United States of Corona

UH Hilo student journalists attend NYC-based convention as COVID-19 turns the city upside-down

Photo of a man staring at the camera, wearing a respirator mask at an airport.Pictured is Chiro Bright in John F. Kennedy International Airport with a gas mask on his face. He is a student at Little Red Highschool in New York City taking extra precaution during his travel from COVID-19 Copy Editor Elijah Kahula
Photographs by Kasumi Collins

Editor’s Note: This is an opinion piece.

I exited a workshop hosted in the Marriott Marquis on Broadway, New York City, and viewed the email notifications flooding my phone. NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio had just declared a state of emergency, seemingly swinging open the floodgates guarding the United States’ largest city from what had, only a month ago, been the distant problems of Asian and European countries.

I was attending the College Media Association Spring Convention (CMA) in NYC along with students and advisors of collegiate media organizations all over the country. Joining me on the trip were fellow UH Hilo student publication members: Ke Kalahea Layout Editor and colleague Kasumi Collins, our veteran advisor, Tiffany Edwards-Hunt, Hohonu Science Editor Sean Fitzpatrick, and Board of Student Publications (BOSP) Secretary Caroline Comper.

Two days before, on March 10, we’d landed on the East Coast–and so had the reality of a pandemic called the novel coronavirus. Reportedly originating in a Wuhan, China fish market, COVID-19 is a type of coronavirus in the same family as SARS that can cause deadly respiratory complications in the elderly and immune-compromised.

The highly contagious and poorly contained virus was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) on March 11, and thousands have been infected, with high mortality rates in countries such as Italy and China.

When we flew out of Hilo International Airport, there were 36 known COVID-19 cases in New York City. By March 14, the conference had ended a day early and we left as the state’s total cases reached 613, with over 100 infected in the hospital.

Upon arrival, we were picked up by an Uber driver who told us that business had been slow lately because of the travel bans, as well as people avoiding going out more often to avoid the virus. After interviewing him about his life for a little while, Tiffany wanted to know if he, too, was scared of the virus. Saheed paused meaningfully for a moment, and said that he was.

Photo of people sitting on benches of a subway with face masks on.Pictured are citizens of New York City taking the metro, wearing masks as protection from COVID-19

Walking around and riding in public transportation, I felt comfort in the way people behaved confronting the virus. The inner clean freak came out of many, and face masks were extremely common to see. Rather than a feeling of mutual distrust, I felt a sense that everyone was doing their part.

Overall, CMA was a skeleton of its intended form, with cancellations from both speakers and attendees. While the convention was supposed to host over 1,000 attendees, less than 500 showed, and our numbers seemed to get smaller everyday. Embracing the technological solutions of our times, the keynote speaker came through on a livestream that was projected in the ballroom. The organizers and our cohort were still proceeding cautiously.

When the state of emergency was declared on March 12, the fog of speculation dissipated, and it was clear that, as a society, we were sailing in uncharted waters.

Notification after notification came in as the country seemed to shut down. Sean bought a ticket at lunch for a Broadway show later that night, but by 5 p.m. the show, along with Broadway itself, was cancelled. Governor Cuomo placed a ban on gatherings of 500 or more people.

Evidence of the changes to come when we returned back home came through, as well. UH Hilo classes would move online with the rest of American universities. Spring break at other attendees’ schools were enviably extended.

A student sports reporter from Georgia State University told me March Madness was cancelled–three weeks worth of coverage down the drain. His group left the next day.

Before the convention’s award ceremony, the projector in the ballroom broadcasted President Donald Trump arguing about COVID-19 with reporters, like a surrealist art installation.

The cultural, political, and economic changes taking place because of COVID-19 were so vast and rapid that they seemed only understandable through the microcosms of city life. Like a symptom of the virus itself, the events around me became reminiscent of a fever dream.

After packing, I dined in at Via Carlota, an Italian restaurant that typically draws crowds out the door. With others staying in, however, I had no trouble getting a spot between two people reading at the bar. One was a speech pathologist whose hospital was quarantining their staff in stints, since medical personnel are at extremely high risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19.

She would be in the next quarantine, so this would be her last meal out. She treated herself to the tiramisu and got the bartender’s email, who she, despite being a regular, wouldn’t have been able to chat up on a busier night.

As I queued up for the TSA early the next day, surrounded by face masks and nervous glances, I couldn't help but feel like leaving New York City was getting away from a shaken-up soda can.

Still, as I settled into my self-chosen quarantine at my dorm at UH Hilo, relief was far from what I experienced. I questioned whether we should have gone on the trip, and was dismayed to come to the realization that we may not have gone if our group, and those around us, had been operating under the assumption that the virus was a more serious potential threat.

Back then, however, Hilo had yet to have a case reported despite the steady traffic of cruise ships through our ports. Coming from our seemingly unbothered island in the Pacific, the level of alarm those in the city felt seemed unimaginable and foreign before we arrived.

The comfort in how seriously New Yorkers took preventing the virus, with measures such as diligent sanitation and social distancing seemed not to be ingrained here even when I returned. My family members on the other side of the island called to tell me, much to my alarm, that they were doing life as usual.

In New York, I glimpsed the beginning of a collective, citywide nightmare. As of March 18, the state reportedly has over 3,615 cases. In Hilo, the nightmare hasn’t started, and maybe it won’t (the Big Island currently has only one confirmed case of the disease). Either way, however, we will all soon be face-to-face with a new American reality–one shaped by COVID-19.