A Canadian Model On Escaping NYC During The Pandemic’s Peak

Designed by Yazmin Butcher.
It started with me limiting the number of times a week I went to the gym. We didn’t have a lot of information about COVID-19 in early March, but I’m a worrier, so I was already pretty concerned. A few days later, I stopped leaving my Brooklyn apartment except for grocery-store runs and emergencies, like a vet visit for my diabetic cat Booboo. When out, I’d notice little things — cashiers at the grocery store wearing gloves; my Uber Eats delivery driver wearing a mask. It felt like I was at the beginning of a horror movie and these were ominous signs of things to come. 
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Within weeks, that horror movie was a reality. New York, a city of 8.4 million people, constant car honks and subway reverberations, and the incessant chatter of people on the street, shut down to try to stop an outbreak that was already in motion. “You need to get back to Toronto now! NYC is getting too crazy,” a panic-stricken friend texted me.
At first, going back to Toronto didn’t seem necessary. Although my parents and my husband — we married last summer — live in Canada, I’ve stayed in New York to continue my career as a model and I wanted to stick it out in the city I’ve called home for five years. I’ve had highs and lows since I moved there for work, sometimes you get six jobs a month flying to Los Angeles or Montreal, sometimes you’re not working for weeks at a time. At the end of 2019 work was so slow, I even considered moving back home.
But in January and February it picked back up again and my husband and I decided that, although it would be tough on us, I should stay at least until the end of 2020. He could visit me every month and we could reevaluate our situation at the end of the year. So when coronavirus hit, I was prepared to lock it down in the city. Worst-case scenario, I thought, I’d social-distance for a month, maybe two, in my apartment, and this would go away. Why would I go home to potentially infect others? Or risk getting infected on the way?
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Then, the cases of COVID-19 in the city started increasing. Exponentially. Every time I watched the news, it felt like the figures doubled: 10,000, 20,000, 40,000. (As of April 20, there are over 136,000 cases in NYC; more than 10,000 people have died.) New York’s governor tried to outbid other states for more ventilators, which were in short supply, as were hospital beds and masks, and other personal protective equipment. There were rumours that Central Park was going to be turned into a mass grave.
Coronavirus was everywhere. Over 50% of residents tested for COVID-19 in my area of Brooklyn had positive results. The streets of my neighbourhood were no longer filled with kids playing or families sitting on their steps and saying hello as I walked by. There was no more music blasting from balconies into all hours of the night. That music used to frustrate me when I was trying to sleep, but living without it felt sad. The communal anxiety was obvious from the troubled eye contact I’d make with strangers on the street, when someone would inevitably cross to the other side or purposely keep their distance, no smiles. The personality of the neighbourhood was gone, like someone took all of the colour out.

The communal anxiety was obvious from the troubled eye contact I’d make with strangers on the street, when someone would inevitably cross to the other side or purposely keep their distance, no smiles.

A tension settled over the city. My roommates and I would try to run our errands as fast as possible, no time for trivial conversation with the guys at the bodega or the woman at the laundromat. We tried to make the best of it. None of us was working — my modelling agency had closed — so we meditated in the morning, worked out during the day, and made dinner together at night, only spending money on essentials like food and rent. As our other friends moved out of the city or back home with their parents, we were making it work, going through the motions in this precarious situation, but fortunate enough to just deal with it until we were told otherwise.
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In our apartment, I would use Clorox wipes on every doorknob I touched, clean every grocery item, and then my hands over and over with my tiny $10 bottle of hand sanitizer. Even though it soon became painfully clear that this pandemic could last past June, I thought, if we keep doing this, no matter how bad it gets, we’ll be fine.
It started to get increasingly difficult to get home; the more I checked flights, the fewer flights there were. I booked a flight for April 8 and it was cancelled. I booked another for the same day and it was also cancelled. I checked the website on April 5, and every flight until May 1 was cancelled. The same morning, my brother, who’s a pilot and was worried that air travel would be shut off for months, called me and said, “If you were debating coming home at any point, you should grab a flight today.” I started to worry I could get stuck in the city indefinitely with no more work, and no real reason to be there, away from my loved ones.
So I left.
Within three hours, I was on a plane. It didn’t feel like I was giving up so much as being forced to press pause on my life. Work had finally picked up again, and then everything changed. I also felt guilty; everyone in New York City was saying I should stay put, that it was safer to be in the city than get on a plane and potentially bring the virus to Toronto. I wanted to see my husband and family, of course, but I also wanted to do the right thing — for myself and for the people around me and I felt like I was breaking my own rules getting on that flight.
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Once I landed, I went straight to my parents’ basement, where I’ve been living ever since. It was so weird arriving from the airport, wearing gloves and a mask and not being able to hug them, not seeing my husband (who was at his parents’ house), driving a separate car home, and changing my clothes in the garage so I didn’t bring any potential germs into the house.
I recognize the serious privilege I had here; some people don’t have the luxury of going somewhere else to feel safe. I’m grateful every day that I was able to make that flight. I’m also grateful that, as of this week, my quarantine is wrapped up, and I’ll finally get to go up the stairs and hang out with my parents. My husband will be moving into the basement with me. It’s been almost two months since I last saw him (we were supposed to reunite at a friend’s wedding in March that was, of course, cancelled) and I can’t wait to kiss him and watch The Office reruns until we fall asleep.
Returning to Toronto has also forced me to contemplate larger aspects of my life’s path. What is home? Does the answer to that question change the plans I have to return to New York once the pandemic is over? Do I even need to have all the answers right now? If anything, experiencing my adopted home at the epicentre of a crisis has shown me that things can shift really fast, and it’s okay if you don’t know exactly what to do right away. All that matters is that whatever decision you make, it’s the right decision for you. And I know I made the right one.
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