During the Fall 2020 Semester, The Oppy will be publishing submissions from members of the Stern community about how the Covid-19 Pandemic has impacted their experience in and out of the program. If you wish to write about your own experience, please e-mail us at [email protected].
The following entry comes from Langone student Andy Garcia.
February 16th, 2020 was already slated to be a tough one. I was headed to the airport to drop off my wife Shenae for her flight to Australia, as she awaited the final step of her United States visa process: the in-person interview at the U.S. Embassy in Sydney. We had already done eight months of long distance while we were engaged. Now, as we were prepared for 1-2 months apart, we believed we could endure another two months and nothing more.
On a Friday one month later, I found myself in my shared office space in downtown Manhattan feeling like it was doomsday. There was plenty of chatter in the office about a New York City shutdown. I remember telling Shenae how it felt and all the uncertainty that awaited the following week. Covid-19 has affected every individual to a variety of degrees. I am mindful that many people across the globe have lost friends, families, colleagues, and those in their communities. To those people, I am sorry for your loss and I believe that the best is yet to come regardless how hard 2020 has been. While I have not endured the worst as they have, my wife and I still dealt with the unexpected struggle of 6.5 months without each other in a pandemic.
Two months after she had left, Shenae and I had to make a decision about our next steps. Shenae was back home with her parents in Australia while I was in our apartment in Queens. There were many moving parts between my job, finishing my first semester at Stern, Australian border closures, U.S. visa restrictions, and, of course, the coronavirus itself. We didn’t choose the cards that we were dealt, but we could choose how we responded. With so much world between us, we found new and creative ways to connect with each other. The 14-hour time difference didn’t help, yet we still managed to work out together, play Uno over Houseparty, watch Netflix over Netflix Party, have a dance party on a Friday night, have meals together, send each other gifts, do the 7 p.m. clapping for essential workers, and talk for hours over FaceTime.
In some ways, this time was a blessing to our families because we could now give them more of our time and energy. Shenae hadn’t lived with her parents since she was 20. At one point, I had moved away to Sydney from New York for four years. Our family and friends were very supportive of our situation and of how we were navigating this time apart. I can truly say that God has been good to us, and our marriage is so much stronger because of it.
As the weather started getting warmer, New York started to open up from lockdown. I still was very hesitant to meet with friends because I was mindful of my social responsibility to keep New York and my family safe. The reopening, especially being able to go to the beach in summer, really helped my headspace. On Shenae’s end, Australia had avoided a worst-case scenario by imposing very strict safety measures. Eventually, we were notified that Australian borders would stay closed for the remainder of the year, and Qantas, Australia’s biggest airline, was cancelling international flights until July 2021. This proved devastating, as it reinforced that Shenae and I had no timeline to be reunited.
We started to look at alternatives, and eventually found the application for exemption for Australian citizen’s spouses to enter Australia. Although I qualified for the exemption, there was only a 5% chance I would ultimately be approved for a visa. It only took two weeks for the visa and the exemption approval which was a huge surprise to us. The one downside to my travel to Australia to reunite with Shenae was a $3,000 14-day mandatory quarantine in a government-provided hotel. I had done a lockdown in New York, but being locked in a room for 14 days seemed like a whole different challenge. At the same time, the hurdle of a strict quarantine didn’t compare to the excitement of being able to see my wife.
The entire experience, from arriving at JFK to arriving in Sydney to entering and exiting quarantine, was a unique one that I hope most never have to endure. I had never seen JFK so empty in the 29 years of flying in and out of it. I had to arrive at my departure airport prepared with documents and proof that I was one of the few travelers allowed to board my flight to Sydney. After checking my documents, the flight agent at the counter had to call the Australian border control and the airline headquarters to confirm I was able to fly. Wearing a mask for the entirety of the flight was not pleasant, yet the two good things that came out of a 60-person flight was a seat upgrade and a whole row to myself. If nothing else, it really felt like a private plane.
Upon arrival in Sydney, we met with medical staff who took our temperature, asked the routine Covid-19 questions, and explained the testing procedure over the next 14 days. After the medical screening, I needed to go through customs where the officer called over his superior to match my name off a predetermined list. The third checkpoint was the handing over of the port of entry card and the screening of my bags. I didn’t pass with flying colors at this point because I was transporting 16 tubes of toothpaste.
Yes. Toothpaste is a hot U.S. commodity for my Australian friends and family.
The final checkpoint was down a long hallway to the exterior of the airport, where I was met by the Australian police force, the Australian border control, and the Australian army in front of a coach bus. I cannot speak more highly of the people I encountered throughout this process because they were very kind and understanding of the experience we were about to go through.
The 30-minute bus ride to the government-mandated hotel was bittersweet. Sweet because I was in the same country as my wife and in a country I had called home for four years. Bitter because I was about to spend 14 days in a room with no fresh air.
The first week went better than expected because I got into a routine with work, classes, exercise, reading, watching the NBA, taking a bath, and FaceTiming my wife. The toughest part of taking a summer intensive while in Australia was the Saturday “Super Day”. Seven straight hours of class is always a grind, but the challenge intensifies when class takes place from 11 p.m. until 6 a.m. local time. The second week was much harder as I had less to do and what previously was a winning routine turned into a timeless vortex where meal drop time was the only constant inside those four walls. I was tested on Day 2 and Day 10 of my quarantine, and negative tests were necessary to be cleared to exit on Day 14.
On Day 13, I heard the knock on the door and found it was a visit from the medical staff, police force, and an army officer. They provided me with my exit documents, a temperature check, an estimated exit time, and a wristband stating the date and time I would be allowed to exit.
My departure time was 5:50 a.m. My wife and two friends would be waiting for me at the back exit of the hotel. Throughout my departure I was again met with three checkpoints to ensure a safe and compliant departure. I took the elevator to the basement and there were the steps that I had come down 14 days prior and the steps that I would walk up to see my wife for the first time in what was now seven months. As I approached the top of the steps, Shenae hopped out of the back seat of the car into the brisk early morning air and gave her waiting husband a huge hug.
We embraced for a solid two minutes and everything we had endured felt like a thing of the past. Our souls were instantly connected and we knew that, together, we could take on the rest of 2020.
I quickly came to realize that life in Australia during Covid-19 is drastically different from my experience in NYC. Going from a state mandated mask requirement to a country that seemed to have the virus under control challenged my newly-acquired habits and created dynamic conversations with my Australian friends. Although Australians thought things had changed so much for them, to someone coming from New York, I quickly let them know what life outside of Australia during coronavirus was like.
The one thing that helped me understand the frustration Australians felt about the drastic measures their government has taken is this: for an individual in New York, typically, you are one person removed from knowing someone that has had coronavirus and two people removed from someone that has passed away from it. Individuals in Australia are so far removed from even knowing someone that knows someone that has had coronavirus that it doesn’t feel real to them.
I don’t know how long I will be able to live in this new reality, but I will continue to be grateful for the opportunity I have had to be reunited with my wife in Australia. The length and effect of the pandemic are still unknown, but I know our best days are ahead of us and that those two things are not mutually exclusive. As we continue to move from being individuals to being communities, we will weather the storm and be so much better for it. I hope the lessons, kindness, and care we have learned and exhibited in every facet of our lives during this time, have a lasting impact on humanity. We are better together and our light will shine bright like a city on a hill that cannot be hidden.