a bridge over a river with a clock tower in the background

When international travel was grinding to a stand still, and travel was only advocated on an essential basis, I’d say I was one of a relatively small number of people who experienced time in New York and London during covid-19 lockdown, due to essential travel needs.

Now, as the UK prepares to mandate face coverings in all businesses, and exemptions are being made for certain UK and EU travelers to return to the United States, I thought it’d be an interesting time to compare the experience in each location during these strange times.

Why? People are outraged at the thought of travel opening up between the US, UK and Europe again any time soon, but in many ways I felt safest in New York, and think it’s important to remember that the United States may be one country, but it’s made up on many very individualized states. In these times, New York and nearby New Jersey have been exceptions to many unfortunate  trends.

The unspeakably cruel covid-19 pandemic hit both countries and metropolitan areas quite hard, and in May, I found it really interesting to compare where each society was, and how each was advocating to slow the spread and keep people safe. Things are more open now than my account of the time, but it was interesting to see the approaches being taken then, and how they’ve aged. Really, they were starkly different…

a sign with flags on itTraveling Into Each Country

As recapped in the live travel blog of my journey between countries, arrival itself into each was contrasting. Deplaning at New York JFK, only 10 people were allowed off at a time, with mandatory health screening forms distributed prior to arrival and individual temperature checks carried out by a team of people on the jet bridge.

Though the UK has since initiated a 14 day quarantine requirement for all passengers, at the time, entry into the country was not limited in any way, with no additional entry restrictions based on passport or quarantine needs. Now, returning from New York, I’d need to self isolate for 14 days, so the two are largely equal.

Similar Levels Of “Open”…

New York and London offered similar levels of what was “open”, but their approach in handling what was, was very different. Restaurants in both cities could still offer takeaway or delivery, with nothing open at the time for dine in seating.

That’s since changed, with social distancing restrictions and outdoor seating in New York, and indoor options in London as well. Intriguingly, New York plans to limit alcohol sales only to those who are also purchasing a food item, the definition of which people are having a field day with…

During the early days, “Essential” stores like food shops were open, and coffee shops tended to include themselves in the term “essential”, which I’m totally on board with. What was most interesting to me was the “ask” each area was putting onto those venturing out of their homes to stock up on caffeine, food or other needs.

Gyms are a hot topic on both sides, with many open for unofficial outdoor workouts, as both cities still strictly limit indoor facilities. I’ve never seen more people in either city using parks for person outdoor HIIT classes or sporting activities, and that’s a wonderful side effect. It’s hard to imagine how things will feel when people go back to indoor gyms, sans changing rooms and with strict hygiene protocols.

When you think about droplet transmission, it’s hard not to imagine someone maxing out on a bench press or squat rack. Outdoors is one thing, indoors….

a group of tall buildingsIn New York, masks were mandatory everywhere I went, even months ago, and anywhere selling food tended to have someone at the door making people also don latex gloves. More people were allowed in shops at one time in New York than in London.

With few exceptions, I felt like stores were pretty full with shoppers, near pre-pandemic levels, which is a huge contrast to those in the UK, where strict limits were in place everywhere, with people manning the doors, but mostly to keep people out. I came back to London feeling like New York was ahead of London on the curve for putting this awful thing in the rear view mirror.

My local coffee shop in the UK, for example, previously allowed seating for around 20-30 people, but is now allowing a maximum of four customers in at any given time, for takeout coffee only. The owner, who is a friend, tells me they’re actually making more money now…

Life in London was much the same in terms of offering, but entirely different in terms of protocol.

Spaces had, and still have maximum numbers of visitors, with strict enforcement of how many people are/were allowed in. Since the pandemic broke, no one was really required  to wear a mask, except for in airports, mass transit or Ubers, with what I’d estimate to be only 1/6 people choosing to wear one in public or in shops of any kind.

As of Friday, July 24th, that’s set to change, with masks mandatory in all shops, but New York was doing this months and months ago. I can’t help but to wonder why now, and not back then? Seeing New York’s impressive current figures in reducing spread, it’s no surprise at all, having been there.

a row of yellow taxi cabs

Social Interactions…

Of course, this is just one lens offering perspective, but I found the mood of the people, or at least those I came into contact with very different in each city. Both cities were taking the pandemic seriously, but the Nu-Yawka’s seemed far more cautious with everything, rather than just some things.

In New York, any friends I caught up with were wearing masks, and if we shared a car together, everyone kept mask and gloves on during the rides. Even outdoors kicking a soccer ball around, many were wearing masks. Socially distanced walks down city streets also had masks on virtually all.

In the UK, people just weren’t wearing face coverings, particularly for their park football and definitely not outdoors, with few exceptions.

New York was masks on, unless some rare exception. London was masks off, unless some rare exception. Londoners seemed less impacted by the emotion of the moment, just keeping calm and carrying on, and seemed to focus energies on distancing elements of the best practice advice, rather than the gear and new protocols. It’ll be interesting to watch that change from this week.

To this day, thinking people give a wide berth on paths, or wait for you to cross in any areas where distancing may be impossible, but with the reopening of pubs, it’s become abundantly clear – not that we didn’t know this before – that people lose their inhibitions and sense of volume and spatial awareness as the drinks flow.

The louder one speaks, the more droplets tend to fly, which is bad news for covid-19 suppression in the UK’s many indoor seating pubs which have reopened. Hopefully masks help? New York recently shut down quite a few bars for breaking the rules.

UK streetsSkirting The Rules

Naturally, the world is full of people who seek to find loopholes, rather than follow practical advice. In London, rules to limit the number of people allowed to gather in homes were flaunted by heading to the parks, where rules were arguably more ambiguous. The same goes for beaches. New York seems to have had similar issues.

I’ve always felt like we’re “only as good as our weakest links” and seeing large groups of (mostly) young people gathering in parks, then clearly heading home to parents, work or other loved ones gave me pause for long term recovery. I saw less of this in New York, but recent reports from bars, beaches and restaurants seem to indicate some things don’t change, even with an ocean of distance between them.

Headed Toward Unity, With Variables

With UK rules to impose mandatory masks in shops from July 24th, the two capitals seem to be inching closer to a unified response. Both require visitors from each destination to self quarantine for 14 days on arrival, and both will soon have standardized social protocols.

The UK seems to be more laid back with restaurant and pub reopenings, and it’ll be really interesting to see how things fare over the next few weeks, compared to New York which although almost identical in timing, is still strongly limiting in restaurants dining.

Another unique variable to the UK is travel. New York is effectively banning visitors even from most US states at the moment, with over 30 states included. For the most part, New Yorkers aren’t traveling far and wide at the moment, even domestically. Contrast that with London, and the UK at large, which is once again able to travel to 75 destinations without the need to quarantine, and from where visitors can enter the UK without quarantine.

Only time will tell, but i’ll never forget the rare chance to see life on both sides of the pond, in one of the oddest and most tragic periods of modern history.


Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. as someone who experienced northern virginia (Chantilly) for 3 months from Feb to April and then rural England thereafter and travelling from IAD to LHR at the height of the pandemic (April 29th) with just 15 people on board, i can say i agree with you, its been a weird feeling to have experienced. i certainly think about it each day to be honest, I left the US as stores were closing, restaurants already sometime before, shelves empty of groceries / certain goods with no chance of restocking, limits on items, wondering each day if i would make it back having had Virgin Atlantic cancel on me 3 times, as a side note their last offer was DCA – ATL – AMS – LHR… i paid for my own ticket on BA IAD – LHR with the return held as a credit note for future use (in a couple of weeks)

    so yes i was experiencing stay at home orders / shelter in place mandate in Va and also listening to the situation in the UK as it was, to travelling not just back in time in terms of a 5 hr time zone shift but also travelling forward in time what felt like many many weeks ahead of what i was leaving.

    arriving into England i felt as if i was free, there was still a lock down (technically there still is) but i felt free to goto the store and pick up what i wanted, go for a walk, do stuff that i felt i needed to not do in the US.

    now many weeks later after easing of lock down in the UK we have our freedoms back to a degree but i hear each day the place i left teetering on the edge of another harder lock down, im due to travel to Washington again in a couple of weeks and although it doesn’t necessarily scare me im certainly feeling some trepidation and also what feels like im going to be going back in time….

    but yes i share your feelings of being both sides of the pond, not just two countries but two entirely different worlds

  2. Talk about skirting the rules, upon arrival in the US you are meant to stay home and self isolate for 14 days, not be out in the city. When I traveled late June I got a call from my county heath department, a registered letter sent to my address, and a Facebook message (!?!?) saying that since I had traveled from the U.K. as per CDC guidelines I was to self isolate.

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