COVID-19 New York one year anniversary what we’ve learned
March 1, 2020
A Manhattan health care worker has come home from Iran, bringing with her a strange new illness.
Fewer than 80 cases of the novel coronavirus have been confirmed so far across the United States, and New Yorkers have been told their chances of getting what they’re calling COVID-19 are low.
The woman’s positive test, though, makes it official. The coronavirus is here.
It’s not everywhere, not yet. In those other, untouched parts of the country, people will watch anxiously as the pandemic’s ravages are unleashed in New York first. They’ll learn about the horror of hospitals overflowing in New York City, the freezer trucks turned into makeshift morgues; they’ll be heartened by the nightly applause for health care workers that spills from skyscraper apartment buildings.
For a time, New York will be the epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S.
And then the virus will spread.
Westchester, Nassau, Rockland, outward and outward through the state in a pattern mimicked elsewhere across the country. New York’s death toll begins to surge: 1,000 becomes 10,000 becomes 30,000. One year and a second wave later, New York’s unfathomable total will approach 50,000 — about a 10th of those lost nationwide.
COVID-19 looking back at 2020
There was life before the coronavirus’ arrival a year ago. And there will be life after it’s gone. This is the story of the months in between.
Peter Carr and Tania Savayan, Rockland/Westchester Journal News
Over the course of a year, from the streets and suburbs of Manhattan to the farthest-flung corners of the state, the coronavirus and the battle to control it will come for each of us, taking lives and livelihoods, changing every facet of everything.
The story of the global pandemic and New York’s place in it will play out in hospital rooms and at kitchen tables, in the chatter of Zoom calls and the silence of stadiums, theaters and classrooms.
It’s the Buffalo nurse who will write her own obituary and the Westchester bus driver who will sleep in a separate room from his family. It’s the Elmsford mother who will stay home to teach her children, the Ithaca daughter who will risk everything to save her parents in Queens. The Johnson City wife who will bury her husband and wonder when — or even if — she’ll ever feel like herself again.
It’s March 1, 2020, and from this day forward, we will think in terms of before and after.
There were our lives before the virus arrived. And soon — we can only hope soon — will be life after it is gone.
This is the story of how we got to where we’re going.
This story of the year since COVID-19 came to New York and the many ways it has changed our lives was created from a year’s worth of work by our USA Today Network New York journalists across the state. Thousands of stories and photos — and interviews with hundreds of everyday people — came together to build a rich tapestry of human life in a historic era.
Put simply, this story wouldn’t exist without the work of journalists in communities big and small across New York — or the support of our subscribers. If you aren’t one, please consider helping us continue to cover COVID-19 at the local level, and the many other issues that matter to you, by purchasing a subscription.
Gov. Andrew CuomoWe need everyone to be safe. Otherwise, no one can be safe.
When the news of the first confirmed COVID-19 case in New York arrives late on March 1, the governor of New York tells the people of his state, “There is no reason for undue anxiety.”
The world has seen some 87,000 cases of the virus since it was reported in China months ago, and nearly 3,000 deaths. But New Yorkers, Andrew Cuomo says, are at a low risk of contracting the virus.
Early cases spark panic, and Cuomo begins holding daily press briefings, reporting daily cases and deaths with gravitas and PowerPoint presentations. A nervous nation begins to tune in.
Nursing homes will be ravaged first and hardest, but we won’t understand the true toll there — 13,000 residents’ lives were claim, not 8,700 as previously reported — until nearly a year has passed, calling into question what we knew and when we knew it.
Mark Vergari/The Journal News
In a Manhattan hospital two weeks later, an 82-year-old woman with emphysema is the first of more than 45,000 New Yorkers who will, over the next 12 months, die after contracting COVID-19.
A cluster emerges in Westchester County. The divide between upstate and downstate becomes a chasm — stay away, officials in several northern counties warn downstaters — but denial or dread fill the minds of every New Yorker who’s paying attention.
An early outbreak traced to gatherings at a local synagogue puts a one-mile radius of New Rochelle on the map for all the wrong reasons, giving it a new name: “containment area.”
Schools close; businesses close; the National Guard arrives to help feed those sheltering at home and sanitize public spaces, and the images rivet the country.
Inside the neighborhood’s ACME supermarket, a single mother of four worries about buying enough food to feed her children. She knows how much they eat, and she doesn’t know when she’ll be able to shop again.
Beyond the city limits, delivery and service workers fear entering the area will mean infection. Counties away, upstate New Yorkers look on in horror, hoping the virus devastating the southern region of their state stops there.
Upstate at the border of Broome and Tioga counties, where the first cases won’t be detected for weeks at least, Sally Yablonsky tells her 93-year-old mother to skip bingo at the Elks lodge. Sally’s husband asks her to pick up a few extra cans of soup and boxes of crackers. Just in case.
Wegmans stores in Rochester place stockpiling limits on dozens of grocery items, from disinfectant wipes and toilet paper to chicken breasts and cereal. In the weeks to come those items, as well as Clorox wipes and hand sanitizer, become the hottest commodities, with Facebook groups emerging to alert shoppers of their discoveries at local stores or online. A new shopping routine will emerge: curbside pick-up..
Masks are not yet required apparel — they will be soon — but the desperate need to keep our front-line workers safe prompts sewing efforts from crafters of all ages. A community Facebook group donates 10,000 masks to their local hospital in Nyack and in Vestal, students like 11-year-old Annie Kate Myers, who was born with one hand, stitch dozens of cloth masks to help their local hospital reach its call for 1,000.
From their apartment in Queens, Joseph and Sandra Clements make daily calls to check in with their daughter, a hospital critical care director who lives with her husband and four children 240 miles away in Ithaca. Some 15,000 people have tested positive now.
Cuomo puts the entire state on PAUSE, closing all non-essential businesses and ordering people to stay home. Schools, churches, daycare centers go dark. We emerge from our homes to pick up groceries or prescriptions and little else.
Later, experts will say a faster lockdown might have saved thousands of lives.
In Johnson City, 83-year-old Bill Polakovich has a runny nose that suddenly turns into stroke-like symptoms. After his death, friends and neighbors gather at the family’s home, unaware the virus is among them. Bill’s COVID-19 test will come back positive after his death — Broome County’s first to coronavirus.
Downstate, a Yonkers funeral home director makes regular four-hour round trips to Camden, New Jersey, home to the nearest crematory still accepting cases. There’s a two-week backlog everywhere else. In a nearby hospital, 11 patients die during a single shift. A stunned nurse says she’s never seen death like that.
But people survive the virus, though some will face long-lasting complications. Moments of recovery turn into large-scale celebrations. Hospitals usher their discharged patients out the door with applause to “Here Comes the Sun” and the theme from “Rocky.”
Meanwhile, a mom in the tiny Westchester village of Elmsford adapts to a new school reality alongside bewildered and anxious parents across the state: helping her 6-year-old first-graders as their home becomes a makeshift classroom.
In Rockland County, a father who runs the county’s paramedic services stays in constant contact with his daughter, who runs a busy hospital ER, via text message.
She texts: Dad, we haven’t had any pandemics that you know of, right?
He texts back: Not since 1918.
The Rev. Richard Gill, pastor at The Church of St. Lawrence O’Toole in BrewsterNew York was, in the beginning, the worst-off place, so nobody would come to New York. So many people got buried without relatives having a chance for closure and for a time to say goodbye.
In a Long Island hotel room, Joseph and Sandra Clements’ daughter, Elizabeth Clarke, takes the call from the hospital.
Her parents need to be moved to an intensive care unit, she’s told. There isn’t room in the Queens hospital where they’re being treated.
Elizabeth remembers the sea of stretchers in the waiting room, the masked patients packed like sardines in a tin. Her parents were two of 1,300 people hospitalized across New York City that day.
To shore up staff, Cuomo says qualified medical school students can graduate early to join the fight. That sends Vestal’s Anthony Schramm to his first assignment: assisting physician at Stony Brook University Hospital on Long Island.
But that won’t help the Clementses now.
Elizabeth transfers her parents to Cayuga Medical Center in Ithaca, where she is the director of critical care and knows beds are available. But they don’t recover.
Good Friday arrives, and Elizabeth visits her parents one last time. She clings to her faith, to Philippians, chapter 4. It instructs: Do not be anxious about anything.
Across the state, beloved rituals of Passover and Easter shift to Zoom calls and Facebook Live broadcasts. But in the face of a pandemic, faith has taken on new meaning.
In Warwick, about 1,700 people watch Palm Sunday Mass virtually at St. Stephen the First Martyr Church. Hundreds of “likes” and comments replace hugs and handshakes at coffee hours and Sunday services.
Rabbi Rebecca Shinder, of Temple Beth Shalom in the Village of Florida, invites her Orange County congregation to mark Passover by joining her family’s Zoom Seder from their home in northern New Jersey.
The Rev. Richard Gill’s parishioners at the Church of St. Lawrence O’Toole in Brewster can’t get to him for Easter Sunday, so the Putnam County priest climbs into a big SUV with the blessed sacrament and goes to them.
The truck weaves through the town, and as it passes, the faithful make the sign of the cross: In the name of the Father. And of the Son. And of the Holy Spirit.
The Lord coming to the neighborhoods, Gill calls it. Bringing Christ to the streets.
As April rages, Cuomo’s daily briefings get national attention as something of a counterpoint to briefings held by then-President Donald Trump and his administration. But the crisis he’s discussing grows by the day.
On Easter Sunday, 671 New Yorkers die.
Holy Week has unveiled two harrowing truths:
First, New York has passed a grim milestone: More than 10,000 New York residents have died of complications related to COVID-19, more than three times the nearly 2,800 people who died in the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center in Manhattan.
Second, the virus is disproportionately killing people of color like Alvin Simmons, a 54-year-old Rochester man who loved karaoke and Luther Vandross. His life was claimed by the virus in March, inside the same hospital where he had a job doing maintenance work.
Alvin’s family plan to honor his memory in August, with music and karaoke. Like so many families, their closure will have to wait.
Group-gathering limits and common sense cancel birthday parties and bat mitzvahs, conferences and celebrations, funerals and weddings. Still, life and love find a way.
Becky Sena of Port Chester spends months living apart from her husband Sergio, to avoid COVID-19 before giving birth to their son on April 29. When little Ethan is old enough, she’ll tell him that in a terrible year, he was one of the best things.
And in the parking lot of the Vestal Elks Lodge, Alyssa Cinti stands with her groom Marc Baker beneath a simple tulle-wrapped wooden arch. Behind them, a song pours through the open windows of every vehicle.
Then put your little hand in mine, there ain’t no hill or mountain we can’t climb.
Leroy Clarke, Westchester Bee-Line bus driverIf you go to the Croton train station and you look at the parking lot, it is like a ghost town. People used to be fighting with you to rush to the station to get to the train. The parking lot would be full. Now, if you’ve got 50 cars in the parking lot, that’s a lot.
Sacrifices stack up.
Days after his 62nd birthday, firefighters turn out by the score to escort the flag-draped coffin of White Plains deputy fire Chief Edward Ciocca, forming a sea of somber double-breasted dress uniforms, white and navy caps and pale blue surgical masks.
In Cortlandt Manor, 61-year-old Leroy Clarke sleeps alone to protect his wife and two daughters. He doesn’t want to risk infecting them.
As a bus driver, he ferries hospital and nursing home workers across Westchester to their jobs, where they fight the same virus that killed his mother last month.
Buses and subways are reserved for first-responders and essential workers. Commutes have all but ended. It will be months before the rest of us leave our homes for work again, if we ever do.
In just over three months, the state Labor Department has processed the equivalent of three years of claims and pays more than $15 billion to 2.6 million New Yorkers. But in that time, millions file for unemployment insurance, some for the first time, and discover a department website and phone system that is infuriatingly unresponsive.
In Brooklyn, Aretha Covington sleeps with her phone so she won’t miss a promised call back. Wantagh’s Robert Donovan calls 54 times. Putnam Valley videographer Doug DeMarco makes 38 attempts to file his claim online, only to get booted off, time after time.
Millions of New Yorkers like Johnson City’s Heather Picker qualified for unemployment as a result of the pandemic, but struggled to navigate an unresponsive system and waited months for their claims to be fulfilled.Kate Collins / Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin
In Johnson City, 38-year-old Heather Picker prepares herself for the possibility of never seeing the money she qualifies for. It’s been two months since her construction firm began a work-share program: 20 hours working, 20-hour furlough. Her net pay: $100.
Picker’s wife isn’t working, either. Eventually, the unemployment money will come. Until then, Picker reminds herself: It could be so much worse.
Just streets away, Bill Polakovich’s family finally holds a small burial service for him, two months after his death. For Sandy, who contracted the virus shortly after her husband died from it, the agony of her loss feels brand new again.
There is a burial, but no Mass; friends and family, but no comforting hugs; a ceremony, but none of the luncheons or gatherings that typically soften the pain of letting go.
JAMIE GERMANO/ROCHESTER DEMOCRAT AND CHRONICLE
We all feel one of the virus’ deepest cuts: Loneliness. In a year when we long to connect more than ever, we suffer through a year apart.
We scour Facebook, health department websites and the newspaper for the latest COVID counts and advice. We become experts on contact tracing and hospitalization rates, on isolation vs. quarantine.
The more we know, the less certain we are.
We look for the signposts that Cuomo tells us will allow us to reopen: a decline in hospitalizations and deaths, at least 30% available hospital beds, consistent testing, available contact tracers. We cling to the hope that summer will bring something like relief.
But the end of May brings something else, a manifestation of a sickness much older than COVID-19 but no less deadly. Three words reach our collective ears from beneath the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.
I can’t breathe.
Shanel Boyce, Black Lives Matter protester, outside the Broome County Jail, June 4We live in a country that says everyone has access to this American dream, but somehow that American dream has always left out Black people. So, as you buy into this American dream, you are by default denying your Black brothers and sisters their humanity, dignity and right to freedom.
After two months of lockdown and anxiety, the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd spark stoked-up energy that erupts in protests seeking racial justice.
From Albany to Manhattan, White Plains to Binghamton, cries of “Black Lives Matter” echo alongside Floyd’s final words.
Hundreds gather to protest in local parks, travel to other cities to stand outside jails and share moments of silence in the street.
There will be more outcries to come: In September, when video footage shows Rochester Police involved in the asphyxiation death of 41-year-old Daniel Prude, a case eerily similar to Floyd’s. Again in January 2021, when body cam footage reveals Rochester Police officers restraining a distraught 9-year-old girl who was handcuffed and pepper-sprayed.
Hundreds of people gathered outside Mount Vernon City Hall during a peaceful We Can’t Breath Unity Rally on June 2, 2020.Frank Becerra Jr./The Journal News
The virus continues its merciless path, too, claiming New Yorkers including 59-year-old Marvet J. Brown, an avid motorcycle racer and wrestler from Poughkeepsie, and 87-year-old Ruth Ayers in Bath, a musician who celebrated her faith as a church organist and music director.
While we struggle to make sense of it all, we cling to word from Albany. Each day we hope for better news: A move to the next step in a four-phase economic reopening plan, which began, mid-May, in the Finger Lakes, Mohawk Valley and the Southern Tier.
We dip a nervous toe back into the wider world, where masks are no longer optional.
Can we risk a desperately needed haircut? Yes, but only after leaving a name and number for possible contact tracing.
Do we dare go to a restaurant? Yes, but only if we sit at an outdoor table six feet from everyone else, and wear a mask when leaving the table.
Businesses, grateful to be back, will play it by the book and follow a long list of cleaning protocols and safety rules. Anything to open, to see customers again. Anything for a glimpse of the life we knew before.
Some places won’t be able to reopen. Main Street took a hit, with restaurants, salons and mom-and-pop shops closing their doors for good.
We have learned by now that COVID loves a crowd, and crowds love the arts. The Broadway League announces performances will be suspended through Jan. 2, 2021, a date that will come and go with curtains still down.
Broadway producer Kevin McCollum knows exactly when the shutdown came, on March 12, hours before what was to be opening night of “Six,” his new musical about the wives of England’s King Henry VIII. He remembers all the sushi ready for an opening night party that would not be. He knows Broadway’s return will drive a recovery, bring tourists to fill hotels, take taxis, make dinner reservations. He knows it will put carpenters, actors and musicians back on the job, enable them to pay rent and mortgages and put kids through college.
What he doesn’t know is when that return will come.
The pandemic completely changed high school graduations across New York in 2020. At Webutuck High School in June, graduates stand in hoops to maintain social distance while they wait to get their diplomas.Peter Carr/Poughkeepsie Journal
As the school year ends, there are no high school musicals, no proms. The Class of 2020’s graduations are postponed, then altered. High schools lead graduation parades around town. “Pomp and Circumstance” echoes in strange places: on Zoom, in mall parking lots, at drive-in theaters. Some schools hold several smaller commencements.
Sam Berube graduates in one of Vestal High School’s five small outdoor ceremonies without playing her senior season of softball. A two-time all-star who would have been her team’s captain, Berube can’t help but feel robbed of the little things she loves about her sport: turning a double play, yelling, “Big D on three” before taking the field, seeing her name in the paper or seeing her team on the news.
She’s one of countless youth and adults who lost the chance to play this year — in a kids’ summer baseball camp, in an adult rec league, in a college-prospect season, in a professional quest. And anyone who has ever broken a sweat in pursuit of a physical accomplishment will tell you it’s about much, much more than the winning score or the moment in the spotlight.
It might not sound like a big deal to some, Sam knows. To her, it would have meant everything.
Patti Delvey of Mission Viejo, California, remembering Jeanette “Jane” Bozek, who died July 22Grandma Jane was an amazing cook and baker. I loved her pineapple bars. She invited us over for holidays. Her house was so Christmasy and cozy and warm.
By now, Sally Yablonsky had hoped to at least hold a memorial service for her mom, Ruth Ann Harrington of Vestal, who died with COVID-19 in March.
The worst is over, people have told her, things are back to normal. But Sally isn’t ready to ask her daughter in Arizona or her sister in Connecticut to travel here to New York. It doesn’t feel safe yet.
In Deerfield, the community mourns the loss of 94-year-old Jeanette “Jane” Bozek, a woman who devoted her life to a nursing career as a pediatric nurse and later floor supervisor in the Utica area until her retirement.
An early summer lull pushes the last regions of the state, the mid-Hudson and New York City, into phase 4 of the state’s reopening plan, increasing the size of permitted group gatherings from 25 to 50, opening houses of worship to 50% occupancy after a federal judge’s ruling.
Summer brings the painful absence of treasured traditions, from Bethel Woods to Hudson Valley Shakespeare to the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown. The auto race at Watkins Glen shifts to Daytona. Rye Playland amusement park on Long Island Sound and Irondequoit’s Seabreeze Amusement Park stay closed for the first time in a century.
Families itching to leave home find new ways to spend summer vacation.
The flood of summer folk — COVID refugees, the locals called them — brings overcrowding and litter to the Delaware River region. People who can’t travel far flood Airbnbs and campgrounds, clogging the riverside.
Idyllic spots like these often depend on tourism dollars, but upstate officials fear visitors will bring the virus with them.
In many cases, though it’s already there. In the 2½-week window spanning June graduations and July Fourth celebrations, Broome County’s active cases jump more than 200%.
Yes, there continues to be the stubborn presence of the virus in nursing homes, the county says, but the reason for the spike is that people have had parties, and COVID got an invitation. It serves as a harbinger of winter’s second wave and a new foe that will wreak havoc on holiday plans: living room spread.
Gov. Andrew CuomoYou look at our infection rate; we are probably in the best situation in the country right now — as incredible as that is. If anyone can open schools, we can open schools. That’s true for every region in the state. Period.
College students returning to campus after a long hiatus are welcomed back warily. Masks are required, but how will they live together, learn together, eat together without spreading COVID-19?
Schools adopt a variety of move-in and campus life procedures. Some ask students to take a pledge to keep COVID off campus. Some require all students submit a negative COVID-19 test before returning to campus. Others will be tested when they get there. A few won’t be tested at all.
Jillian Davis, a junior living on SUNY Oneonta’s campus, is put in mandatory quarantine, then sent home with the rest of her classmates. Case numbers on campus are climbing too quickly, school officials see no alternative. Oneonta’s is the first SUNY campus shutdown and Jillian is left wondering why she wasn’t tested.
When hundreds of freshman students gather on Syracuse University’s Quad to mark the end of quarantine in mid-August — throwing guidelines about social distancing and safety to the wind — the university suspends 23 of them.
Colleges are quick to get students on campus, and quick to send them home, with no breaks until Thanksgiving, when the semester ends or classes switch to remote. Iona College, just outside New Rochelle’s March containment zone, is among the first to open.
Joshua Heron got into Howard University, but he’ll do his freshman year at the prestigious school from his Yonkers home. He longs for in-person classes; in the meantime: I just have to hold on and pray for that to happen, he says.
We’re all just holding on, even as we mourn the ever-increasing loss of life. Every single death is an incalculable loss. Like 81-year-old David L. George, 81, of Conklin, whose name was synonymous with big-rig repair, a self-taught master mechanic who could tell by the sound coming from a transmission what was needed to fix it.
Meanwhile, in Oneida County, guests from around the state are gathering to celebrate a wedding.
One of the year’s most-spoken phrases, amid a Zoom learning curveYou’re on mute.
A COVID cluster emerges from a small Chemung County church, linked to a wedding reception in Oneida County and putting hundreds of New Yorkers at risk. At least three people will die as a result of the outbreak, officials will say, as clusters begin to ignite and spread across upstate New York.
The church, Lighthouse Baptist Church in Horseheads, will later win a lawsuit against the state, allowing it to reopen. Church leaders dispute the extent of the outbreak that flourished behind its doors.
The virus claims hundreds this month, including U.S. Army veteran Philip Grushetsky, 84, who earned a Bronze Star, served two tours in Vietnam and spent years working as a guidance counselor in Elmira.
It’s becoming ever more clear that COVID thrives in the spaces where we congregate, places where we eat, pray, learn.
Several K-12 schools delay starting dates amid county case spikes, but all will have a school year, whether in-person, remote or hybrid.
In an already uncertain school year, filled with kitchen table learning and Zoom chats, a knot of the area’s youngest students slowly climbs the concrete steps of Benjamin Franklin Elementary School in Binghamton and looks up at its stout brick building with trepidation.
Waiting for them at the door is pre-K teacher Traci Simrell, crouched to the eye level of each new student. She comments on one little girl’s Minnie Mouse sweater and matching mask — Traci loves Minnie, too. Her new student lights up. And behind a navy cloth mask, 49-year-old Traci smiles.
By December, the virus will take her life, too.
Kendra Smith of Poughkeepsie, on helping her daughter, Diamond Yeno, with remote learningIt’s frustrating, because I haven’t been to school in forever, so I’m pretty much learning as she’s learning.
Trouble has begun to emerge in a handful of COVID clusters across the state where the virus is rapidly spreading, and the state moves to shutter schools and non-essential businesses and limit mass gatherings and religious services there.
The red-orange-yellow zones apply to five areas at first — two in Queens and one each in Brooklyn, Rockland County and Orange County. A sixth cluster in Broome County, which is producing triple-digit cases for the first time since the outbreak, will face less-restrictive measures.
Other counties will follow. After nearly 1,000 new positives and multiple deaths over five weeks, the City of Elmira, Village of Elmira Heights and Village of Horseheads, along with part of the Town of Horseheads, are now under orange zone restrictions.
Business owners and local officials complain the zone designation unfairly singles out certain businesses, including hair salons, barber shops and manicurists where no link has been established to spiking COVID-19 numbers. A few owners choose to temporarily relocate their businesses a few miles up the road, just to get out of the restricted zone.
Still Westchester hospitalizations almost double in a week. Monroe County sees its highest number of cases so far.
Federal regulators deploy a strike team to a Steuben County nursing home, where 27 residents have died and a facility spokesman says the virus has “spread like wildfire.”
The world loses lights like 71-year-old Ronnie Byron, of Bath, who thrived on being around others and sharing a story over a Coors Light, and 72-year-old Toni L. Alger, of Johnson City, an IBM retiree who enjoyed watching birds from her living room window and visiting with her grandchildren.
Threat of exposure in a new, hybrid school year is a daily reality for teachers. Binghamton teacher Michelle Thompson brings her tote bag packed with all her school supplies to and from work each day, just in case. Her 8- and 11-year-old daughters go to their grandparents’ house every day to learn remotely.
Districts have done what they can to smooth the transition for students; in New York City, officials provided devices and free data plans to nearly every student. Rochester distributed mobile WiFi hotspots for households without a strong internet connection.
Parents like Crystal Berroa run headlong into the digital divide, with spotty WiFi at her New York City shelter creating a major hurdle to her school-age daughters, including her first-grader, who’s learning to read.
At a dining room table in Middletown, 9-year-old Leighann Jansen logs into class alongside three other siblings. In a modest Utica home, 16-year-old Say Kler Paw — part of a refugee family of 11 — puts her English and tech skills to good use to help her younger siblings learn online, and other refugee students, too.
And in a Poughkeepsie kitchen, 8-year-old Diamond Yeno and the mother who just regained custody of her earlier this year stare at a school-issued laptop, hoping to make sense of it all.
Julia Wright-Rogers of Elmsford knows she’s been fortunate. She’s been teaching her twins, Angus and Primrose, keeping the fidgety now-second-graders on task and rewarding them with cocoa for eating broccoli at lunch.
We were so lucky, she says. It’s not over, but we didn’t lose anybody. Neighbors and friends lost family and jobs.
Then the tears start, tears of gratitude for how close they got — tears of anxiety over how close they came.
She knows there is an “after” coming, a time when they’ll be able to look back, but she’s too busy living her “now” — the twins at home three days, in school two — to give it too much thought just yet.
Gov. Andrew CuomoThere are tens-of-thousands of families who lost a loved one this Thanksgiving. Their father’s not there, their mother’s not there, their grandmother’s not there. This Thanksgiving reminds us: We have a bigger family than we think we have. … What we did together in New York showed that we are the family of New York.
Since her husband died in March, Sandy Polakovich has lived here in her daughter’s house. Her own home, the one she and Bill shared for half a century, sits a block away from the church grounds where they met when she was 17. She hasn’t been inside the church in months.
Her loss hasn’t lessened with time. Like thousands of other families, she’s reminded every day — on the news, on social media, talking to friends — of the virus that took her husband. It’s there when the county announces the latest numbers, when she hears about the latest loss: Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren’s mother, 71-year-old Elrita “Rita” McClary Warren dies in November in part from a COVID-19 infection.
As the holidays arrive, we feel the virus’ cruelty more keenly than ever. We crave togetherness; we weigh the risks of gathering.
Cuomo abruptly cancels his Thanksgiving plans, less than two hours after revealing he planned to spend the holiday with his mother and two of his daughters.
Big Thanksgiving dinners could become “superspreader” events amid already troubling increases in COVID-19 cases, state officials warn. Parts of Rochester, Brighton, Gates, Greece, Irondequoit and Pittsford are now designated orange zones.
In Ithaca, Elizabeth Clarke is spending her first Thanksgiving without her parents. Since their deaths, she hasn’t seen any other family members besides her husband and children.
So on this holiday, her extended family members rent suites at the same resort, cook their own meals and eat them separately. In masks they meet in the courtyard and take seats on opposite sides.
Together, they pray, and Elizabeth feels a little less alone.
Sandra Lindsay, ICU nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, getting her first dose of the COVID vaccine, on Dec. 14I feel great. It didn’t feel any different from receiving my annual influenza vaccine.
The toll is exhausting, unimaginable.
Over 35,000 COVID-related deaths, more than any other state in the country. They include Xavier Harris, a spunky 4-year-old from Utica whose smile lit up the room. Five residents at Orange County’s largest nursing home have died since Thanksgiving, and nearly a third have tested positive for COVID-19.
Then, at last, a glimmer of hope.
The FDA grants emergency authorization for COVID-19 vaccines from Moderna and Rockland-based Pfizer.
The eyes of the nation turned here in December, to watch Sandra Lindsay left, a nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, as she is inoculated with the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine by Dr. Michelle Chester.Mark Lennihan, AP
New York state opts in to the federal government’s nursing home vaccination program, which allows employees of CVS and Walgreens to vaccinate residents and staff at long-term care facilities.
In Rochester, health systems install freezers at their local hospitals to receive and store it. In eastern Queens, ICU nurse Sandra Lindsay receives the first vaccine administered in the state of New York.
By now, the country has recorded more than 300,000 deaths.
Vaccines arrive at nursing homes through the federal program, while local hospitals and county health departments wait anxiously for their turn. Anticipated shipments arrive weeks later than expected.
And in the season of hope, congregations and families alike re-imagine the holidays.
Two weeks before Christmas, between perfectly preserved houses from a hundred years ago, eight singers step inside Tabernacle United Methodist Church for the first time in nine months to record a hymn for the virtual Christmas Eve service.
One at a time they check their temperatures and fill out contact-tracing index cards. They stand a dozen feet apart and line up around the balcony, wearing masks and hoping their voices will carry.
It’s scary, being here after so long. But as choir director Theresa Lee-Whiting says, “There would never be a Christmas Eve without ‘Silent Night.’”
And so they sing.
All is calm, all is bright.
Rachel Murat, history and government teacher, Maine-Endwell High SchoolIf we want to grow a generation of civically-minded, participating citizens in our country, we need to make sure we foster those skills when they’re in school.
New Year’s Eve in New York City takes on a new look: a small Times Square gathering and a made-for-TV concert, not the million or so that are typically drawn to the Crossroads of the World.
Less than a week later, no doubt like her colleagues around the globe, Rachel Murat, history and government teacher in Broome County’s Maine-Endwell High School, scrolls Twitter, pores over articles and watches clips from the day before: Jan. 6.
She knows her students will have questions about the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol trying to prevent the certification of the Electoral College vote naming Joe Biden the 46th president. She wants to help them process a where-were-you-when event, one they’ll never forget. She wouldn’t be doing her job if she didn’t talk about it.
This being 2021, that conversation will take place on Zoom, where Murat lets the students’ questions fly: “How did they get in the Capitol so fast?” “Are we safe?” “Are there going to be consequences?”
There will be answers. For now, letting them ask the questions feels right.
Meanwhile, the vaccine rollout continues, slowly. By the end of the first week in January, New York gives 430,000 of its 900,000 vaccine shots to health-care workers and nursing homes.
Cuomo widens the pool of those eligible, beyond health-care workers, to include teachers and those 75 and older. When a website link is wrongly made public, appointments are made, then canceled at yet-to-open state sites in Johnson City, Utica, Plattsburgh, Buffalo, Potsdam and Long Island.
Savona Fire Department Chief Steve Beebe said Daryl Tombs, shown here with his wife, Carole, would “do anything for anybody, anytime.”Provided
COVID’s toll mounts, and it’s no less painful in January than it was in March. The death of paramedic Daryl Tombs, 52, rocks Steuben County, leaving a hole in the heart of the emergency medical services community.
New York expands COVID-19 vaccine eligibility to those 65 and older, with the group joining essential workers such as police, firefighters, teachers and health-care workers, and those in nursing homes and other congregant settings.
But the new pool of 7.1 million eligible New Yorkers far outpaces vaccine supply, triggering a rush to improve the roll-out and hit the goal of vaccinating every New Yorker who wants it by June, which is key to achieving herd immunity and ending the pandemic.
We continue to wait for the “after.”
Patrice Sullivan and her daughter Janelle, 14, are focused on the way forward: stopping at nothing to achieve their dreams. They’re shown here getting fresh air outside their Yonkers co-op apartment.Mark Vergari/The Journal News
Patrice Sullivan and her daughter, Janelle, 15, have gotten to know every nook and cranny of their Yonkers co-op apartment. They take walks to beat back boredom; they step out onto their terrace to get fresh air. And they pray together.
Education is the key to their “after” — Janelle is a high-school sophomore and her mom is working on a doctorate in higher education. When this is all over, they have no plans to settle. I want passion to be my purpose, Patrice says.
Words, phrases, and acronyms now embedded in our everyday vocabularyCluster, outbreak, PCR, rapid test, PPE, infection rate, N95, variants, Zoom, asynchronous, cohort, remote learning, swab, Moderna
The Rev. Gill, who drove to his parishioners last Easter when they couldn’t come to him, has had banners hung: Welcome Home.
Even though his church is still limited to 50% capacity, he’s preparing for the return of the 2,500 families in his parish, and the 300 families in a sister parish nearby, ready to see the pews full again. Ready for his “after.”
Some fellow priests nearby are hoping to make Lent that season of welcome. The Rev. Gill isn’t so sure. Putnam County cases are still high, he says. Deaths are down, but infections are up. The virus seems less predictable.
Maybe after Easter, he says, after celebrating Jesus’ resurrection. Maybe summer Masses in parks.
Leroy Clarke is still driving his bus in the Bronx and Westchester, past vacant malls and empty commuter parking lots, carrying a fraction of the pre-COVID ridership. Traffic is so light, he says, he has to drive intentionally slower to stay on schedule. His riders complain his is the slowest bus they’ve ever seen. He laughs.
He knows his “after” will involve more company on local streets. But he’s OK with that, if it means his life after COVID more closely resembles his life before. Then again, Leroy is OK with just about anything.
Nearly a year after the virus arrived, it’s still finding new victims who won’t see the end we’ve all longed for. “After” will come too late for Karen Johnson, 58, a special education teacher at Albert Leonard Middle School since 1998, who died on Feb. 11.
It will come too late for half a million people across the country.
There would be coronavirus cases in New York, we all knew. In a state of nearly 20 million with the largest city in the nation and a handful of well-trafficked major airports, virus spread is inevitable.
But that knowledge could never have prepared us for what was to come: A global health crisis. A pandemic spreading through our homes, schools and places of work, killing nearly 50,000 New Yorkers and more than half a million people across the country, even with a vaccine in distribution.
In the year since that first case, we’ve learned to work from home and jump on Zoom calls for conferences, PTA meetings, cocktail hours. New Yorkers have risked their lives to treat patients every day, to get essential workers where they need to be, to keep us fed. We’ve juggled unemployment claims, online learning hiccups, testing and vaccine appointment site shutdowns. We’ve hoped and we’ve grieved and some days we’ve just kept going forward.
A year on, Westchester mom Julia Wright-Rogers is reflective, grateful for her family’s health and for an unexpected window into her kids’ lives, a window she wouldn’t have had were it not for the pandemic.
Her friends in the corporate world — the ones with long city commutes and children whose school day involved pre-care and after-care, with pickup at 7 p.m. — were stunned to learn how little they knew about their kids’ education.
Wright-Rogers doesn’t blame the teachers or the parents for that. That was just our life before.
March 1, 2021, marks a year since the virus arrived in New York. And here we stand, on the precipice of hope. Life after the pandemic will arrive, and when it does, we’ll see everything differently.
USA Today Network New York reporter Georgie Silvarole and journalists across the state contributed to this report.