Pandemic drives New Yorkers to decide: Do I stay or go?

Published: Jun. 29, 2020 at 12:17 PM CDT
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - Moving trucks are becoming a common sight on the streets of New York City as many residents grapple with the decision forced upon them by COVID-19: Do I stay or do I go?

At the height of the coronavirus pandemic in New York state, more than 700 people a day were dying from the virus, most of those in New York City. To escape, some New Yorkers fled to second homes outside the city, while some left to stay with family members in other states. Others toughed it out in tiny apartments for weeks, but now are making long-term plans to move elsewhere.

Many New Yorkers have no feasible choice but to stay, and still others are determined to stay in the city, despite the questions still surrounding the economy, health safety and possibility of a second wave of COVID in the fall.

Moving trucks are a common sight in New York as many people are leaving in the wake of COVID-19.
Moving trucks are a common sight in New York as many people are leaving in the wake of COVID-19.(Richie Lisenby)

Two weeks away turns into two months, then question marks

When Kiersten Hasemeyer and her husband packed their bags in their Brooklyn apartment in early March, they thought they’d be gone two weeks or a month, tops. Her husband joked about being gone for two months as they packed jackets and clothes for a chilly New England spring. 

At the time, they had no idea they wouldn’t return for two months, only to pack up their apartment for good.

The Hasemeyer family left New York City on March 15 to spend time with family in Virginia and...
The Hasemeyer family left New York City on March 15 to spend time with family in Virginia and Tennessee.(Kiersten Hasemeyer)

Hasemeyer and her husband Bradley own a small production company that creates content for brands, as well as their own shows they pitch. They are writers, actors and content creators who moved to New York City three years ago with their daughter, who was nearly four at the time. 

Their neighborhood of Cobble Hill in Brooklyn was three train stops from the city, affording them easy access to the diversity, culture and opportunities unlike anywhere else. 

Hasemeyer grew up in Maryland, lived in Los Angeles for 13 years, and spent time in Phoenix before moving to New York City, which she visited as a teenager, promising herself she’d return one day.

“The diversity is incredible, the lack of cars is probably one of my favorite things. Getting a kid in and out of a carseat is my least favorite thing ever. The walkability, the lifestyle it afforded. It’s my favorite place I’ve ever lived,” she said.

But in early March, she felt with a growing certainty that her family needed to leave. She and her husband had just adopted their newborn son days before news of the virus began to spread in the city. 

Within the span of a couple days, Hasemeyer heard rumors that city officials could close the bridges; a friend who teaches at NYU told her the campus was closing; and her daughter’s school let them know absences wouldn’t be counted if they left. 

She and her husband realized that if they stayed, “we’re gonna quarantine in a less-than 700 square foot apartment with a first grader and a newborn.”

So in the span of only 12 hours on Thursday, March 13, they made the call to leave New York City by Saturday and drive to her aunt’s home in Virginia. After five days there, they drove for 10 hours to her in-laws’ home in Knoxville, Tennessee where they stayed for seven weeks. 

“Seven weeks in Knoxville, that was never the plan,” she said.

During that time, they made the painful decision to break their lease in New York. In early May, Bradley returned to their apartment with gloves, masks and cleaning supplies and packed their things into storage.

Hasemeyer says the rent in New York is known to be astronomical, but the reality is they’re paying for so much more—public transportation, a great public school for their daughter, close location to the city with its parks and shows and restaurants. 

“We love this place too much. But then as everything crumbled around us, everything you’re paying for isn’t there anymore,” she said.

She estimated around 70 percent of her friends are leaving the city, mostly families with kids. Every family in their apartment building has left, except for one.

Among the friends who are staying, she said most are either single, married without kids, or working essential jobs that require them to stay in the city.

She noted that it’s a huge privilege to have the option to leave.

“The act of us leaving is an act of privilege, the fact that we had family out of the city and we had a place to go. The level of who’s leaving is very privileged,” she added.

Coronavirus speeds up decision to move back to Alabama

Richie Lisenby, an Alabama native from Dothan, has lived in New York City for five years, working as an actor and most recently as a manager for a fitness company. He said it took him almost three years before he felt like he was coming home when he landed in New York after spending holidays in Alabama.

“Almost everything that made New York worth it, you pay the price with extra stress and cost, but at the end of the day you get all of these amazing, beautiful things you may not get other places. But in a coronavirus world those things don’t exist,” Lisenby noted.

He spent the first several weeks of lockdown mostly in his two-bedroom apartment he shares with a roommate, but by May 25, he wrote down a pros and cons list as he debated leaving New York and moving back to his home state.

Richie Lisenby is packing his belongings into his roommate's SUV to move back to Alabama after...
Richie Lisenby is packing his belongings into his roommate's SUV to move back to Alabama after living in New York City for the last 5 years.(Richie Lisenby)

“At the time, The New York Times said there could be closures off and on for the next couple of years. I think that was one of the tipping points for me. If it was three months, I could weather it out,” he said. 

“But if we’re looking at reopening and rehiring, to only be shut down two months later, if it’s going to be happening for a few years, I don’t have the mental health stamina for that.”

Lisenby grew up in Dothan, Alabama, graduated from the University of Montevallo, spent time in Japan, lived in Illinois for two years while earning a Master’s degree in music, then spent the last five years in New York City. 

“A lot of people I know are moving. It was funny when I went to announce to a friend at work, she was like, ‘You too?’ You see moving trucks every single day. People packing up and leaving the city. It’ll be interesting to see what happens here,” he said.

Richie Lisenby and his roommate left their couch and other furniture on the curb as they move...
Richie Lisenby and his roommate left their couch and other furniture on the curb as they move out of their apartment in Harlem.(Richie Lisenby)

While making his pros and cons list, Lisenby realized that many of the things he loves most about the city—such as the diverse food scene, his church, theatre, and his job in group fitness—involve large groups of people.

“But groups are now something that are a terrifying prospect for most people,” he said.

Lisenby said the city is an especially difficult place during the coronavirus because public transportation, which many New Yorkers rely on, is now a dangerous option. 

“I don’t blame anyone who is leaving the city in the midst of this. There’s a part of me that feels guilty about it, but at the end of the day, New York City was already a hard place to live. So many little stressors, everything is that much harder to do,” he said.

Lisenby said he always planned to eventually go back to Alabama, but the coronavirus sped up his decision process.

“At the end of the day I needed to get a job where I can save money and own a home,” he said.

Lisenby and his roommate had been planning to travel this summer to Morocco. Instead, they’re packing all of his belongings in his roommate’s SUV and making a road trip out of his move down South.

Richie Lisenby measured the exact dimensions of his roommate's SUV to determine how his...
Richie Lisenby measured the exact dimensions of his roommate's SUV to determine how his belongings will fit inside.(Richie Lisenby)

They’re planning to enjoy scenic views in the Shenandoah Valley National Park, explore the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, and visit the Civil Rights memorials in Alabama.

Though he knows he’ll miss New York, he’s also looking forward to being back in his home state and starting a new career as a realtor.

“I can’t wait to be in a place where I can put my groceries in my trunk and drive them home. For the whole time I lived in New York, I mourned the loss of nature, trees, lakes, and outdoor activity readily available,” he said.

Lisenby said he’s expecting to have counter-culture shock adjusting to the slower pace of Southern life after the noise and bustle of the big city. 

“But ultimately I think all of those things are going to be good for me, and taking a lot of getting used to,” he said.

Gone for 6 weeks, now returning to the city emerging from lockdown

Michael Henderson is one of the New Yorkers who temporarily left the city in the height of the pandemic, but recently returned as the city slowly eases some restrictions. The city is now in Phase 2 of its reopening plan, allowing New Yorkers to get haircuts and eat at restaurants outside.

Henderson has worked with international students through a Christian nonprofit for the last 13 years, living in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Virginia before moving to New York City three years ago. He now works at New York University, where there are 20,000 international students who make up 30 percent of NYU’s total population.

Michael Henderson, left, works with international students at New York University
Michael Henderson, left, works with international students at New York University(Michael Henderson)

Henderson toughed out the first six weeks of the pandemic in his two bedroom apartment he shares with a roommate, but decided to go stay with his family in Virginia and work remotely for a few weeks as the city started shutting down.

“It’s just easier to social distance there, most people have land and a yard and larger homes. The challenge in New York is we live in very small apartments, most people don’t spend a lot of time in our apartments, you’re just there to eat and sleep. The city is your backyard and home, but when everything shuts down, forced to stay home 24/7, it’s hard,” he said.

Henderson came back to New York almost three weeks ago because he missed the city, which has become home.

“Being away for six weeks straight was hard. Even though I have a stable, safe place with family, it’s not home anymore. I was eager to get back when it seemed safe and like the virus was slowing down. The virus numbers and infection rates have dropped significantly in the city the last two months,” he said.

Henderson has a dozen friends who tested positive for the coronavirus, and several friends whose family members died from COVID. 

“It hits home very personally when you know people who are going through it directly. Most people I know who have had it have recovered, and not catching it at the same rate as before,” he said.

Henderson said he knew several people who left the city initially.

“A good number stuck it out and stayed the whole time but probably an equal number left either short term or long term. From what I can tell, quite a few are coming back at this point, others are coming back by the end of June. For the past three weeks I’ve heard of a friend each week leaving the city permanently because of the virus, including a co-worker. He and his wife and kids have decided not to come back, which is really sad,” he said.

He added that families with young kids are being impacted more than others, partly because public schools may still require distance learning in the fall.

Michael Henderson, left, and his roommate shop at a grocery store in New York while social...
Michael Henderson, left, and his roommate shop at a grocery store in New York while social distancing and wearing masks.(Michael Henderson)

Since he’s been back in New York, Henderson has noticed more people are spending time outside enjoying the warmer weather.

“I think there was a pretty big fear for most of us early on, and a lot of that fear is lifting in many ways. I think people are still taking precautions, wearing masks and social distancing but not the same type of fear that gripped the city two months ago,” he said.

Henderson said he’s heard several companies are telling their employees they won’t be required to come back into the New York offices until January 2021 at the earliest.

“Many people are just going to be working from home the next six months and they can save a lot of money by moving out. It caused a lot of people to question where they want to spend their COVID year and New York is a hard place to spend it because New York wasn’t designed for social distancing,” Henderson said.

When it comes to his work with international students in the fall, Henderson said NYU is tentatively planning to offer some in-person experience for students, but haven’t given any details for what it will look like. 

He estimates around half of NYU’s international students left and finished the semester remotely from their home countries, while the other half stayed in New York, concerned that if they left the U.S. they wouldn’t be able to return by August.

Henderson imagines that many students will end up staying home and taking classes virtually in the fall semester, some because they can’t get a visa to travel and others who don’t want to risk catching the virus if a second wave erupts. 

He and his team of seven staff in New York City are spending this summer trying to think of creative ways to support and encourage international students during this time.

Michael Henderson, who works with the Bridges campus ministry to international students, hosts...
Michael Henderson, who works with the Bridges campus ministry to international students, hosts a meeting over Zoom.(Michael Henderson)

“I’m hoping by the fall we’ll be able to conduct some events in outdoor locations like parks or on campus so that we could meet in smaller groups of ten or fewer. We hope that will be allowed, it’s not allowed yet. Hopefully by August and September that will be the case,” he said. 

They’re trying to think of alternative ways to connect other than Zoom, since many students are experiencing “Zoom fatigue” after spending all day staring at a screen for schoolwork. 

He said they’re trying out ways to play board games virtually, and they’ve been using Instagram more often to try to build community during a time where it’s dangerous to meet in person.

What’s next?

Kiersten Hasemeyer and her family plan to stay in Virginia at least until her son’s adoption is finalized, which could happen this fall or later if the virus shuts down courts again.

She emailed her daughter’s first grade teacher, asking her opinion on what to do for schooling next year: take classes virtually through her public school in New York, home school for a few months, or enroll in elementary school in Virginia? So far, they’re undecided.

As a school assignment, her daughter Ellis recently wrote a book on mosquitoes, and she dedicated it to her new baby brother and everyone with COVID. 

“We’re just glad we’re not sick,” Ellis said.

Hasemeyer says for people in the creative community, it’s a wait and see approach. She’s writing a feature and a Hallmark movie, which she hopes to sell, and her husband has a contract with Honda Accura. He traveled to Los Angeles for work for the first time in months, a sign that things are slowly inching toward normalcy.

They’re still not sure when, or if, they’ll move back to New York City.

“People keep saying, ‘New York’s going to survive.’ I agree with that, but I’m interested to see how it changes and grows,” Hasemeyer said. “We miss it every day.”

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