Living in a COVID-19 hot spot: Ex-GR resident on life in NYC

NEW YORK, Mich. (WOOD) — Two former Grand Rapids residents were among the millions of people living in the U.S. city hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s hitting New York pretty badly right now. And other communities and cities can kind of see what’s happening in New York and brace themselves,” Joshua Chagani said Thursday, days before leaving the city. “But also New York has just an insane amount of people… in a very tight group. So it’s able to spread just so much faster.”


Chagani and his wife Laura Rizzo Chagani worked at WOOD TV8 before moving to Boston and eventually Manhattan two years ago. The couple loved how everything was close by and almost always open.

But in the past couple of weeks when a crucial errand would send Chagani outside, he noticed a drastic change.

(Wall Street stands empty as people stay away from the area due to the coronavirus on March 30, 2020 in New York City. Photo courtesy: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

“It’s definitely a lot quieter. We do live in Manhattan, so there’s always people out, but now you go outside and there’s like no traffic. You’ll still see some people, a lot of people wearing masks some people still jogging,” said Chagani. “There are always people out, but there’s definitely a lot less. And knowing that there’s so many people around and you’re not really seeing anyone, it’s kind of weird.”

(A photo taken March 26, 2020, shows Manhattan during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo courtesy: Joshua Chagani)

Chagani said they used to take a lot of walks in nearby Central Park. Now the park is home to a makeshift hospital to aid in the COVID-19 pandemic.

(People set up an emergency field hospital to aid in the COVID-19 pandemic in Central Park on March 30, 2020 in New York City. Photo courtesy: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

Like in Michigan, most businesses are closed. New York City’s grocery stores are considered essential businesses and remain open.

A sign posted on the door to a Manhattan store explains why the business is closed during the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo courtesy: Joshua Chagani)

“It feels very much that if you’re not doing an emergency run to the grocery store, basically nothing is open. And if you do go to the grocery store, it is absolutely insane. I mean, just completely insane. There’s, there are a comical amount of people there. But all the shelves are essentially empty,” Chagani said. “Rice was gone almost instantly. A lot of the pasta was gone.”

Chagani says a lot of stores ask customers to wait outside to minimize the number of people in close quarters.

(Signs posted on the windows to Manhattan’s West Side Pharmacy explained new crowd restrictions for customers amid the coronavirus pandemic. Photo courtesy: Joshua Chagani)

“There’s a couple of pharmacies, pretty local pharmacies where they’ve got signs that basically like if you’re not wearing any gloves, don’t touch anything, we’ll grab it. And only one person is allowed in the store at a time,” he explained.

(Signs posted on the windows to Manhattan’s West Side Pharmacy explained new crowd restrictions for customers amid the coronavirus pandemic. Photo courtesy: Joshua Chagani)

Grocery delivery services are also slammed. The delivery Chagani took during an interview with News 8 had to be scheduled out about a week before because all earlier time slots were taken. The couple had tried earlier to set up a grocery delivery shortly before a shelter-in-place order was issued, but the schedule was booked as far out as they could see.

While many people in Michigan can stock up their refrigerators and freezers, Chagani says Manhattan living is less spacious, making open stores more crucial.

“Here, it’s like we live in like a 200-square-foot studio apartment. We can’t even hoard two weeks of food, you know what I mean? It’s like, where we would have to put it — in the bed with us?”

Chagani said the lack of space is one of the biggest challenges they faced.

“Since we do live in an apartment with a couple of other people, you have to be quiet, especially in working out. So you can’t really jump that high, you know what I mean? Yeah, (we have to) do baby jumps to try and be quieter. And we don’t have any weights as well, so yesterday, Laura was using two cans of black beans and I was using a heavy bottle of wine that’s never been open. So (you) kind of have to improvise a little bit,” he said Thursday.


As of Sunday afternoon, New York City had 33,400 cases of COVID-19 — roughly half of the state’s total cases and a quarter of all cases in the U.S., according to CNBC.

On Monday afternoon, Johns Hopkins’ coronavirus case tracking map showed a total of 790 deaths in New York City connected to coronavirus.

New York City was one of the first places hit hardest by the pandemic, and it’s a city the White House coronavirus response team is studying very carefully.

(The USNS Comfort hospital ship travels up the Hudson River as it heads to Pier 90 on March 30, 2020 seen from Battery Park in New York City. Photo courtesy: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

“What I wanted to be very clear on is every metro area should assume that they can have an outbreak equivalent to New York and do everything right now to prevent it. If they mitigate now before they start seeing cases in the emergency room and in the hospital, once you see those, the virus has been spreading for days to weeks. So this is really my call on every mayor to prepare now,” advised White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Deborah Birx on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Chagani and Rizzo Chagani were two days away from their 10-day honeymoon to Copenhagen, Denmark, when a friend in Washington, D.C., tipped them off to how bad the coronavirus pandemic and restrictions could get in the U.S.

“We were just like, ‘OK, we should just call it off and be good citizens.’ And then the next day was the travel ban from anyone from Europe coming to the United States. And so we were just ahead of the curve on that,” Chagani said.

(A Delta flight from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport flies nearly empty to JFK on March 15, 2020 near New York City. Photo courtesy: John Moore/Getty Images)

“It definitely was a little heartbreaking,” he said, but added that they were able to get a refund on basically everything.

The couple isn’t alone in canceling trips. Birx says flights in and out of New York are down 90% or more because “people are using common sense to protect others.”

(Terminal 1 section is seen at John F. Kennedy International Airport on March 12, 2020 in New York City. Photo courtesy: Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty)

New York is now serving as a learning model for the federal coronavirus task force.

“I think at this moment we’re asking every single governor and every single mayor to prepare like New York is preparing now. Know where every hospital is, public, private. Know where every one of your surgical centers are. That’s where your anesthesia ventilators are. Know how to change those anesthesia ventilators up to supportive ventilators to take care of people. Know where every piece of equipment is in the state, know how to move that around the state, based on need,” Birx added.


With Monday morning came the tipping point for Chagani and his wife.

With fears mounting about a lack of hospital beds, possible stateline road blocks and an announcement that Rizzo Chagani’s pay would be cut, the couple opted to leave the big city. They rented a car and headed to metro Detroit to shelter in place at a relative’s home.

“It’s been pretty crazy,” Chagani said.

Rizzo Chagani’s mother is a teaching nurse at Beaumont Hospital in Grosse Pointe, which is almost exclusively treating coronavirus patients now.

“The ER has a lot less people because not a lot of people are going out and getting injured, so it’s all essentially corona(virus) patients,” Chagani explained.

Chagani said according to his mother-in-law, coronavirus testing was almost nonstop to start, but has slowed down now because more guidelines are in place.

A limited supply of personal protection equipment has also led to changes at the hospital.

“They had to hide all of the masks and gloves because people were just taking them for their own use,” he explained. “It’s pretty easy to just grab them when you’re in a hospital and they really don’t care. But apparently there’s such a shortage that people would come in and just take handfuls of them. And so now all of those are hidden from viewing.”


Chagani said he and his wife are thankful everyone they know is healthy and that they have work, but he says staying inside and living their regular lives had given them something of a false sense of security. He’s worried others may feel that too and act on it.

“Cabin fever is a real thing… I think that’s actually the biggest issue is too many people at the same time will decide, two or three weeks inside was long enough,” he said. “And I think that is kind of what will keep this going. It’ll kind of ebb and tide because people think that, ‘Oh, you know everyone, I know my extended family, people I talked to on the phone are fine,’ but that doesn’t account for the 3 million people that live in like Manhattan alone,” he explained.

(A photo taken March 26, 2020 shows Manhattan during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo courtesy: Joshua Chagani)

He feels the biggest misconception about this pandemic is people without symptoms think they’re OK, but they could be carrying the virus and spreading it to others unknowingly.

“It’s not necessarily about you. It’s about the people with immune deficiencies, elderly people. Those people have no choice or are in bad condition already. (They’re) the ones that are kind of put in danger because you didn’t feel like staying at home,” he added.

(Cars drive under an electronic sign warning drivers about coronavirus, COVID-19, on a highway near the Verrazano Bridge on March 30, 2020 in New York. Photo courtesy: Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images)

Birx also doesn’t want anyone to underestimate the breadth of this pandemic.

“No state, no metro area will be spared. And the sooner that we react and the sooner the states and the metro areas react and ensure that they put in full mitigation at the same time understanding exactly what their hospitals need, then we’ll be able to move forward together and protect the most Americans,” she said.