Nor will I shame those who left, or those who decided to come back.