By Jonathan Allen, Gabriella Borter and Leela de Kretser
NEW YORK (Reuters) – It still looked like New York City, but wasn’t quite.
It was not odd to see teenaged boys in hoodies burring their skateboards in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park, while joggers and dog-walkers milled about as the sun set on a mild March evening. But it was jarring to notice many of them sporting blue surgical masks, some finishing the look with latex gloves, as if they had come straight from the operating theater.
The scene was a stark reminder of how the coronavirus outbreak has transformed life in a metropolis where it has claimed nearly two dozen lives in a matter of days.
On one of the first nights since the pandemic forced a near-shutdown of the city that never sleeps, New York after dark felt otherworldly.
“The energy in the air is very tense,” said Lionel Bremond, who would only speak prison-style by phone from behind the window of his empty Fort Greene restaurant, Cafe Paulette.
“A couple breaking up, people getting really drunk,” he said, recalling some of the sights he had encountered on the street outside. “It’s extremes.”
Only days earlier, New Yorkers were packing into crowded bars and restaurants, cracking dark jokes about the coronavirus while perhaps washing hands more than usual. Now, such gatherings are banned, and the jokes seem less funny.
Despite the admonitions to stay inside, some young people embraced a chance to move fast through the emptying city. A boy on a neon-orange bicycle did wheelies through a nearly deserted Times Square. A girl wearing a face mask sped along a Hudson River pier on a pink scooter.
“It’s a skater’s dream,” said Dyanna Hernandez, 20, who had joined a dozen skater friends in Manhattan’s Union Square to enjoy the freedom of what she called a “ghost city” after three days stuck at home. “I can’t really be quarantined.”
In an almost empty Washington Square Park, Chris Taha, 31, compared the outbreak to other events that shook the city. He recalled that even after the Sept. 11 attacks and Hurricane Sandy in 2012 most businesses were back within a day or two.
“There was a sense of community,” he said, his 7-month-old daughter strapped to his chest and a mask hanging around his neck. “Now, every business is closed for who knows how long.” He and his wife were forced to lay off 60 employees after shutting his Soho cafe, Summers, and two Brooklyn restaurants.
The New York where you could begin your evening browsing racks of second-hand novels outside the Strand bookstore on Broadway and finish up with 3 a.m. pierogis at the all-night Ukrainian diner Veselka in the East Village was gone, or at least on hold.
Inside Cafe Paulette, every table was crowned with inverted chairs except for one, where the owner had set out a bottle of hand sanitizer and a phone for taking delivery orders, the only sales allowed under emergency rules.
“French cuisine doesn’t travel well,” Bremond grumbled. He had been forced to tweak his menu: no coq au vin now, but more steak options. His regulars were being supportive of him and what was now a skeleton staff, he said, but they couldn’t come inside. Bremond would meet them at the door, opened only enough to pass through paper bags of food.
Nearby at Fort Greene Park, Richard Glover, a 32-year-old assistant principal at a Brooklyn school, was doing bodyweight exercises on a bench near the skaters as dusk fell.
“I thought it’d be quieter, like we’d be the only people,” he said. “You come here, the world’s normal.”
“-Ish,” said his friend Rik Lomas, a 35-year-old founder of an education startup.
“Normal-ish,” Glover agreed.
The two friends stood no closer than 6 feet apart, an awkward new social norm that has been urged by officials with mixed results as the virus spreads through a dense city of more than 8 million people, infecting thousands so far.
Glover and Lomas were only working out in the park because their CrossFit gym was one of the countless gathering places closed this week. For how long, no one knew. The gym had lent them one dumbbell each, they said.
Outside Lincoln Center, the crown jewel of the city’s performing arts venues and dark like all the others, Bach hummed from a double bass played by Jeffrey Christopher, a 64-year-old busker. He had been shunted above ground as the subway riders he usually plays for mostly stayed home, and had vowed to be a one-man stand-in for the orchestras and operas that would be playing behind him, his attempt at what he called “a return to normalcy.”
Much of New York nightlife has moved inside and upward as residents embrace an unfamiliar domesticity, causing the facades of apartment towers to glow unusually bright in the night sky with mosaics of novice homebodies’ uncurtained windows.
It was trash night for much of Fort Greene, so residents darted out to dump the detritus of prolonged home confinement on the sidewalk before heading to bed. Transparent recycling bags told some of the story: empty wine bottles, take-out containers and multiple plastic dispensers of Clorox disinfecting wipes.
By this hour, the weekly karaoke night at Frank’s Cocktail Lounge, a neighborhood institution, would usually be hitting a soulful stride that could be heard from the street.
On Wednesday night, it was shuttered and dark but for a television over the bar silently playing CNN to no one.
“AT LEAST 8,736 CORONAVIRUS CASES IN U.S.,” the onscreen chyron read. “148 DEATHS.”
(Reporting by Jonathan Allen, Gabriella Borter and Leela de Kretser in New York; Editing by Frank McGurty and Daniel Wallis)