LINCOLN — A 2015 graduate of Cedar Catholic High School has a first-hand look at the effects of the coronavirus in New York City.
Elizabeth Rembert, who grew up in Bow Valley, was living in New York City when reports of the first virus cases hit the news. She had made the move to New York City on a permanent basis at the end of September 2019 after a job offer with Bloomberg News.
“I knew New York was an incredible place to start a career in journalism,” she said.
Rembert remembers when the New York Post reported the first case of coronavirus in New York City. She and others were in the newsroom watching the case count and the actions around the cases very carefully. There was a hush and then a burst of frantic energy as everyone in the newsroom saw the New York Post story at the same time. Later on, the story was revealed as misleading as it was only a suspected case, but it showed how on edge people were, waiting for the virus to hit the city.
“I think in those early days of February to mid-March, everyone was thinking the same thing — it’s not reported in the city yet, but if and when it gets here, it’s going to be devastating,” Rembert said. “After all, the whole city’s infrastructure is built on crowded spaces.”
One of Rembert’s projects at Bloomberg involved tracking the cases and deaths in every state in the nation. On an hourly basis she would visit the health department website of each state to record and update the count. It was sobering to watch the virus spread even at the early stage.
“The cases would increase by the hundreds and the deaths would tick up. Now, of course the rate has gotten exponentially faster,” Rembert said. “It was so heartbreaking to re-visit a site and see the numbers increase. There would be another 200 families scared for their loved one with a confirmed case, or another friend that passed away.”
Response to virus scare
Even in the early stage of the coronavirus pandemic, Rembert could see and feel the difference in the energy in the city. People seemed to be more wary of each other, and there was strict etiquette on not getting too close to someone else. The subway cars were a lot emptier on Rembert’s commutes to and from work. She seen people stumble around in the subway cars because they were too afraid to hold onto the poles for stability.
There was an increase in the number of people wearing face masks. If a person would cough or sneeze, there would be dirty looks from others. At Bloomberg, where Rembert worked, hand sanitizer stations popped up everywhere. At one point, kitchen staff started wrapping up fruit in the pantry with saran wrap as a safety measure.
Portions of shelves in stores became empty. Frozen vegetables and canned goods were impossible to find. Rembert’s roommate once spent all day trying to find a couple rolls of toilet paper.
“I couldn’t imagine how people in New York could do major hoarding on canned food and toilet paper as there is no storage in those tiny apartments. When I bought extra pasta and some canned beans, I put them in a suitcase under my bed — that’s my pantry space,” Rembert said.
There were lines outside of the grocery stores near her apartment. Security guards stood outside the doors to keep the peace and only allow a certain number of people into the restaurant.
“In that early stage, even with all the tension, everyone still seemed to be going about their lives for the most part. It was eerie, but it wasn’t apocalyptic yet. People were still going to work, the streets were still busy and loud and the restaurants and stores were still open and crowded,” Rembert said. “I think people were worried and stressed and thinking about what they would do if or when it became a huge concern and problem, but at that point those thoughts were still abstract.”
The thought was when this becomes a huge problem, this is what we will do. And then it became this is a huge problem, this is what we have to do.
Toward the middle of March, Bloomberg News came out with strong guidance for employees to work from home. At that point, there were hundreds of coronavirus cases in New York and the state was seeing the first deaths according to Rembert.
Rembert left New York and came back to Nebraska on March 15, the Sunday after the announcement was made at work.
“By the time I left, New York was still in the early days. New Rochelle was the center of the spread and resources. Cuomo had just unveiled the prison-made hand sanitizer plan and Broadway was shut down,” Rembert said.
Rembert is currently living in an apartment in Lincoln and continues to work for Bloomberg News, the journalistic arm of the overall Bloomberg Company. Rembert is in a rotating program, where she spends a few months on different beats throughout the newsroom before being placed on a team that covers the topic on a more permanent basis. For three months she was on credit, covering corporate finance and bonds. Since the start of 2020, she has been on breaking news, where she spends time looking for news as it breaks on social media and in company filings.
“I spend my days looking through Twitter feeds, press releases and company filings. I send headlines and write very short stories on things like merger and acquisition announcements, management changes or new product releases,” she said.
Rembert will be headed back to New York City as soon as it is safe and all the employees are allowed to be back in the office.
“I want to wait until it is all clear,” Rembert said.
City and small-town differences
Rembert has some great memories of growing up in Cedar County. There are some distinct differences between living in a rural area in Nebraska and the most populous city in the United States. Rembert has seen contrast and found things she loves about both locations.
Having a clear view of the sky is one of the biggest things people do not think about. It is difficult to see the sky in New York City, specifically on Manhattan, where Rembert lives and works.
“In Nebraska, especially Cedar County, you have this beautiful open horizon with a huge sky. In New York city, with the skyscrapers, you have to look directly up to see the sky,” Rembert said.
Not having a car in the city and having to rely on public transport is another big difference. There is a large contrast in the amount of time it can take to travel the same distance at each location. In Cedar County, the number of miles a person travels translates into how many minutes it will take to get there.
“In New York City, it has taken me two hours to travel two miles,” Rembert said. “It’s infuriating.”
Something Rembert loves about the city is how much is packed into such a small area. The different cultures and atmospheres in each neighborhood make it very dynamic and interesting according to Rembert.
“I spent the summer on the Lower East Side, which has such a fun, vibrant, alive feeling with a lot of interesting restaurants, bars and museums. With lots of people walking around, it feels like you are at a party just walking down the sidewalk,” she said. “Now I live on the Upper West Side, which is calmer, with quieter restaurants. Instead of people playing music and dancing on the streets, people are walking their dogs. I love that the city is filled with these different areas where you can find and explore such different atmospheres.”
According to Rembert the culture is more uniform in small towns.
“Each small town in Nebraska has the bar with sticky barstools and dark wood, the place where everyone gets coffee in the morning and sits around talking. The community is more like a big extended family,” Rembert said. “I love that comfort too, but it’s different from feeling like every street is a new world.”
Rembert has good memories of growing up in Cedar County. She lived on the farm until her family moved to Bow Valley. She graduated from Cedar Catholic in 2015.
“I have a lot of great memories from doing marching band for Homecoming parades, driving to the Fryn’ Pan in Yankton after dances and going to Mrs. Z’s after cross country practices,” she said.
Rembert also has good memories of being an intern at Cedar County News, especially those nights of working in the print shop and mailing room.