I had to go to Times Square; I would never see it that empty again…”

A student photojournalist documents the epicenter of the U.S. COVID-19 outbreak.

NYC, April 2020

“There are no vents in any hospital. They just had five people die in here,” said the paramedic I was talking to across the street from Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan. The hospitals were running out of ventilators—it was all over the news. In Italy, doctors were deciding who received a ventilator, who lived, and who died. I wondered if that was going on inside Mount Sinai.

“It’s just one after another,” he said.

The death toll in the U.S was about 10,000 when I checked the news that morning. The day before, on my way into the city, I saw a glimpse of what looked like the refrigerated trucks set up as mobile morgues that I’d seen on the news. I pulled off the highway to investigate and realized I was at Bellevue Hospital Center, the oldest public hospital in the United States.

 

I tightened my mask as I got out of my van. I walked around to the back of the hospital, past a row of ambulances, the emergency room entrance, and then came upon the white trucks I had seen from the highway. Police, military and other personnel were outside. Their eyes darted from me and then back to each other. A police officer sounded her siren briefly. I kept walking. I rounded a corner and through the windows, I could see hospital staff having their temperatures taken.

Suddenly, I heard sirens and shouting. Firefighters lined their trucks in the street and stood clapping. I saw hundreds of staff going in and out of the hospital doors. The firefighters were cheering to thank the health care workers during their shift change.

 

Sharing that sidewalk with nurses, firefighters and EMTs really brought the stories I had been seeing on the news into perspective.

“I guess I’m just more concerned about my family, I have older members in my family,” the paramedic had told me. “I mean, I don’t want to get sick, I don’t want to be intubated.”

Although we talked for just 10 minutes, we really got to know each other. I told him I was a student journalist and had just drove to New York City, the epicenter of the coronavirus. He lit a cigarette and pointed to my sweat pants that read, “UC SAN DIEGO TRITONS.” I told him I lived on campus in San Diego until they asked students to leave the dorms, and so, for now, I’m a roving journalist.

He told me how much he loved surfing in San Diego. He worked hard and looked forward to escaping to be with friends or go surfing. Then, he said what I believe many people had been thinking: there was no light at the end of this tunnel, he didn’t know when it was going to end. The virus could be with us forever and just keep coming back.

He told me I had to go to Times Square; I would never see it that empty again. That night I drove there. I parked on Broadway and West 50th and slept for the night.

I woke to ambulance sirens, the ones I heard ringing throughout the city all night. I hopped out of the van with my camera to empty streets. A few people were walking around, but it was mostly police and food delivery cyclists. There was still the famous Naked Cowboy street performer, posing with his guitar a few people. My previous trips to the city accustomed me to nonstop action—sharing the Square with a dozen scattered people felt apocalyptic.

I drove out of Times Square and stopped along the way at a scene with a few police cars, double-parked with their lights on. Nothing noteworthy was going on, but as I left the scene I saw handwritten signs nailed to phone poles, asking for volunteers to deliver groceries to the vulnerable, along with a number to call if people needed groceries delivered.

It made me smile. I snapped a picture and kept walking until the smells of pizza wafted past my nose. A couple was standing outside a pizza parlor waiting for a pie. Customers weren’t allowed in the store or any sit-down restaurants, but they could still get food to go. I stood in line behind them, ordered a cheese pizza, and realized it was time to go home.

On my drive home I realized I could never fully process the fear I sensed from behind the real and figurative masks people wore, the eerie quiet of the once lively streets and the incomprehensible death toll. What I will take with me is the camaraderie I experienced between New Yorkers. They will leave me feeling forever humbled.

 

Lauren McGee is living on the East Coast working on her honors project for UC San Diego’s Communications Department. The Marshall College student studying to be a photojournalist and hopes to graduate in 2021. She plans to start her own publication for news affecting younger generations. 

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