Coming Home to a Different New Jersey

Los Angeles had always seemed like a dreamland to me. Being from New Jersey and having lived there nearly my entire life, I had no perception of what California and the city of Los Angeles would be like, besides from what I had seen in movies and TV shows. I envisioned palm trees, sunny beaches, and celebrities on every block. Besides a brief visit to Hollywood with my family as a young child, I had never stepped foot onto the west coast. To me, Los Angeles had always seemed like such a distant place, a place that I would never really have a chance to know. 

When I received my acceptance letter to attend the ELA program for the Spring of 2020 at my school, this distant fairytale land of Los Angeles began to solidify in my mind as a real place. I was actually about to fly to the other side of the country and go to school there for three and a half months. And I was about to have an internship there. And I was going to be living literally five minutes from Hollywood Boulevard. I felt like I had been blessed by Jesus Christ himself. 

Upon arriving in the majestic “City of Angels”, I immediately fell in love. The bitter, excruciating winters of the east coast had been suspended in my life just for a few months, and I had escaped to a land of absolute sunshine and warmth. I loved everything about it. The weather. The shopping. The weed shops. The food. I quickly became enamored with the city’s many taco trucks, as well as the variety of other cultural foods it has to offer. I loved how nice everybody seemed to be too. All too often, I would find myself having full blown conversations with complete strangers on the street, an occurrence that is non-existent on the east coast. Strangely, I felt at home in this new city. 

However, it wasn’t too long before everything dissipated into a huge pile of shit. COVID-19 struck. Like something straight out of a sci-fi film, this virus single-handedly dismantled every functioning aspect of society. Quickly, everything began to get shut down. I saw the first signs of impending doom when I heard that kids in my school that were a part of the Netherlands study abroad program were being sent home, in fear of being trapped in Europe if a travel ban was made (it was, just a few weeks later). Then, about a few weeks later, I heard classes at our Boston campus were going online, in fear of the virus being spread on school grounds. Nonetheless, all the administrators in the Los Angeles campus assured us that our program was still going to run. 

March 13th was the date that I received an email from an administrator at my college stating that all students were expected to vacate the campus within a week. That’s right. We were being kicked out. And shipped out to all different parts of the world to go infect our families at home. Just kidding. Kind of. Immediately, I was catapulted into a panic, as I frantically stuffed my belongings in boxes and furiously searched up different shipping rates from California to New Jersey. Fuck. I felt like my heart had just been ripped out of my chest. 

As dramatic as I may seem, it’s worth noting that ELA had provided me with some literal once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to meet and network with established professionals in the entertainment industry, as well as a chance to intimately get to know the city of Los Angeles and its surrounding counterparts. Unless I was to pack up my bags and leave all my friends and family behind to move out to Los Angeles, the opportunity to have such an extended period of time in the city doesn’t exist. This was my time to do it. And it was being cut short. 

What I failed to recognize in that moment was what kind of a shitstorm I was being sent back to in my home state of New Jersey. And what kind of distress this virus was putting on working-class people in the country like my mother, who’s business relies heavily on shipments from China. The number of cases was rising rapidly back home, and as soon as I landed, I saw that people were struggling. It was a ghost town. The town I live in has a Korean population of over 50%, and due to the underlying racial tones of this virus, they’ve been hit the worst. Korean-owned shops and businesses have seen declines of up to 75%

With the first confirmed case of COVID-19 actually coming from California, and with the state having one of the first legitimate outbreaks in the U.S., I originally assumed I was in a much worse place than my loved ones back home. I soon came to realize though, I was very fucking wrong. To my dismay, a majority of the cases in the state were in the county I live in. 

I always joke around that Bergen County is the only relevant county in New Jersey. For the first time in my life though, I felt unlucky to be residing in the hub of the state. It was no surprise to me when I began reading on the news that Bergen County had the most cases of coronavirus in New Jersey. I had no clue just how rampant this virus would become though. When I arrived home, the total cases of coronavirus in Bergen was at around 200. Eleven days later, that total has risen to nearly 2,500.

When early reports in February began circulating about people in the U.S. being infected with COVID-19, I did not even remotely consider that my home state could become one of the epicenters of the virus. With little to no tourist market and many sections of the state being largely rural, I figured my friends and family back home were relatively safe. Besides, I hadn’t been hearing much at all about COVID-19 in relation to New Jersey. One of my friends from home had even told me at one point that he hadn’t seen anyone in public wearing a mask yet. This was in early March. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, I was seeing people sporting masks nonstop, all the way from early February and on. 

We are currently in a state of emergency and are bound to a curfew of 8:00 PM. Governor Phil Murphy has confirmed that he will be prosecuting individuals who disobey the order. As a state, we now have nearly three times the amount of cases as California and have the second most cases in the country. Let me remind you that New Jersey is a fraction of the size of California.

It’s been about a week and a half since I’ve landed in New Jersey. I’ve not been able to sit down and have a conversation with my mother yet, who has pre-existing health conditions. Nor my grandmother who lives with me. I haven’t met up with any of my friends, which would normally be the immediate thing I do upon getting home. Everything feels very strange right now. The balance of the world has been tilted. 

One of my friends recently told me that his uncle has it. And his mother’s friend’s mother does too and has already developed pneumonia. Suddenly, when he told me that, the danger felt closer. At times, we as humans choose to ignore the weight of certain situations because of how remote they appear. This truly can’t afford to be one of those situations. If you don’t yet know somebody personally with COVID-19 or at least know somebody that knows somebody, that soon will change. As time goes on, it is inevitable. 

Please don’t be an idiot. New Jersey has been fairly proactive in its defense against the virus, and compared to other states, quick to shut things down. However, we are still being infected at an alarming rate. The most effective thing we can do is stay informed and be disciplined in the little things; washing your hands, social distancing, disinfecting surfaces, etc. That means, not showing up alongside 2,000 other people and having the testing site shut down if you don’t even have symptoms. Listen to our public health officials. Don’t seek a test if you don’t have symptoms. Don’t go outside for nonessential travel. We are one of the most densely-populated states in the country and are tiny in comparison to the other two states in the top three, New York and California. We don’t need more people outside. Please. Stay home. 

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