Mark O'Toole is a UCD graduate from Bray, Co Wicklow, where his family used to own the Harbour Bar. He has lived in New York City for almost 25 years. He works in financial technology and is also a writer and producer; he is currently making a documentary about life in the city under Covid-19 and his experiences there during the pandemic
The sunlight is intense today, with discernable beams filling any gaps afforded by the towering trees of Central Park. Nature is in full bloom; daffodils bright yellow against the green grass, the cherry blossom trees a resplendent pink, adding a splash of colour against the blue sky. Ducks waddle to and fro before eventually taking to the pond. Voices are audible. Children are playing and laughing. Joggers trundle past. A crystal blue sky serves as the canopy for the scene. Life in NYC is back.
All of this is in stark contrast to a year ago. I documented that grim scene for Irish Times Abroad. New York's huddled masses yearning to breathe safe were either locked away indoors or had simply packed up and left the Big Apple for less affected areas. And the statistics were on their side. NYC faced mounting death tolls. On some days close to 1,000 deaths were added to the tally; one of them a family member.
Early on little was known about how the virus was transmitted. So, out of an abundance of caution or irrational fear, deliveries were wiped down with disinfectant, with whatever Lysol disinfectant wipes that could be found. We worried about food shortages, toilet paper became the coin of the realm, homeschooling became the new normal. And we wondered if our government was lying to us. A crisis within a crisis.
We still wear masks and practise social distancing. New Yorkers are not yet ready to refill Yankee Stadium. So there's no euphoria, but there is cautious optimism
Then, on the way to the apocalypse, a funny thing happened. Around the end of June last year, some green shoots were spotted. Shops, hairdressers and restaurants started to open outdoors. My birthday this February was celebrated outside during a snow storm. Heat lamps worked in conjunction with alcohol to either warm my freezing toes or simply forget about them.
NYC has recently allowed 75 per cent in-person dining. Cinemas are open. Museums are open. There are no travel restrictions. I’m able to get my daily 10-mile run in without obstruction. A full re-opening is expected July 1st - fittingly, just in time for Independence day.
But these freedoms were hard to come by. Some 50,000 people died from Covid in New York state. So there is no going back to the old ways. We still wear masks and practise social distancing. New Yorkers are not yet ready to refill Citi Field or Yankee Stadium. So there's no euphoria, but there is cautious optimism. Ireland may be a low ebb right now. Over a year into this pandemic, we are all fatigued. But help is on the way. Vaccines are being rolled out.
What a difference a year makes. The new Biden administration has started the process of restoring faith in good government and the American “can do” spirit. The entire response has been a testament to American ingenuity, enabling development and delivery of all new vaccines in under a year. Everyone in New York who is at least 12 years old and up is eligible for a shot. I’ve just had my second shot of the Moderna vaccine.
But the best laid plans of mice and men almost went awry. The day I was scheduled to get my first shot, my family attended a close friend’s St Patrick’s Day back garden brunch. It was two couples and their kids. It was a beautiful warm day and we spent it mostly outdoors, except for bathroom trips and food runs. Later that day, as we were getting our coveted shots, we were notified 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 that other couple. How could this happen? We started to think back on the day - what did we touch? How many times were we inside? How close were we to that nanny? Our friend? Each other? The irony of being exposed to Covid right at the finish line was not lost on me. And entirely my fault. The lure of Irish sausages could have been my undoing. For the next 10 days were we in isolation. I was pissed at my stupidity.
New York City does not feel like the mausoleum it was last year. Sure, tourist counts are still way down, but it does feel like village life is returning within the confines of the great city
A PCR test cleared us all of Covid. With swabs stuffed up their noses, my children thought it was a nose tickle party because it came with lollipops after. My friend, who hosted the brunch, was not so lucky. He tested positive. But as the luck of the Irish would have it, he did not develop anything more than feeling tired. No serious illness, no hospital visit. He was fortunate.
But it was an alarming reminder that this virus, along with its more infectious variants, is still out there, undiscerning and present until we reach some level of herd immunity. While that light is shining bright at the end of the tunnel, it was a prescient reminder that until I’m fully vaccinated, I’m still at risk for myself and others.
It’s disheartening to see Ireland in the same position New York was 12 months ago. I feel for my mother, essentially isolated from her family. My now three-year-old daughter has no memory of meeting her 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 exceptions even for fully vaccinated people like myself, because of the new quarantine policies. All designed to make us stay away. Even despite these restrictions, with infection rates still spreading, never have the actions of so few impacted so many. Now with vaccine availability in NYC, we are looking forward to the day we can all reunite and come to Ireland.
Meanwhile, 3,000 miles away, New York City does not feel like the mausoleum it was last year. Sure, tourist counts are still way down, but it does feel like village life is returning within the confines of the great city. The hard-core locals remain. Sightseeing tours have made a cautious return, this time on a more private and intimate basis. Spring is in the air. There’s a bounce in my step.
If I keep my head down for a few more weeks, maybe I’ll get that summer holiday after all and my kids will get a chance to meet their grandmother again. And maybe you will too. Keep hope alive.
Mark O'Toole's blog is now part of the New York Historical Society museum's collection. His digital diary is the first the society has run.