VIRUS DIARY: Walking, alone, on streets built for crowds

SHELLEY ACOCA
In this March 26, 2020, photo, New Yorkers job and walk along a walkway next to the East River in Manhattan. (AP Photo/Shelley Acoca)

NEW YORK (AP) — How long has it been — two weeks, three weeks — since life began to change, day by day, as the coronavirus pandemic arrived in New York? Social distancing, most stores closed, working from home (or not working at all), friends sick or quarantined, friends waiting for tests, every single conversation about THE VIRUS.

Days melt one into the next as New Yorkers — miraculously — adapt to what once seemed unthinkable and the new norm just becomes normal. Masks, gloves, social distancing. Much of the day is spent inside our homes, listening to music, watching TV, reading, playing video games, Zooming in to work meetings during the day, getting together with friends for video chats in the evenings.

We stand on pieces of tape meted out every six feet as we patiently wait our turn to get into grocery stories and pharmacies and liquor stores where the number of customers allowed inside at the same time is limited. The aisles are narrow, the turns are blind — and we don’t want to be surprised by another person who inadvertently ventures too close.

At Duane Reade, there’s toilet paper today. It’s single rolls only, two to a customer, at the back of the highest shelf. For 10 minutes, I toss rolls to senior citizens who can’t reach before taking my own two rolls. At the checkout, I ask the clerk to Lysol the credit-card machine. In normal times, the request might be a quirky one. Now, he takes it in stride. As I pay, he lets me know there’s anti-bac on the way out.

At the liquor store around the corner — still open, because New York — the owner and his dad are both masked and gloved. There’s a red velvet rope at the entrance. One person is allowed to enter at a time. The owner and his dad choose wine they think I’ll like; they take a few minutes to chat in spite of the growing line outside. I thank them for staying open; they say they’re not sure how long it'll last, but they’ll keep going for as long as they can.

In front of New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, buses stretch over two city blocks. Hand-lettered signs in the windows indicate destinations: Hicksville on Long Island, Queens Citi Field, The Bronx, Staten Island, Upper Manhattan, New Jersey. Lines and lines of private buses to all points for employees — our collective heroes — to make their way back home after a day in one of many epicenters of our devastation.

Neighbors and strangers pass on the street, walking in ones and twos mostly, as far apart as they can get on sometimes narrow sidewalks. Though the smiles are hidden behind masks, their eyes crinkle as they nod and pass, an acknowledgement that we are all in this horrible, horrible thing together and making the best of our altered lives.

We are at the beginning, we all know — filled with anxiety over what is and uncertainty over what will come and when we’ll reach the other side.

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“Virus Diary,” an occasional feature, will showcase the coronavirus saga through the eyes of Associated Press journalists around the world. Follow Shelley Acoca, an AP global news manager, on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ShelleyA