When the Big Apple's culture meccas shut down, they made lemonade
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When the Big Apple's culture meccas shut down, they made lemonade
From left: Beth Coughlin-Leonard, Patty Schlafer, and Kathy Coughlin check information on a phone while in Midtown Manhattan looking for things to do in the face of many closures and event postponements due to coronavirus concerns, March 12, 2020. Resourceful tourists whose dream trips to New York have been upended by the pandemic are doing their best to cobble together alternative entertainment. Rebecca Smeyne/The New York Times.

by Cara Buckley

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Patty Schlafer flew in late Thursday from Wisconsin, and her sister, Kathy Coughlin, flew up from Atlanta the same night, for a trip of a lifetime that had been a year in the works.

Along with Coughlin’s daughter, Beth Coughlin-Leonard, 32, who lives in Nashville, Tennessee, the women were meeting in New York City to celebrate Schlafer’s 60th birthday. They had hatched the plan last spring and kicked around the idea of coming in February until Coughlin — who last visited the city for the World’s Fair in 1965 — protested that it would be far too cold.

Pushing the weekend to mid-March didn’t seem like a big deal. They had a fantastic Broadway weekend lined up: “Wicked” on Friday, “Dear Evan Hansen” on Saturday, and Sunday, for their big finale, “Hadestown.”

Then, as the sisters’ cab made its way from LaGuardia Airport to their midtown hotel, the bad news arrived via their phones.

In the hours since their planes had taken off, New York City had declared a state of emergency because of the coronavirus pandemic. Broadway was shut down. Museums, the Metropolitan Opera and Carnegie Hall were all closing their doors.

And thus did Schlafer, Coughlin and Coughlin-Leonard find themselves among the untold trail of tourists on dream trips to America’s cultural capital with tickets to canceled shows, winnowed options and little in the way of backup plans.

“We talked about it the day before, and we kept saying: ‘Well, Broadway is open. To not go because we’re afraid is crazy,’ ” said Schlafer, as she, her sister and her niece strolled midday Friday through an eerily uncrowded Times Square.

Like so many others, they quickly hatched an impromptu Plan B.

The Empire State Building was out — Coughlin-Leonard is not big on heights — and so was the subway, because of viral concerns. So, in lieu of shows and museums, they would check out Central Park, the New York Public Library (which closed Saturday) and maybe Grand Central Terminal, too.

Leonard-Coughlin was on the hunt for a bagel or a pastry and a cute cafe. And her mother, Coughlin, 65, a supporter of President Donald Trump, had persuaded the other two to let her visit the Fox News building or at least to walk by.

“We told her she only gets 10 minutes of Fox News per hour,” Schlafer, a self-described “crazy liberal,” said. “We put her on a limit.”

Schlafer had only been “a little concerned” about the virus. And while her niece had worn a mask on her flight — she is a geriatric nurse practitioner and did not want to transmit anything to the older adults she works with — she had been unaware of the shutdown until her mother called from the cab.

“Beth was already in town shopping, oblivious,” Coughlin, 65, said.

“Hello Zara!” Coughlin-Leonard sang.

Some other tourists were similarly sanguine about upended plans.

Bryonna Graham, 24, a sales consultant for the Atlanta Hawks basketball team (whose season has been suspended), and her sister Jasmine Graham, 29, a therapist, arrived Thursday from Atlanta and had tickets to “Wicked.” But with Broadway off the table, they concentrated on what was open.

There was the Museum of Sex on Fifth Avenue, though there weren’t a lot of people when they went, and they didn’t really want to touch anything. The shops in SoHo and at Chelsea Market were also still fueling customers.

The sisters even managed to take the subway without touching any surface or handrails. After they got back to their room, they sprayed themselves, their clothes and shopping bags down with a can of Lysol they had talked a hotel worker into giving them.

Julie Butler, 52, a school bus driver from Boston who was in town with family and friends for a relative’s 50th birthday, said being in a panic-stricken city had its perks. There was no waiting at restaurants and no lines to stand in.

Sure they were disappointed — they’d had tickets for “Hadestown” and “Jagged Little Pill,” and television shows “The View,” and “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” which both went on without studio audiences. But they could still take a bus tour and could still visit St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the Statue of Liberty. And play board games.

They also had been assiduously hand-washing between various jaunts.

“We don’t feel that our threat is heightened by coming here,” Butler said. “We’re in this together. We need to protect each other.”

Yet for some who came from farther afield, the disappointment was tough to take.

The five members of the Fields family arrived from England on Thursday night to find no “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” on Broadway. No ice hockey at Madison Square Garden. No visit to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. No St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

Maggie Fox, 55, had been planning the trip for her husband and three grown daughters since the summer and told them about it at Christmas as a surprise.

“We don’t know what to do now because everything’s closed,” Fox said. “You walk around and sightsee, but then we can’t go in anywhere and do anything. And then once you’re done then what is there to do?”

And, like many tourists, they had spent hour after frustrating hour trying to contact their airlines and book earlier planes home. Because along with having little to do, there is also the fear of getting marooned.

The Schlafer-Coughlin family had at least been successful on that front. They were scheduled to fly out Saturday morning.

“I mean, who knows,” Coughlin-Leonard said Friday. “Are they going to shut down the airport? I don’t want to be stuck here for two weeks.”

“As lovely as your city is,” Schlafer said.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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