One Year On: Living With COVID-19 in New York

This week marks a year since COVID-19 became real in NYC when the “New York State on Pause” Executive Order went into effect. Schools and workplaces closed. Playgrounds were taped up and off limits. I get a little teary eyed thinking about it all. No one had any inkling this time last year that we’d still be dealing with pandemic life.

Although the year hasn’t all been terrible, I also don’t want to romanticize it or downplay the invisible trauma that is often not fully apparent until after a crisis has long past. 

Here’s what I remember:

On the eve of 2020, like many people, my family and I were enjoying the generous hospitality of our party host:

“2020 is going to be a great year!”

And it started off that way. 

There were birthday parties, Bat For Lashes, and banter with besties over dinner and drinks (Tarley and Alice…we’ll always have The Grey Dog). Life was great.

In February, I landed a part-time, home-based copywriting and marketing position, for a progressive, visionary client. Having been a stay-at-home Mum for eight years prior, it was the perfect career relaunch whilst my youngest finished his last year of pre-school. My intention, once he began kindergarten later in 2020, was to take on additional clients. The wheels were in motion for my Second Act and my future was all set.

Or so I thought.

At the start of March, COVID still seemed like a faraway threat, with the cancellation of SXSW on March 6 attracting public criticism for being “an overreaction”. I enjoyed one last dinner in Manhattan with my talented and charismatic fellow team members of the AWNY Communication Team.

But before the end of the next week, the zeitgeist flipped.

My son Gabriel, was attending preschool nestled amidst the picturesque grounds of Wagner College. On March 9 we were notified that the college, including his preschool, would be shut “until the end of March”.

Collecting Gabriel on his last day, I had this visceral feeling that I’d never see his teacher again. Melodramatic? Perhaps. But the pre-school and its caring team of teachers and graduate assistants had been like family to us, giving our two children an enthusiastic start to their early education, for more than five years.

I grabbed a book from my bookshelf (by Aussie author Bryce Corbett no less) and gifted it to his teacher, who I knew was an avid reader.

Gabriel took the news all in his stride:

It’s OK Mummy, I already graduated from pre-school.

Gabriel TOhl, then 5-years, when told his pre-school was closing due to Covid

Later that week, my husband and I watched POTUS address the nation. Just as he announced the US border closure to the UK and EU, the TV ticker announced that visitors in Australia, Tom and Rita Hanks, were COVID positive, followed by the COVID coal mine canary: the cancelation of the upcoming NCAA Basketball Championship.

When March Madness was canceled, that’s when COVID really hit home. Aside from Superbowl, it’s the 2nd biggest sporting event with such a huge amount of money involved.

For them to cancel at the last minute, I knew it had to be something serious. It would be like canceling Wimbledon or Melbourne Cup a week before.

Mike tohl

The next day when I took Gabriel to speech therapy, his therapist noted that “half the kids didn’t show up today”. Again, I had this feeling I would never see again someone who had played such an integral role in my child’s wellbeing and development. Whilst Gabriel was in session with Ms. Deana, I ducked into the nearby liquor store and picked up two bottles of margarita mix. I figured Ms. Deana and I would both need it!

Later that day, Gabriel and I made our usual leisurely Friday stop at Trader Joe’s. But this time it was bursting at the seams with shoppers, buying up pasta, toilet paper, and bread in a panic-stricken frenzy. 

“Mummy, what’s for dinner tonight?”

“Artisanal pasta.”

“What’s ‘artisanal pasta’?”

“It’s the expensive pasta left behind when the cheaper, mass-produced penne pasta has sold out.”

TOhl family dinnertime conversation

Fittingly, Friday was the 13th. And a full moon. 

When I went to school on Friday, I thought it was going to be a relatively normal day. But when I got there, all the kids were freaking out.

We watched a slide presentation, with Cory Coronavirus reassuring us, “I like to travel, but don’t worry, I won’t stick around for long”.

The teacher also told us, “Don’t worry, schools aren’t going to close down”. On Sunday, my parents told me schools were being shut down.

Ethan Tohl, then 9-year old, on his last day of in-person school before covid lockdown

When the kids left school that Friday, no one had any idea the kids wouldn’t see the inside of a classroom for another six months. And for some kids in New York and across the US, not at all. All their belongings (crayons, books, artwork on the walls, Ethan’s Spongebob pencil case) were left behind in the class.

That weekend, out of an abundance of caution, my husband and I decided to pull Ethan from public school. Which ended up being a moot point, because the Department of Education announced the closure of all public schools late Sunday, March 15, with remote learning at home to begin a week later.

With two kids home and a desire for routine from their Project Manager / Virgo mother, we continued our daily practice of morning storytime and walking “to school” (pivoting to “around the block”). Then settled-in for a hastily cobbled-together homeschool program. Really, was there a more optimistic symbol of that time than a brightly-colored schedule from a frazzled, slightly naive, homeschooler-not-by-choice parent?

I vaguely remember a week of exploring bouncing ball pandemic simulators from the Washington Post, completing the 2020 census with the kids, and watching OK Go! music videos for their STEM/STEAM value! Seriously! Check it out here.

A week later my husband’s office closed, marking the official start of our home becoming a combined workplace, school, and 24/7 diner.

I remember sitting at my desk, knowing our office might be closing. Suddenly at Noon, my manager told everyone on our floor to clean out our desk and leave immediately. We were told we’d be fully remote until further notice. 

mike tohl

The next three months were a blur of climbing the learning curve of my new job, managing Ethan’s remote schooling schedule, and keeping Gabriel engaged and out of mischief. My emotional state oscillated between anxious and overwhelmed, frenzied hyper-activity, and complete exhaustion of the kind that resulted in passing out and sleeping for hours on end.

I online-panic-shopped my feelings. The crate of 12 boxes of farfalle, I thought, would last us until the end of the pandemic. Ditto, the 36 pack of Cadbury Caramello chocolate bars. Spoiler alert: they didn’t!

There were the cancellations: a trip to Australia to spend time with my beautiful niece, Crystal, our regular weekend parkour class, Gabriel’s soccer, Lego clubs, birthday parties, routine healthcare appointments, the AWNY Mums and Dad’s Easter egg hunt, and fantasy baseball drafts. Playgrounds were roped off to keep kids out. All restaurants and indoor places were shut down.

It was hard during the Spring because everything was closed. Ethan needed to focus on school but there was nowhere to take Gabriel because the playgrounds were closed.

Angela and I tag-teamed, with one of us taking Gabe out in the morning, so the other could have some quiet time to work and supervise Ethan.

I took Gabriel for hikes at High Rock Park and The Greenbelt. When it was too cold, there was the Dunkin Donuts drive-thru.

mike tohl

As March rolled into April and May, the reality that things would not go back to normal anytime soon set in and a new normal emerged. 

Drive-by birthdays, more family hikes, virtual speech therapy for Gabriel, virtual parkour. The rescheduling of the September gig of the century aka New Order + Pet Shop Boys to 2021. Supporting our local businesses via contact-less take-out (thus Waffle Wednesday was born, thanks to Beans and Leaves).

Hiking the secluded trails of The Greenbelt became an important pandemic respite for our family.

I even bought a set of reusable masks, which earlier on, my inner-minimalist had scoffed as being unnecessary, adamant that the sock-mask-hack would suffice!

As the school year finished up in June, and summer rolled around, a sense of hope prevailed. The COVID curve in NYC had been aggressively flattened. Playgrounds were re-open. Outdoor camps offered COVID-compliant kids’ programs. Parkour in Central Park resumed.

Surely the worst was behind us, and with the new school year kicking-off in September, kids would return to full-time, in-person learning, and all of this would become a distant memory.

We all know what happened next.

“Mute yourself Honey!”

“Unmute yourself Sweetie, I can’t hear you!”

every teacher during remote schooling

The 1.1 million NYC public school students returned to school, either under a hybrid schedule, or fully remote for others. Gabriel has known no other experience of elementary school other than it either includes wearing a mask, if he’s in school. Or spending several days a week at home, in front of an iPad, with Mum, Dad, big brother, and a fully stocked refrigerator in easy reach. 

Ethan took up residence as a “co-worker” in my home office, and on the 2-3 days a week he attends school in-person, he trots off with his laptop in a satchel, like a junior Wall St broker!

I love the breakfast, lunch, and snack at school. Sometimes I wear a Minecraft mask, sometimes it has stripes, and sometimes it’s animals. 

Gabriel tohl, on kindergarten in the covid-era

The chaos of juggling my paid work, alongside the unpaid responsibilities of supervising remote learning, tutoring Gabriel in his 3 Rs, leading art projects, and being home tech support continues. A year is a long time to be carrying more than a full-time load. Like many other parents of school-aged kids, I’m worried about the disruption to my kids’ education. I’m exhausted and frustrated at the lack of an end in sight. If I sit for more than a few minutes, I often fall asleep, the effect of prolonged stress and minimal mental down-time.

The school year has seen multiple prolonged shutdowns due to positive cases in the school or rising community cases. Our hopes of any kind of full-time school schedule have been dashed and replaced with the sinking realization that this way of schooling could continue well into the next school year.

As a family, we’re closer than we’ve ever been. It’s authentic intimacy of the kind that comes from seeing each of us at our lowest emotional points, with the all-important post-conflict reparations. With enough of those genuine Brady Bunch, “I love you so much Mummy” moments to take the edge off. When you’re as inter-connected with each other’s worlds for a prolonged period, inevitably, you’ll all “circle the entire feelings wheel” and bear witness to each other’s emotional rollercoasters.

It’s been a time of forging unique bond with parents who’ve simultaneously lived through a pandemic as well as the normal seasons of parenting.

We’ve supported each other through the foray into kindergarten (Ashley, Kirsten, Jen, and Natalie: love you always!). We’re the fresh-air-friends who meet up at the playground through sub-zero wind chill, and snow so that our kids can have some sense of normalcy (Carissa, Alessandra, Suze, Nicole: you’re all amazing!). It’s been bonding by circumstances, with empathetic souls who can console you on those dark days when there are tears and tantrums by 9am (as well as those days when it also comes from the kids). I know someday we’ll reflect on this time, and recognize what we all accomplished, and the gut-wrenching sting of it all has dulled.

Truthfully, it’s also been a time of feeling distant from some of those back from home who’ve struggled to empathize. Although well-intentioned, refrains of “don’t worry, there will be a vaccine soon” don’t land well when you’re in the middle of a crisis. I’m happy to celebrate the joys of friends and family in Australia, where lockdowns and restrictions have been minimal, Victoria and Melbourne notwithstanding. But it can leave you feeling unseen, when you share what’s going on for you, to the reply of “well everything is pretty much back to normal here”. Fortunately I’m blessed with many loved ones who’ve sent care packages (thankyou Ai Ling and Simone), countless letters and emails, and for the most part, a sympathetic ear and the gift of humor to offset the challenges of pandemic life.

On a political level, a dark side of the Aussie public has emerged: those who regard returning expats as a threat, and ostracized their fellow Australian. Australia implemented some of the tightest COVID border controls, allowing only citizens, residents, and by special exception, work visa holders, entry into the country, for going on 12 months now. There’s a government-imposed limit on daily arrivals, resulting in vastly restricted and therefore astronomically priced flights (which is what an international airline must do to stay afloat with as little as 30 passengers on a long-haul flight into Australia). There’s mandatory 14 day hotel quarantine, costing several thousand dollars, paid for by the returnee. All important measures designed with the safety of the country in mind.

The difficulties for Aussies desperately trying to return home has sadly seen a segment of the population showing no compassion, instead, leaning into the ignorance of the “well you should have come a year ago” and “lock them out!” rhetoric. Such an element leaves Aussie expats being othered and shunned by a country that prides itself in mateship. The type of mateship that saw Aussie expats all over the world, rallying together to raise money for relief efforts for the Aussie bushfires, just a couple of months before COVID.

Ethan and Gabriel in The Greenbelt

A year on, Gabriel is a confident kindergartner, who has begun to read and write, and delights in his weekly home-based art projects (in spite of the limitations of his art “tutor”). Ethan has developed independence and is almost as tall as me (not difficult, given my petite stature). My boys have been great companions for each other during the pandemic and get on surprisingly well.

My husband and I have settled into a routine, with an intuitive division of labor. When one of us is working and has a deadline, or needs a break, the other assumes parental duties.

I’ve lost 10 pounds during the pandemic because at work I’d go out and eat a big lunch. Sometimes now I skip lunch or there’s remote learning to focus on.

I miss going to the gym, meeting my work friends for lunch, and getting together with my buddies for fantasy football and baseball drafts.

mike tohl

A year later, in 2021, I take stock of life, I’m appreciative of all that’s part of my universe:

I’m participating in a COVID vaccine study, a reminder of what a privilege it is to be medically fit and therefore a suitable trial candidate, while many people, as they already did pre-COVID, deal with the daily realities of managing chronic illness. I recently accepted a fantastic ongoing opportunity to write for America Josh. I’ve begun studying for my Technical Writer Certification, with my knowledgable tutor already going out of her way to offer me some extra professional development. My husband, children, and I have remained COVID free. Friends and family in the US are slowly getting vaccinated. My boys are happy.

This is the happiest time of my life.

Ethan Tohl, 10 years

Mummy, I appreciate you so much.

Gabriel Tohl, 6 years

But the joys and hidden gifts of the year don’t negate the sadness and grief I’m feeling as we approach the first anniversary of community lockdowns and school shutdowns.

It’s been a year of loss, living under the constant threat of catching, getting sick, and potentially dying from COVID. And a year of living with COVID, with the adjustments and intrusions to everyday life that entails. Everyone knows someone who’s either become extremely ill, lost a loved one to COVID, or else has had to become a virtual recluse due to vulnerable health. Pretty much every mum I know, who was employed before COVID, has suffered job loss, furlough, or underemployment due to the demands of supervising remote learning.

On the day I wrote this, we were notified my kids’ school will be shut down next Monday for 24 hours to investigate positive COVID cases in the school. I’m fully expecting that to turn into the two weeks that’s the standard protocol for two positive cases or more. That I’m no longer shocked but resigned to what that means for home life (working all hours, getting no down-time, and the weight of carrying my kids’ education on my shoulders) is a reminder that the status-quo of pandemic life continues.

What will life in New York City be like a year from now?

Author: Angela Tohl

Adelaide-born Angela came to New York in search of the ultimate adventure, by way of Australia and Japan. She juggles technical and copywriting projects, with chasing her kids around (usually on roller skates). Find Angela on Twitter @angelatohl and at Image credit: Susie Lang

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