Canadians in New York’s arts scene describe the city’s grim COVID-19 situation

By Canadian Press

TORONTO — As a New York-based Canadian with a home in Toronto, Allana Harkin has been closely following how COVID-19 is affecting this country.

The Hamilton-raised “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” producer and correspondent says she’s comforted by how Canada’s leadership is responding to the virus.

And she’s proud Canada has universal health care available to pandemic patients, which she feels provides more of a safety net than in the U.S., where a lack of health insurance may prevent some people from seeking treatment.

Still, she’s worried.

“Right now we’re in the epicentre,” Harkin said this week in a phone interview from her home in New York City, where the death toll from the coronavirus has passed 1,000.

“In New York, it’s just exploding, and it’s pretty scary. And I know people in Canada that are still getting together with people and I’m just like, ‘Stay home. It’s so bad.'”

Harkin’s words echo those of many Canadians who work in the entertainment industry in the hard-hit city, where refrigerated morgue trucks are collecting the dead, and a U.S. Navy hospital ship is docked with beds for patients.

New York has also set up makeshift medical tents in Central Park, and is bringing in more ambulances, paramedics and volunteer health-care professionals.

“We went through this at lightning-fast speeds in New York,” said Toronto native Irene Sankoff, who co-created the hit Newfoundland-set musical “Come From Away” with her writing partner and husband, David Hein.

“My message is just to take it really, really seriously. I have so many friends who are sick or who are trying to help fight this on the front lines.”

Sankoff and Hein left their Manhattan apartment a week ago with their six-year-old daughter, and drove to Toronto where they plan to stay for a while.

Their life is in Manhattan, where some cast members from the Tony-nominated “Come From Away” have fallen ill with COVID-19, and Broadway productions are on hiatus due to the pandemic.

But Sankoff’s family is in Toronto, including her parents who are in their 80s. The couple wanted to be close to them while having access to Canada’s health-care system.

They also wanted to provide a bigger living space for their daughter during isolation, so they’re staying under quarantine in a rental house.

Sankoff has found Toronto is not “as panicked and as tense” as New York City.

“It was just eerily quiet while I was there. The only thing you would hear from time to time is sirens,” Sankoff said.

“It was like kind of post-9/11 quiet.” 

Canadian actress Astrid Van Wieren, who plays Beulah Davis and other characters in “Come From Away” on Broadway, flew to Toronto about two weeks ago to stay there during the pandemic.

Van Wieren knows some “Come From Away” cast members and other Broadway actors who are recovering from the virus and said the acting community is doubly concerned about unemployment.

At the same time they’re trying to spread positivity through social media, and Van Wieren marvels at how New Yorkers are helping each other out in various ways.

“I can’t believe there are still people who aren’t quite taking it seriously,” Van Wieren said. 

“I think unfortunately, for some people, it’s going to be when their bubble is burst that somebody they love or know somebody near them is very sick or passes away from this, and maybe then they’ll get a sense of ‘OK, going down to the beaches in Toronto and walking the boardwalk with a whole bunch of people is not a smart thing to do.’ This thing is insidiously contagious.”

Van Wieren said she has “a weird feeling of having abandoned New York” and she’s eager to return once the situation is better.

Sankoff is also sad about leaving.

“The New York we left won’t be the same one we return to,” she said. “But we will return to be a part of rebuilding it.”

Harkin has stayed in the city to work remotely on “Full Frontal,” which has Bee hosting from her own home. The weekly late-night show airs Wednesdays on TBS and CTV Comedy Channel.

She knows a few people who’ve recovered from the virus in the U.S., including two close friends, and said their experience “sounded an absolute nightmare.”

“It’s going to hit like wildfire, I’ve got to tell you, because it did here,” said Harkin, who lives with her husband and two kids.

“People in my neighbourhood were like, ‘Ah, it’s not a big deal. The chances of you getting coronavirus are the same chances of you getting hit by a bus.’ I’m like, ‘Well that’s a lot of buses now.'”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 1, 2020.

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press

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