Covid US: New Yorkers tell their story of living through the pandemic

As the site of the deadliest terrorist attack in US history and one of the worst financial crashes since the 1920s, New York City has been no stranger to loss and tragedy in the last two decades. But when the Covid-19 pandemic gripped the Big Apple last March and claimed the lives of more than 33,000 residents, it led many to question if this was one crisis the city would not be able to overcome. 

Sixteen months on, as restrictions are lifted and businesses reopen for the first time since lockdown, New Yorkers are now trying to navigate post-pandemic city life amid fears of the new delta variant slowly spreading among the population. 

Photojournalist Phil Penman took to the streets of the city amid its reopening last month to ask residents how they are moving on. 

Now is sharing stories from 19 New Yorkers, ranging from street performers, food service workers and small business owners, to musicians and actors – including one woman who lost 21 friends to the virus.

Some are returning to work for the first time in 16 months, while others are exploring new career paths after losing their jobs in the crisis.

‘It’s hit everybody in some way. When you hear some of these stories, it’s heart-breaking,’ Penman said. ‘Some people have gained considerable wealth and some people have lost everything.’

‘I thought it was important to show people from all walks of life. I learned that everyone has been affected and that everybody has a business no matter how big or small.’  

‘I see a lot of resilience. Like [New Yorker] Scott Savory said, it’s New York 2.0. I’ve been through 911 and the 2008 crash. I’ve watched everybody leave and come back and I think the city will be stronger than ever before.’   

Juan Trujillo, Food Vendor

For street vendor Juan Trujillo, the Covid-19 pandemic only made things worse for his already tanking business. 

Speaking from his station on 9th Avenue and 43rd Street almost 18 months later, the food cart owner says things are a ‘little bit better’ but he now has to put in more even work just to get by.  

‘I have to work harder for a little more money, but it’s OK you know, I’ve got no choice,’ he says. ‘I have to work, I have to support my family, I have to pay my rent, I have to pay all my taxes, plus I have to support my child. 

‘My child right now is in college, in their first year. I have to pay, you know not everything, but I have to pay half. It’s hard for me but I can do.’ 

Trujillo says the city’s reopening has definitely helped attract customers to his coffee cart again, but sales have been inconsistent and now vary by day. Still, one ‘good’ business day is enough to give him hope that things will soon turn around, he adds. 

‘If you see a little more people, it’s good for me, for everyone, everybody. For example, if you make an extra $25 [today], then every day it’s gonna be more.

‘For five days it’s gonna be $125, so for me this is good. You know, because it’s going to be like an extra $500 more a month. So, it’s a little bit better day by day. One day it’s good, one day it’s not, but little by little, we can work. 

‘I used to have a lot of customers [that] would buy big coffees. I still have all these customers, I appreciate them, but now they are buy smalls. But it’s OK.’ 

The Naked Cowgirl, aka Sandy Kane, Street Performer 

When Governor Andrew Cuomo made the decision to lift the state’s mask mandate last month, Naked Cowgirl and Times Square sensation Sandy Kane couldn’t help but celebrate no longer having to wear a ‘f**king mask.’

After all, she says, the pandemic was one ‘big hoax’ and she never believed in having to wear a face covering to protect herself from the virus.  

‘I never believed it, I still don’t. I think it’s just bulls**t,’ she says. ‘I blame Donald Trump because ever since he became president things were full of hate, even though I used to like him.

‘I think it’s a hoax, first of all. I think the masks are ridiculous, you can’t breathe. I like breathing. I think they are unhealthy. Thank you, Governor Cuomo, for lifting it up, and I hope we can go to food emporium and not wear a f**king mask.’ 

‘What hurt me was that I couldn’t take my dance classes, all my gyms closed. I couldn’t go to LA, so I went to Miami instead, which I loved, I was sitting on the beach, and I was taking classes.’ 

The street performer says it was thanks to ‘God, Jesus, and Manhattan Plaza’ – where Kane lives – that she was able to get cope with the lockdown. However, she admits she now has to face judgmental stares from ‘snobs’ in her area over her refusal to wear a mask in public.

‘They still wear masks, and then they look at you. You’re in the elevator without a mask, and they look at you like, “it’s so close in here.” There are a lot of snobs in Manhattan Plaza. I don’t want to deal with the people. I don’t care, I’m not wearing a f**king mask. 

‘Thank you, Governor Cuomo, even though you killed 15,000 people in nursing homes, and you molested women. Thank you for lifting it, but I think a lot of stores will still make you wear a mask. 

‘How am I moving forward? I’m happy I’m working! and God bless Times Square, God bless Phil and his wonderful camera, and all the people in Times Square, and all the people in America coming to visit Times Square.  

‘And let me tell you, I worked last winter during the Covid bulls**t, and I made some money here, so God bless Times Square. I’ve worked here all my life, when things were tough, I came back here and showed my big titties and made a living.

‘We are still here keeping it sleazy. They say they cleaned Times Square; they say they cleaned New York up? You’ll never clean New York up.’ 

‘I’m still making a living,’ she adds. ‘I think I could say that a hundred times, that I’m still making money, and it really helps me to know that I still have a job in Times Square. 

‘Broadway will be back, the church will be back, you know. God is picking his spots.

‘I’ll just tell you one thing. Last year when it was so bad with Covid, the church came, and the pastor came and said to me “He’s here.” The minute Jesus came, it lifted. So, God bless you Lord!’   

Janet Vasquez, Waitress at Skylight Diner on 34th St 

Prior to the pandemic, business at Skylight Diner in midtown Manhattan was booming on most days, teeming with tourists or guests who would make their way over for a bite to eat after attending a concert or convention at Madison Square Garden and the Jacob Javits Center nearby. 

Come March 2020, staff at the diner were all out of a job, leaving employees such as waitress Janet Vasquez to wonder how they were going to make ends meet.   

‘It was hard because it just hit us out of nowhere. You do have your savings just for back up, but I got scared because I did not know how I was going to get through,’ she says.  

‘We had to tell our landlord just to give us a few months in advance to keep up with the rent, just so we could get through. Depression was a big factor; I live with my family, so we were all trying to deal with it. 

‘You see each other before work but now living all living together again, you just fight and argue but it’s good because you get to spend time together. It’s the first time you get to know your family a little further, and it makes you appreciate them more as lots of people did not survive the pandemic.’

But even as the city began to reopen last summer, business was slow and waitstaff were hardly making enough tips to get by. Now, over a year later, Times Square has slowly come back to life, but Vasquez believes the city no longer the same place it once was.

‘It’s tough because a lot of places have been closing. Times Square is not the same, I’m amazed because it’s such a big tourist place and now it’s all quiet,’ she says. 

‘Madison Square Garden, Jacob Javits center, they were now all quiet. We used to be busy because there were always the conventions, like Comic Con. Now it’s been turned into a [venue] where you go to get your vaccinations. As a New Yorker though, I can say, I’m OK, I’m good.  

‘I was worried about [the vaccines] at first, and pretty skeptical because it came out so fast, but I think it’s working for everyone. We are going to move forward little by little, it just takes a bit of patience, hope, faith and just try to take care of each other. 

‘The money will hopefully go back up, but we have been through a year of this and maybe we have two or three more years before its back to normal. The money and everything is good, but you have your health and you survived it. Let’s just try to look on the bright side rather than the money side. Money ain’t everything.’ 

Scott Savory, Real Estate Broker at Compass  

While many New Yorkers struggled to keep themselves sane during lockdown, real estate broker Scott Savory used it as an opportunity to reevaluate his personal and professional goals.

‘The time we spent at home, for some people, they got lost in it, and didn’t utilize it well. And for others, they really assessed what is important and created some good routines, and for others some bad habits,’ he says. 

‘For me it was a lot of bad habits that led to a rejection of things that I don’t want in my life, and that led to a better focus on work. Four months [after] the market re-opened, I’ve seen business [soar] almost by four times.’ 

And in regard to the real estate industry, Savory said the pandemic showed ‘just how much pessimism there was compared to optimism.’ 

‘We quickly not only saw the New York was bulletproof, but also, we figured out a way to make things work.

‘People were thinking, “What are we going to do after this thing passes? Everything is going to shut down and New York is going to get crippled.”

‘But as a real estate broker, whether it’s up or down, we are still going to do transactions. But we had no idea whether people were going to be buying. We didn’t expect to see the boom we saw in such a small period.

‘What we are seeing now is a market that for some, still think is at its height. For brokers and for people that have really digested this market we know that this market is only going to keep growing and is going to run away from us.’

Having lived through the 2008 financial collapse, Savory believes New York City will bounce back from the downturn just as it did then. He even goes as far as calling it ‘one of the safest investments you can make.’ 

‘The city certainly seems to be coming back, business is pretty good and for the time being I’ll just keep doing what I’ve been doing,’ he says.  

‘I think my faith and belief for this city is even stronger now. As a New Yorker, for all those people that left the city, I feel like the joke’s on them now. 

‘For the people that stayed and toughed it out, and saw this city become desolate and boarded up, we are now seeing it flourish again, which makes you feel pretty amazing. New York feels like the phoenix rising from the ashes but seems even better. It’s like New York 2.0, and the first one was amazing before.’ 

‘We’ve survived an insane time, but even a year, year and a half later here we are in the middle of summer and New York feels golden!’ 

Ozzie Stewart, Actress, Print and Commercial Model, Host of On the Call Podcast  

Ozzie Stewart describes the Covid-19 pandemic as a ‘shocking and traumatic experience right from the very beginning’ after losing her gigs as well as nearly two dozen of her friends to the virus.  

‘At the building I had just moved from I lost five friends to Covid, and at the building I moved to, I lost two friends as well as a couple of friends outside the building in the neighborhood,’ she says. ‘This all happened with a few months.’ 

‘I stopped counting at 21 friends lost when the 21st person was my cousin who passed away in Arizona. At one point I was afraid to pick up my phone because I was afraid to learn of someone else passing. 

‘My business doing commercials and film work shut down for a couple of months and the silence of New York was eerie. Not working, and not knowing what was going to happen with my life financially was another traumatic experience outside of Covid. 

‘During this time I did my podcast which kept me disciplined, it gave me focus and strength. Once things started opening, I got a call for a TV show, and some commercials. Learning self taping was a stress though, which I’m still not over. It did start to become fun once I got the hang of it, also learning how to do podcasts.

‘My hopes this year, especially with the George Floyd thing, is that this life in the US, becomes a better type of life because all eyes are on it. I thank the activists, the marches and the people who showed up to make change will push things forward.

‘I also became a citizen this year. I wanted to be able to vote. Being a resident did not allow me to do that. I wanted to be part of the system instead of just raging against the TV.

‘With all that has happened, I’m glad that the institutions have really stood up. This experiment in the US has made me thankful for being here, and I’m thankful for the life it has given me. My wish right now is to support those suffering health wise, and I’m thankful for my health.’ 

‘I’ve been here since December of 1976, and it’s taken me since then to become a citizen. There is still an energy in New York. I love the pace and energy of New York as well as the four seasons. I’m looking to push my podcast so the joy and living can come from that. And to help my friends, and just have fun in life!’  

‘As a black person right now, the hope comes from the young people out there, that are standing up. Helping with the reforms that are necessary. Hope comes from the connections with friends, because I have lost quite a few of them. Hope comes from a better world. 

‘Right now, things feel so dire across the world. Whether it’s climate, politics, or people against one another. There are organizations out there that are helping people to come together and do better, and that gives me hope.’

Charlie Colletti, Shoemaker at Family-Owned Stanley’s Cobbler Shop 

Charlie Colletti has been in the shoe repair business for 30 years, helping run three of his family’s shops across the city. 

But now his main focus is Stanley’s Cobbler Shop in Manhattan’s Financial District, after the two other locations were forced to shut their doors during the health crisis. 

‘Business is not good anymore, I used to have six employees, now it’s just me and a part-time gentleman that comes in to help me. I’m trying to do my best to keep it going. I’m maybe doing 30 to 40 percent of what I used to do,’ he says. 

‘Hopefully the fall will bring better things, from what I’m hearing. I’m just going to try to survive and pull through.

‘I’ve been in this location for 20 years, but in the business for 30 years and have two other locations. Both closed right now as we don’t have enough business to pay the employees.

‘Back in the 80s things were great, I’ll never forget those days, business was good, and I met a lot of people back then. The economy was good, and even though we had a couple of crashes it came back in the 90s and the markets were doing great. Business was good back then!’ 

While the pandemic had an undoubtedly devastating impact on his business, the cobbler is choosing to find a silver lining and stay positive. 

‘I think this made me a little stronger and a little wiser too. Your outlook on life changes after a pandemic like this. I thank God for what I have,’ he says. 

‘My only goal is to hopefully get this business back on track somehow. If I could get it back to 50 to 60 percent of what I used to do then I’ll be happy. I’ll just continue to pay my bills and keep moving forward.  

‘I’ve seen customers that I have not seen in a year. I receive calls from people checking in on me to see how I’m doing and check on business.  

‘People care, some customers have mailed me shoes to repair. I’m hoping that continues and once people get back into the offices it will be OK. I think it will all come back!’ 

Xue Yang Liu, Cellist at Sonophonix, Private Teacher, Composer

‘In the beginning when it happened, it was a shock for all the musicians in terms of work,’ composer Xue Yang Liu says. ‘As a performer, we can play and put our sorrow or sadness and all the emotions into playing music for people. 

‘As a composer, it was difficult to be inspired or create right away. When you are watching the world falling apart and people were dying, It took a little while to reflect and be creative again.

‘My concerts have all been cancelled but I’m grateful I can still teach. It’s been tough to see Lincoln Center, the Met, Carnegie Hall, and The New York Ballet all shut down. 

‘If you are an artist or musician, you have to believe in the power of music. I know it sounds like fantasy, but music can help heal, or make you feel happy. I feel the world cannot survive without music.

‘When you are creating art, that’s where you help get your emotions through, so I think that’s what helped me get through it.’

Liu explains it’s been difficult to visualize a future in the city post-pandemic because she is also a mother.  

‘I think most New Yorkers are strong, most people want to be on the same page and have a positive vibe, and support each other. It’s been very hard to see so many stores shutdown. Most of our friends who have kids actually moved away. 

‘It’s made me think, what should I do? Living in New York is not easy, the rents are so expensive especially when you have kids and you want to find the best place to support your family. I love New York and it’s my home. I moved here from China when I was 17. I remember taking the train and crossing Brooklyn, seeing Manhattan and thinking, I’m really here, it feels like a dream.

‘You say to yourself, one day I’m going to feel like I belong here, and years later I did. You work so hard for your career; the city drives you in that way.

‘It’s a really sad question, especially because if you feel you belong here, but like my friends who moved away, they think it’s better for their family.’  

‘What can we do to fix what we lost and avoid this happening again in the future? Maybe we need to make some new changes especially in the classical world,’ she adds. 

‘When they are teaching you how to be a great performer, they also need to teach us how to survive when we graduate. Not everyone can get a job in an orchestra, not everyone can be a soloist. That’s just a reality. It doesn’t matter if they are talented enough, lots of other things come with it.’

‘Musicians can also think about what they can do to avoid something like this happening to us all again. Learn music producing, write music. learn about Jazz music, pop music, Techno music, it’s all music. 

‘I don’t know the answer but our world is changing and many things need to change.’

Mike Saviello, Co-owner of Astor Place Hairstylists, Artist  

‘It was the first time Astor Place ever closed down for anything, we went through 9/11, the financial breakdown, everything that happened in New York, even during the 1940s to the 1960s, nothing affected us until this,’ Mike Saviello says. 

‘Then word came that the city was closing. Barber shops had to close. We were closed March and we reopened on June 14th. All those months went by, and really no one knew, they kept saying next month, then next month and still we were like, what’s going on here?

‘Myself, well my studio was here, and I always painted here. I have a lot of energy, now I’m having to paint at home, but it’s a whole different vibe. At Astor, you’re used to coming into the studio at lunch time, drink a little bit of wine and do a little painting. At home it’s different.

‘My wife’s a teacher, and my daughter left her home in Brooklyn, so they are both working at home on their computers. I just put my head down and started painting, its different, but man I did a lot of painting, I had a lot of fun.

‘So, for me the whole Covid thing, it was a blessing in disguise, here at Astor its always go, go, go, you come in at 6:00 in the morning and work till 10:00 at night. You don’t get a break, it’s not like a regular job, you talk to people all day, and I miss that. I never got much time to spend at home, I would leave at 6:00am and be home by midnight. You never had any time to do anything.

‘I really got to spend time with my daughter and my wife for a couple of months, after having worked for 38 years, never taking much time off.

‘It was fun, I couldn’t go nowhere, so you were forced to communicate with your wife and your daughter. She was going through her thing, she couldn’t go out on dates, as all her friends lived in Manhattan but now, they were all over the world. Her boss went to Brazil, and she could no longer meet her friends.

‘We came back to work on June 14th and the first week was promising. The first couple of days were crazy, we had a list outside, we were like, Astor Place is back, yo!

‘But then a couple of weeks went by, and we were slow. Everyone came for a haircut that first week then you didn’t see them anymore. Then it got slower and slower, and then the schools didn’t open. Schools were closed, and all the businesses were closed.

‘Nobody was on the streets, not a single car coming down Broadway and all the trains were empty. The guys were coming to work from the Bronx saying, ‘their, was nobody on the trains’. We were just sitting here doing about 10 percent of our business, but that wasn’t going to make it.

‘I was thinking maybe the owners were going to stick around and put some money into the place, maybe for another year. The owners decided they just didn’t want to do it anymore. They were bleeding cash and couldn’t afford to put all the money into the place, and we have a lot of employees.

‘They announced, ‘we are going to close’. We were thinking that it was for a month or two. But they were closing for good.’

‘I’m thinking, what the hell am I going to do now? All the barbers were freaking out, we had all started working around the same time, which was about 30 to 35 years ago. Back then, Astor Place went from 15 barbers to 30 then to 75.

‘The barbers started taking customers names, they were going to work from their homes but, who is going to go to the Bronx for a haircut, maybe a very loyal customer. A couple of barbers were looking for a new shop, but even the small ones were closing, there were none to go to.

‘Then I just put a thing in motion, in my head I was like, who is going to get this done in three weeks, just before thanksgiving, so I talked to a friend that I knew from Astor. We were friends because we went to Mets games together.

‘He had invited me to a game, and the next thing you knew we were sitting behind the dugout right behind home plate. I’m realizing this is a New York guy. He asked, ‘do you think they will sell the place?’ I was sure they would not want to sell it.

‘I called him and said ‘do you want to buy it? You don’t have to worry; I know the place and will run it. Let’s just get the finances down, talk to the landlord and put things together.

‘I have hope for this place. For New York it’s the loyalty of our customers, that was the main thing that kept us going. People started coming when we said we were going to close. It got busy cause people wanted to get their last haircut here. 

‘It’s amazing how loyal people are to their barbers. It’s not like, any other business, people are crazy about their barbers. It’s like you are part barber, part psychologist, part storyteller.’ 

Erin Cherry, Emmy Award-winning Actor, Acting Coach, Producer, and Talk Show Host of Sundays with a Cherry on Top 

Like many New Yorkers in the arts, actress and producer Erin Cherry didn’t know if she was going to have a job even once the pandemic was over. 

‘When Broadway shut down, I knew we were going to be in this for the long haul. If theater shuts down, and this is all I have been doing since I was seven years old, then what the hell am I going to do with my life?’ she says.

‘What got me through it was my mom, my stepdad, and all my family doing a lot of zoom calls and FaceTime. That was tough not being able to see them because everyone was under quarantine. My parents are all in Vegas and I’m here. 

‘Having my mom as my cheerleader helped, she has always known how to talk to me and that helped get me through it. I’m looking forward to things a starting back up, and restarting a career that I’m going to do my hardest to stay in.’

The pandemic lockdown posed a particular challenge for the industry, which had to develop ways to continue productions remotely or virtually. 

‘Currently I’m on a show on Amazon called After Forever, and we were unable to shoot our series during the lockdown, but we did shoot a special episode. All the cast members were separated. We shot everything from our homes. The producers sent cameras to our homes, and people came by and set up the lights.

‘The director and the producer directed us from a laptop, my home was turned into a set by moving couches and other furniture. We did it pandemic style! It was nice to be working, and to act, it came out really well.’

Despite the city’s progress, the actress admits she still doesn’t know if she still has a future in New York. 

‘In a perfect world I would love to live back and forth. I would like to work in Los Angeles, Atlanta, and New York. One of the goals is to own property, and I don’t know if that means going back to Vegas, as I want to be close to my parents as they get older. 

‘One thing I’ve seen about the pandemic, which was a positive thing, and changed my thinking was, you don’t have to be in New York or LA to act and pursue your dream. The pandemic has shown that you could live in Ohio and send in a self tape, and still work in some way. Projects are shooting all over the place now. 

‘I also teach at the Maggie Flanigan studio, and it gives me hope that my students keep showing up, and that they still want to learn, and dive in. Days when I felt sad, I would get an email from one of my students thanking me for helping them. You just say wow! If they are feeling hopeful and know that their will still be jobs for them, then who am I to be depressed and feel that work is not going to be there. 

Cormac Daly, Revenue Manager at the Lotte New York Palace Hotel 

The hospitality industry was undoubtedly one of the worst-hit industries during the pandemic, no matter the location.  

And for the iconic Lotte New York Palace Hotel it was no different, revenue manager Cormac Daly says.   

‘In the middle of the pandemic, we were down to 5 to 10 percent in occupancy levels in contrast to normal times when we are running over 90 percent. We took a big hit. 

‘Unfortunately we had to lay off quite a lot of staff, now its recovering slowly but surely. Every month it is getting better. This year we are running at about 40 percent. The projections really don’t see us recovering until 2025. That would be on par with our 2019 levels. 

‘The tourism and hospitality industry has taken a massive hit, and many have lost their jobs. Some went into other industries and will never come back. In New York we have about 500 hotels of which over half closed, many of which will be closed permanently. 

‘For me personally, I was fortunate enough that I kept my job during Covid. I was on a limited schedule, maybe 3 days a week at the start and as business demanded slowly it came back. 

‘It was difficult, but it was also an opportunity to reset and rethink how we work in the hospitality industry. Hotels in general are very set in their ways! Very old school. Covid gave us an opportunity to see how we could make some advances, reset, and just update everything.’ 

‘I think during Covid, New York obviously took a huge hit and we were down in the dumps for a while, but it’s been amazing to see how people have come together. 

‘My experience in the hotel industry, was how all the employees all came together, and everyone was still smiling. We kept that good energy. That’s what gives me the most hope that New York will bounce back stronger than ever! New Yorkers are tough people and they won’t let this get the better of them!’ 

Vashti De Verteuil, Fashion Accessory Designer, Assistant Professor at Parsons The New School for Design

As a New York resident of 50 years, Vashti De Verteuil has lived through some dark times the city has faced in the last few decades. Recently, she was faced with her own personal setback in 2016 when she made the decision to close her East Village jewelry store after 29 years and started teaching at the Parsons School of Design.  

‘The pandemic affected my teaching. When we shut down in 2020, we did not have time to put things online, so I did not get to teach for summer and fall of 2020,’ she says. 

‘I was on lockdown; it was just strange to not be able to go out or teach. All you are trying to do is protect yourself and not get sick. I would stay at home and go out maybe once a week to the supermarket. The streets were just strange as you did not see anyone on them. 

‘I was lucky because I have a good social life talking to my friends in France, in the Caribbean, and all over the US and exchanging what was happening to us. Just protecting your health, it wears you down mentally. I found myself having to get up, do yoga, look at all my old work, architecture books, fashion design. Keeping my mind occupied really got me through. I was not going to let this thing get to me.

‘However, you did not know if you were going to get through. The next day you could wake up and be sick even though I would double mask when I went out.

‘I had to keep myself alert because you are not keeping your brain active. I understand why people would get depressed or drink. I said to myself the only business that made money during lockdown were liquor stores.’ 

‘I’m a New Yorker. I like to go away in the winter to the Caribbean, but after 50 years living here, I call myself a New Yorker. When we had 9/11 in New York and people were leaving, I said: “I’m going down with New York.” All my friends said you should leave New York, I told them New York will bounce back! One thing people do when they move to New York, is try to take it. You must take it in little pieces at a time. That’s why they come here for 6 months and leave because they can’t handle it. I already see stores and restaurants are coming back, so I know it will come back. 

‘I walk this city. That was one of the biggest things I missed during the pandemic, not being able to walk around it. I tell my students, when you don’t have ideas, just walk around the city and you will find inspiration from the people and the buildings. All the big designers used to come downtown just to see how people dressed. You can get inspiration as soon as you leave your door in the morning.’

Sean Kavannagh-Dowsett, Joint Owner of Tea and Sympathy Tea Shop and Salt and Battery Chip Shop 

British restaurant owner Sean Kavannagh-Dowsett watched the Covid-19 lockdown turn his life upside down last year. 

‘However, we were lucky, because we care about our neighbors and our crew who we’ve been working with us for some of whom, over 30 years. We were lucky to have both internal and both external support from the neighborhood,’ he says. 

‘Because there was no delivery, we had a bunch of pies we had made, we handed them out to people in the neighborhood that didn’t have food or were going to struggle.

‘When we were shut down, we did a lot of what we could to help our staff members. We started a GoFundMe page, and were blown away with the outpouring of love we had received from some people that had nothing, but wanted to share what little they had, and some super wealthy people that were super generous.

‘My wife was in tears when a little old Irish lady who has been coming for years, walked up one Saturday and said, ‘I’ve got a little something for you’ and gave my wife a check for $10,000. She said I love you guys and I know you look after your staff so do what you can to help people with this.

‘We were able to help not only our staff, but also people in the neighborhood. Providing them with food, help them get to hospitals, pick up their meds and run errands for them.

I’m a big believer in this being a test of community. When it first kicked in, and we were all wondering what the hell was going on, I actually said to my wife, this is a really hard thing. People are going to die, but I can’t help but think it’s going to separate the wheat from the chaff. I don’t mean from a death scale, but the little businesses that actually care about their neighborhoods, and that’s how we have been able to survive.

‘That was illustrated during the Black Lives Matter protests, there were people coming into town and using the protests as an excuse to smash things up. On the first night, there were so many people rioting and smashing things up. I found out from cops I knew, and people that were in the marches, that our neighbors were actually standing in front of our stores telling the crowds not to smash them up, because they are mum and pop businesses.

‘We are blessed because of the outpouring of love we have received from our community for over 30 years. We are blessed and lucky, but I don’t think it’s about luck, I think it’s about what you genuinely put out there. If you try putting stuff out with the intention of getting something back, it’s not going to work for you.’  

If there was one positive takeaway from such a difficult year, the UK native says, it’s that the hardship has restored his hope in humanity.  

‘It doesn’t rear its beautiful head to often, but I think people are getting back to the elements of society and caring about others around them. We’ve had that taken away from us for a year and a half now,’ he says. 

‘A journalist friend of mine rang me up, and asked how it was going for me? I replied, the thing that I’m finding so difficult, is that for some reason time is both managing to drag, and both fly by at the same time. 

‘You literally would be sat there saying its 11am on a Monday and will this day ever end? then bugger it’s Saturday. Time didn’t really begin to have any meaning. I think if it’s handled right, it will be a good thing for humanity at large, and people get to see the importance of caring about one another. 

‘It taught us that the essential workers are not the bankers, or the pop stars. It’s the people that deliver your food, drive your ambulances, and people that take care of people, I think that’s what we all need to do.’  

Cordero Trisbend, Bike Messenger, Model, Skate Coach 

As a bike messenger, model, and roller blade instructor, Cordero Trisbend watched all his work dry up almost instantaneously once the pandemic took hold in New York City. 

‘On the first day of lockdown, I was scheduled to teach kids to roller blade, but the school were testing the children for Covid. I was scared as I did not want to get Covid. My agent called and told me that the event was going to be rescheduled,’ he says. 

‘During the lockdown I was just trying to maintain myself, I had saved up some money, and was quarantining myself regularly just to make sure I wasn’t getting sick.

‘Mentally I liked the idea that I had time to myself, it gave me hope and more mental clarity. I had less pressure to force myself out there every day. I did not have the same pressure as say someone who had to go to a hospital every day and work.

‘The interesting thing about the messenger work, is that it feels like it perfectly correlates with the stock market. If certain businesses who regularly use courier services shut down and their production decreases, it stops the messenger work. 

‘And for those companies that were able to keep going, there was work for those couriers in that particular industry.’ 

‘As a New Yorker, the creepiest thing I’ve seen, is that, I’ve actually seen the City Sleep! Now the City has woken up again, and once it wakes up it doesn’t stop moving. I just want to get back with the pace of things, and keep going!’

‘Knowing that right now I have the opportunity to do the best I can, make a plan and go through with it!’   

Karen Zebulon, Owner of Gumbo Creative Space Store in Brooklyn 

The Covid-19 pandemic was a blessing in disguise for Karen Zebulon’s business and her work-life balance. The Brooklyn store owner, who was working long hours seven days a week prior to 2020, was forced to reevaluate her lifestyle during lockdown.   

‘Initially, it was frightening to know that I could go out of business! But having that time at home to evaluate things, it gave me a different perspective on my life,’ she says. ‘It was just too much. It wasn’t a good way of living! 

‘So, I made a lot of changes. I got my website going which had been neglected and really enjoyed doing it. I used to do classes which I was now unable to do because of the pandemic and I decided, I did not want to go back to that morning till night routine. 

‘I changed my hours. I start late in the day, I take Mondays off, and perhaps eventually take Sundays off. I’m now enjoying myself more, and I’m enjoying my work. 

‘Financially I’m doing well, my business is now thriving, I’m not so stressed, although I’m still worried about the future with Covid and the different variants.

‘I attribute the success of the business now to a variety of things. People are now happy to go out into a store, also there has been a lot of growth in my neighborhood. Just in the last year we now have more buildings and more people.

‘The other thing, was that I moved my business three years ago. My rent is now not as much, I have an office, a basement, a lot of things I never had before. Had I not made that move I probably would not be in business today. I’ve been through a recession, hard times, and right now people can shop. I think they are not feeling the stress that they have had in the past.’ 

‘One thing that I thought of having, is a place to get away and not be in this urban environment all the time. Originally, I’m from Maine, so I do miss the country. 

‘I think the fact that I downsized my time, has helped me realize, that maybe I must start doing a little bit more for myself. Eventually, I will want to do something else, this is kind of a second career for me anyway. This is another life, and perhaps their will be another one after this one.’

‘I always have hope and that’s why I’m still here. I’ve always tried to see into the future, having my own visions of the future. I have grandchildren now, so I think about them and their futures. A lot of my priorities are there, more so for my family than myself. If they are doing great then I’m happy.’  

Sean Ringgold, Actor/Producer 

‘Wanting to be strong, and a healthier life for my family was the one thing that I knew I had to get through because I’m the head of the household,’ actor and producer Sean Ringgold says. 

‘Unfortunately, I got Covid with my son and my wife. My son has sickle cell anemia, and had to be hospitalized for a week. My wife and I had to take care of my daughter. 

‘But we’re strong, and from New York, to the grace of God we got through it, and things are looking brighter, and we’re healthy. We’re just pushing through this thing. I’m just happy to see this city opening back up. People are smiling again. 

‘Most importantly, I can see people smiles in their faces instead of just seeing a mask and not really know what’s going on. But things are definitely looking up.’  

‘The city’s bouncing back. I’m really happy. There is a lot of production going on here in the city at the moment, even though most of my shooting in production that I’m doing for my show is out in LA. But I don’t know, if the right opportunity takes me, I will leave the city to be honest with you, because with the crime being up, we need some new leadership in the city. 

‘I’m hoping that it happens very fast, because you see gun violence crime, hate crimes, a lot of people don’t want to be here at the moment. But we’re going to be optimistic that things will hopefully turn around with a new mayor being put in place by the people.’  

‘Even though we’re going through challenging times here in New York City and in the United States, we’re bouncing back from the last four years. 

‘But there are places where things are worse. So even with the blessings and luxuries that we do have, and I’m extremely grateful for what we do have here. Nothing is perfect, things will definitely turn around. 

‘I just hope that it will get back to the way it used to be with less hate and more love!’ 

Michael Tan, Personal Trainer  

For personal trainer Michael Tan, seeing the city reopen is enough to restore his hope that New York will bounce back, he says.  

The fitness fanatic was out of a job after the pandemic shut down the gyms and had to rely on his wife’s income to keep them afloat.   

‘It was devastating. Initially when the lockdown was announced, I was actually pretty relieved. I was like, OK, I’m going to have a three-week break, but it just kept on stretching on for months and months, and months on end. There was no end in sight.’ 

And now, ‘my heart is filled with joy,’ he says. ‘I’m seeing stores opening, and everyone’s getting vaccinated. Masks aren’t required indoors at most places, I’m super hopeful and very excited to be in the city.

‘It gives me hope to see people again, especially when I walk my dog. During the pandemic, no one was petting him, he wanted to jump on them. 

‘Now I’m back to having conversations with strangers, letting them pet my dog, just feels more human now.’ 

Rob Hann, Photographer, Soho Street Vendor

‘When the governor shut everything down, I had to stop. I wasn’t on the street, from March, or was it April or May, until September,’ Soho street vendor Rob Hann says. 

‘This was when I felt I could maybe come out again. Business was not great then, but I made a few sales, I just wanted to get out of the house. I did get out and shoot pictures, which was good. It’s good for the sanity. I also had some savings.’ 

‘The city certainly seems to be coming back. Business is pretty good, and for the time being I’ll just keep doing what I’ve been doing.’ 

‘The city is really alive again! business has been good, and as soon as the European tourists come back it will be great!’

David, New Yorker 

‘I’m living now in Times Square hotel now. I’ve been on the street since I was 12 years old, and I’m just starting to get myself together. I went into the hotel in June,’ New Yorker David says. 

‘I feel selfish because you know why? I’m not back in New Jersey city, so I feel selfish that I’m over here in a good spot now.’ 

What got him through the pandemic, he says? ‘God! And I go to church every Sunday.’ 

Vinny Lupi, senior project manager of facilities for 9/11 Memorial & Museum/ABM

When the pandemic took hold last March, the 9/11 Memorial & Museum had no choice but to shut down, leaving about 50 to 60 percent of staff without a job, senior project manager Vinny Lupi says.  

‘For the staff that directly report to me, we went from 50 to about nine people. We are now back to about 30 which gives you the hope to move on, rebuild and come back to where we once were. 

‘The site is so meaningful for so many people, and just about anyone that visits here. From when we closed in March of 2020 till today, we still maintained it like it was open every day. It had to be taken care of meticulously, from the stone, the tree’s, the inside, to the pools. 

‘With the reduction in our budget, we were not able to run the pools as much, so it was a little bit more demanding for the engineers to keep it maintained. We did everything we could to have it ready to open as soon as we were given the opportunity.’

But the city’s strength in the midst of adversity is what makes it all the hard work worthwhile, Lupi, who was born and raised outside the city, says. 

‘I’m proud to be part of this and have a great team that works with me, from the top to the bottom. What we are supporting here for the people and the visitors, is so important, that I love New York for that reason.

‘Working here at the 9/11 memorial and what we made of it, and how we are representing that tragic day. I think that, in itself, gives you hope. 

‘Even with the pandemic, we fell to our knees. We had to close for months but we are building it back. We are seeing visitors increase on a regular basis. New York is coming back to life and it’s hopeful to know that it will be, what it once was.’ 

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