The city that never sleeps, comes to a standstill

A journalist's experience of COVID-19 lockdown in New York City

A concrete jungle where dreams are made of. Where vagabond shoes are longing to stray. New York, New York. It was a city that never slept, until it woke up in a nightmare where it became the centre of the COVID-19 pandemic and the city came to an abrupt standstill.

New York has been under tight lockdown since mid-March, and three months later is cautiously moving into the first phase of reopening. Our UOW alumni are based in all corners of the world including Sandra Siagian who is working as a journalist with CBS News in New York City.

We spoke with Sandra about her experience in lockdown, covering the pandemic through her work, and her close call with Coronavirus.

Paint us a picture, where are you living and what does your daily routine currently involve?

I live in East Village in lower Manhattan. It's usually quite a busy area - with lots of restaurants, bars and shops around - but now the streets are dead quiet. Most places are shut, aside from convenience stores, grocery stores and the odd restaurant here and there, offering takeout. I live on my own in a tiny studio - so it's nice to have my own space - even if it's small. Since my apartment only has one window and no balcony - I like to go for what I call a "post-work sanity walk" every day along the East River, rain, shine or even snow. My younger sister lives five blocks away so it’s nice to have another family member to spend time with and not be on my own.

What did lockdown look like for you?

When the Governor first issued the state's "stay-at-home" order - the city became almost like a ghost town. All I can really hear are the sounds of sirens going past and the 7pm claps (where New Yorkers lean out of their windows to clap and cheer for health care workers and all the other workers on the front line). It's even peaceful in the morning - there's no longer the sound of traffic and cars using their horns - but you can now hear the birds chirping. I’ve been able to go on bike rides through the city during peak hour and have no fear of getting stuck in traffic or worry about dodging cars.

Sandra and her sister in East Village.

When did you realise that things were becoming serious around the world and in New York?

I feel like there was a delayed reaction around the world in terms of understanding the seriousness of the pandemic. When I returned to work after a trip to Australia in early January, I remember us reporting about the cases in China and then eventually the first few confirmed cases in the US.

There was such a quick turnaround from reporting the first few deaths in the country in Washington State - to states starting to enforce "stay-at-home" orders in March.
I even went to Jamaica for a weekend in early March and a few days later after I returned my office shut down on March 11 after a few positive cases were confirmed in the building.

The following weekend the city shut down and stay-at-home orders were put in place. So within a week - the city went from its usual bustling self to a quiet and eerie city.

I had lots of friends from home in Sydney asking me whether I would come back - but to be honest it never crossed my mind. Our job was considered essential - and I’ve been pretty busy since we started working remotely. So I think I’m pretty fortunate to still have a job during this crisis.

How did you navigate working from home?

The first few weeks were all a bit ad hoc as we were all trying to figure out how to produce a live show while everyone (anchors, producers, directors, tech managers) was at home. I’m currently a Senior Content Producer at CBSN - CBS News’ 24-hour digital stream.

When I first started working from home I found it quite overwhelming - as I went from working in a control room with a desktop computer, two screens, a desk, chair and all the software and tech support we needed to put together a show - to putting together a show from home using a laptop sitting on my couch. At first we relied a lot on our local affiliates to use their live coverage to keep our service running smoothly - but after a few weeks we were back up and running and doing everything we would normally do back in the newsroom, such as taking press conferences as they come in from either the President or a state governor.

We’ve had days where we had to even go rolling live with our coverage - and while there are always some tech obstacles - we’ve managed to get things back to the way we used to do things.

That being said, I thought I would enjoy working from home more - but it definitely is harder - especially on days when we have to cover breaking news. But for now - I think we are all in a good place to be able to keep the show going remotely for as long as we need to. 

Sandra's home control room.  Sandra's home control room. This was her setup when CBS covered the Spacex launch. 

What has been the hardest part of lockdown and this crisis?

The hardest part was the lack of resources and testing capabilities at the beginning of our quarantine period in mid-March. My sister tested positive for Covid-19 but she wasn’t able to get the conventional nasal swab test to diagnose her. She first went to a medical centre to see if she could get tested for Covid-19 they didn’t have a test available. So she was sent to an emergency room at a nearby hospital but they also weren’t able to test her because she wasn’t considered a high-risk patient and was breathing fine. After a lengthy six-hour wait in the emergency room- where she finally had a CT scan on her lungs (not the nasal swab) - the doctors there finally diagnosed her with Covid-19 based on her scans and what they saw in her lungs.

During those same weeks there were a few days where I had felt a bit rundown – but the advice from the NYC mayor and the state’s governor was to only go to an emergency room or see a doctor if you were at high risk.

And after seeing how difficult it was for my sister to get tested - I didn’t want to risk exposing myself to others if I did have it and I also didn’t want to be sitting in a waiting room and potentially catch it from someone else. But in May - the state started offering free Covid-19 tests including antibodies tests to all residents. I had one a few weeks ago and my antibodies test came back positive - which means I did have it at some point.

Why do you think NY was hit so hard by the pandemic?

In the city - there’s just so many people here and everyone lives so tightly condensed. From catching a subway or bus, to walking along the streets, or even entering an apartment building or office and touching a door knob, handrail or push a button in an elevator - there’s just so many opportunities for germs to spread which is probably why the virus spread so fast and led to the state becoming one of the hardest hit in the US.

As of June - more than 370,000 people have tested positive for the virus and over 24,000 people have died according to state data. But even with those high figures - the daily infection rate has since slowed down and there are now plans to move into the first phase of reopening New York City.

Social distancing measures in place in Domino Park, Brooklyn.  Social distancing measures in place in Domino Park, Brooklyn. 

New Yorkers are often portrayed as being strong and able to get back on their feet - what has your observation been of the people in the community affected by this crisis?

I feel like there has been a strong sense of community spirit and support among New Yorkers. Every day at 7pm - they lean out of their windows to clap and cheer frontline workers. Even if people are on the street walking somewhere or going for a jog - they’ll stop to clap and cheer. I’ve seen health care workers in their scrubs walking on the street and people will just stand there and thank them and clap for them. It started as a one-off event but it still happens today. Everyone is pretty respectful of everyone’s space. Whether you’re on a sidewalk, grocery store or waiting to get inside a store - most people are observing safe, social distancing measures which means people are taking this seriously and trying (for the most part) to help get things back to normal as quickly as possible.

Journalists and news organisations have played a vital role in broadcasting potentially life-saving information, what were guiding principles and/or values that drove you throughout this time?

Since everything moved so quickly - from states operating as usual to quickly switching into lockdown - our primary job was to provide the public with the most up-to-date and relevant information. Since CBSN is a national streaming service - we have to cater to viewers across the country. So whenever I build a show or select stories for the rundown - I always think why is this important and why should viewers care about this?

Since there’s such a big and diverse population in the US - it’s important to not only look at the big picture when setting the news rundown for the day, but to also provide as many different voices to make sure we can tell the whole story as best as possible and not just focus on the political point of view from Washington DC.

I think it’s also important to remember that even as we report the rising number of infections and deaths every day - we always need to remember that there are real people behind these figures and we need to take note of that when writing scripts and telling these stories.

What advice would you give to journalism students or people working in the media when it comes to handling a global crisis like this?

Accuracy is key when it comes to reporting. With figures constantly changing and new details about the virus emerging every day - it’s important that we only use reputable sources when it comes to reporting the facts. Whether you’re working for a local, national or international outlet - the audience is always the priority. Particularly in the digital age - where people want news almost instantly as it happens - there’s always the risk of misinformation especially online. So it’s particularly important during times like this to focus on reporting accurately.

Riding through the empty streets around Times Square.
Riding through the empty streets around Times Square

What are you looking forward to the most about life ‘returning to normal?’ and how will you live life differently, if anything?

I’m looking forward to just being able to hang out with friends, go out to restaurants or bars and just be able to live more at ease. While restrictions are easing, in New York we are still required to wear a face mask when out in public and maintain social distancing measures. Until they find a vaccine, I don’t think we will ever go back to “normal”. But I’ve adapted to this way of life and I think most New Yorkers have as well. I’m sure we will all probably just be more cautious in everything that we do out in the real world.

We can’t wait to get back to New York – what’s the number one thing you recommend someone do in New York when it’s safe to do so?

Since we are coming into summer - I enjoy spending time at one of the many rooftop bars that NYC has to offer, especially around the Lower East Side. Or I like to head across the East River to Williamsburg, Brooklyn - to pick a spot there along the river that looks across to the Manhattan skyline. I love living in NYC - but it’s also nice to step out and get a view from outside. Alternatively, I like heading to Central Park for a picnic. It’s simple - but always a winner.

Sandra Siagian
Bachelor of Journalism - Bachelor of Commerce, 2010