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Students reflect on life inside the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic forced many Penn students to return to their permanent residences as they transitioned to online learning for the remainder of the spring 2020 semester. For some of these students, the semester had to be completed in New York City — the original epicenter of the crisis in the United States. 


The City That Never Sleeps had been in a deep slumber for nearly two months at the time of this essay. The streets were eerily quiet. Businesses had closed their doors. Public places that were usually packed became virtually empty. Here is what New York City looked like in the time of COVID-19, along with some perspectives from Penn students were experiencing the isolation firsthand.


A version of this essay was published in The Daily Pennsylvanian on May 4, 2020. None of the students quoted appear in the photographs.


Click the first image to begin the story.

The golden Grand Central Terminal, normally visited by 750,000 people every day, lied nearly empty just after 8 p.m. on Mar. 26, 2020.
"I've been able to walk in the streets due to the lack of traffic, something that I wouldn't have imagined doing a couple months ago. The weirdest part isn't even the physical emptiness, it's the way that New Yorkers are forced to walk as far away as possible from each other on the sidewalks." - College senior Carly Deitelzweig
"I've lived in New York City my whole life and have never seen it so desolate. Almost all businesses are closed and many people have left the city. On bad weather days, the streets are virtually empty." - College first year Alison Comite
"I always feel worse when I return home after going for a short walk. The spring is my favorite time of the year. Everything feels pretty anxious when Im outside." - College first-year Justin Lipitz
The Brooklyn Bridge, one of the most iconic landmarks in the city, was no longer filled with runners and bikers.
"I went out for the first time yesterday, May 1, since about March 15. Flowers started blooming, and I didn't realize that from my window. Going out made me realize this is gonna be a really long battle." - Engineering sophomore Kaiying Guo
"The city feels different, as I can only experience it from the inside now. I can sense that people are itching to return to normalcy. Personally, I am finding things to keep me sane - music, drawing, growing a plant, and cooking." - Nursing junior Sydney Steward
The World Trade Center Transportation Hub, also known as The Oculus, was void of any significant activity during the evening rush hour on Apr. 5, 2020.
"I usually don't mind being inside, but after 28 days in a small apartment I finally decided I needed to breathe some fresh air. I live ten blocks away from the tent set up in Central Park. It absolutely sent chills down my body." - College senior Giovanna Sena
"I definitely feel that I've had a very different experience during this time living in New York City. I am proud of those who have been working to respect social distancing - we all know how critical it is for us to do." - College sophomore Gillian Broome
"The news reports have definitely been scary, and I've had a lot of friends texting me worried because they know I'm in New York City. There are some times - particularly at night or when the weather is bad - when the streets can be really empty." - College senior Serena Miniter
"The only times my family and I go outside are to walk our dog or make a bulk run to Trader Joe's. I have found it a bit challenging to social distance while walking my dog due to how many families and individuals are outside as well, but people walk on the empty roads to keep separate. The highways are a ghost town." - College first-year Anika Kalra
The trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange closed for the first time in its 228-year history.
"Being inside can be tough. Every day can seem never-ending and the things we once took for granted - sunlight, fresh air, walking space - now seem even more inviting. I know lots of people are hoping that this quarantine ends soon, but New Yorkers are tough and we can get through as many days as necessary so that we can beat this virus." - Nursing junior Kimberly De La Cruz
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention used a large billboard in Times Square to project public service announcements, but there weren't many people there to read them.
"Everywhere you go, people are staring at you over their masks like you have three heads. The empty streets are equally ominous and calming depending on how recently you checked the news." - College junior Sydney Mueller
"Everyone seems happy, but at same time they are hoping for things to settle down and life to come back to normal. Initially, most people were afraid to go out, but with the weather getting better and the situation decreasing, more are now enjoying it." - Engineering sophomore Aida Akuyeva
"The one thing I love about being in New York City during this time is that at 7 p.m. every night, which is the typical time for hospital shifts to change, my entire neighborhood explodes in loud cheering, honking, and pot banging to celebrate our selfless health care workers. I have never felt so proud of and part of the NYC community as during those moments." - College first year Serena Zhang
The Empire State Building lit up red almost every night to honor healthcare workers treating COVID-19 patients.
"At night, there is this looming eeriness as if the city has been sucker-punched. The soul of New York is missing. But we will be back." - College sophomore Kian Sadeghi