My first job in Manhattan, New York City, was as an Edward R Murrow fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in 2017. The office of the council, an independent public policy think tank that hosts heads of state in non-Covid-19 times, is housed in an elegant brownstone on the corner of East 68th and Park Avenue.
On dark winter days as Christmas approached, I would look out of my window to see tiny white lights strung on trees, and crowds of people coming from shopping or restaurants. The street would be alive. I would feel festive but also deeply connected to a vibrant city.
This week, coming from a doctor's appointment near the council – after taking yet another Covid-19 test – I counted just three people at a usually busy corner of the street.
"Where is everyone?," I asked a friend who lives in the neighbourhood and runs a small business.
“The rich have all gone to Palm Beach and Aspen,” she answered. “They’ve been frantic to buy new houses since the pandemic started. They won’t be back until the spring.” They have given up on New York, she sighed.
Downtown, where I live near Astor Place, the outdoor bars that were humming in the summer and the warm autumn months are now closed. Meeting friends for a drink means extensive research on who stays open outdoors (with heaters). The shops that are still open have Christmas decorations in the windows – an attempt at cheeriness that somehow seems fake.
There are signs for sales and promotions, but I don’t see any shoppers going inside. The temperatures have dropped in Manhattan, and so has the morale. It’s hard to think of a holiday when almost 300,000 Americans are dead from Covid-19 alone this year.
In normal times, New York City during Christmas is an American classic – as necessary as watching Frank Capra's much-loved post-war film of redemption and hope, It's a Wonderful Life. Many children who live in the surrounding region will have been bussed at some point in their early lives to watch the Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall with the Rockettes, a dance company.
Lincoln Centre is closed, so no "Nutcracker" ballet performances, no Handel's Hallelujah chorus. The annual lighting of the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Centre – proudly displayed since 1931 – was done this year in a cryptic "closed to the public ceremony" by Mayor Bill de Blasio.
A broadcast of the famous 75-foot Norway Spruce tree (with tiny owls still in the branches) was aired on December 2. "Christmas tree-viewing procedures" were approved by New York City and New York State, meaning long lines and five-minute viewings. It kills the joyful spontaneity of wandering down Fifth Avenue, seeing the tree, window shopping at the elegant boutiques, then going ice skating or getting a hot chocolate.
But this is the 2020 holiday season. We are in the midst of a second Covid-19 surge, with 81 per cent of the hospitals filled and three-fourths of the intensive care units full. The statewide infection rate is 5.7 per cent. Not surprisingly, tourism in “Plague City” – as a friend of mine calls Manhattan these days – is down 66 per cent.
People who drove last year from Pennsylvania, Maine and Florida to see the tree at Rockefeller Centre, or hear the Christmas concerts at St Patrick's Cathedral or the Cathedral Church of St John the Divine, are staying home this year and watching Borat or The Crown on Netflix.
As for Christmas shopping, I haven’t been in a shop or a store aside from Whole Foods since March; like millions of Americans, I’m worried about running out of money (and what is there to buy when you don’t go out?). Many Americans are anxiously waiting for the stimulus check to help them pay rent, electricity or buy groceries – and Congress has not yet delivered.
In November, The New York Times reported that tourism, "the engine for New York City", may not fully recover until 2025: "The pandemic triggered a free fall in New York City." According to them, 66.6 million visitors came here in 2019; by the end of October, the paper reported that international arrivals to the five regional airports near New York City were down by 93 per cent.
I flew into John F Kennedy last week, usually a mess of an airport, to see a ghostly terminal and a long line of empty yellow cabs snaked outside. I got through customs and immigration, usually an hour in line, in about 10 minutes.
Restaurants are struggling to survive. Most people I know have not been to a restaurant since March. Governor Andrew Cuomo warned on Monday that if New York City’s hospitalisation bed occupancy rate doesn’t level off, he will shut indoor dining at restaurants and perhaps other businesses deemed non-essential. This will plunge most of us into an even deeper state of gloom; even if we don’t go out, there is still something hopeful about knowing that the restaurant on your street is open if you decide to go to it.
Meanwhile, at a time when spirituality is needed more than ever, most churches, synagogues and mosques are closed. Online Sunday services simply don’t deliver the same much-needed inspiration to get people through this bleakness. As for the Broadway theatre – there are grave concerns for both the performers and technicians who are out of work for the unforeseeable future, but also whether or not the industry can ever be revived.
The constant conversation amongst the few friends of mine still left here is whether or not New York can rebound. Last summer, a comedy club owner, James Altucher, wrote an essay saying New York City was “completely dead” and would never bounce back from the pandemic. He was moving to Florida.
It infuriated hardcore New Yorkers. Jerry Seinfeld, the famous comedian, responded harshly. Reports of New York City’s death were greatly exaggerated, according to him.
“The last thing we need in the thick of so many challenges is some putz on LinkedIn wailing and whimpering: 'Everyone's gone! I want 2019 back!'," Seinfeld wrote. "Oh, shut up. Imagine being in a real war with this guy by your side?"
I’m not giving up on New York, but in the dead of a pandemic winter, it’s tough to love it. Central Park is still here, as are the glorious promenades alongside East River and Hudson River. And despite a horrendous year in retail, department stores such as Bloomingdales, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman all unveiled (less flashy) holiday displays.
But the season is not just about lights and fir trees or the Nutcracker. It's also about hope. The images of William Shakespeare and Margaret Keenan getting the first Pfizer jabs in the UK, which went viral, gave everyone a sense that we might be nearing the end of this dark, winding tunnel.
Britain’s Secretary of Health Matt Hancock told fellow Members of Parliament that the beginning of the vaccine rollout was “the start of the fightback against our common enemy, coronovirus”.
But I like best the hopeful words of Seinfeld. “This stupid virus will give up eventually,” he wrote.
Which is why we New Yorkers, or those of us left, cannot.
Janine di Giovanni is a senior fellow at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs