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When the pandemic hit Toronto, I packed up my life and left in 14 hours

By McKay Carroll
When the pandemic hit Toronto, I packed up my life and left in 14 hours
Photo courtesy of McKay Carroll

I moved from Auckland to Toronto in June 2019. After a few years of working odd jobs in New Zealand, I wanted to launch a career in film and TV, and I needed to move to a bigger city. It took some time to get settled, but within a few months everything was going really well for me: I found an affordable apartment in Kensington Market, I got my dream job as a host at the Second City, and I was getting my start in stand-up comedy.

In early March, I had plans to visit New York and meet up with a friend. New York confirmed its first case of Covid-19 a few days before my flight, but it didn’t seem like a good enough reason to cancel my trip. I knew things were bad in China and Italy, but those places were oceans away. I wasn’t expecting the situation to escalate so quickly here.

On March 12, my last day in New York, the city declared a state of emergency: Broadway cancelled all of its shows, bars were forced to run at half capacity, and for once you could actually find a place to sit on the subway. I was paranoid about everything I touched and tried to avoid crowds, but that’s an impossible feat in New York. The pandemic was still in its early stages, with just 95 confirmed cases, but the virus didn’t feel so far away anymore.

Flights were still running as normal. When I landed back in Toronto, the numbers were multiplying by dozens. I went into self-isolation right away. On March 14, the Second City closed its doors. By the time St. Patrick’s Day came around, I was still quarantined and I figured I’d have a solo celebration in my apartment with a bottle of wine. That day, New Zealand announced that it was urging citizens overseas to come back home. I resisted. My life was in Toronto—and I figured that since I had health insurance, I’d be fine.

My sister urged me to call my insurance company to see if they cover pandemics. By this point, it was 12:30 a.m. and I was well past tipsy, but I humoured her and picked up the phone. The guy who answered told me that if I ignored the New Zealand government’s recommendation and got sick in Canada, they wouldn’t cover me. That’s when I panicked.

I knew that flying was becoming more difficult, so I booked the first thing I could find: a 30-hour, $1,100 flight to my hometown, Gisborne, that was scheduled to depart in 14 hours. I’d just blown most of my savings in New York, so my parents helped cover the cost. I spent the rest of the night packing up what I could. There was no sorting, no folding—I grabbed the first things I saw and jammed them into my bag, hoping for a Mary Poppins miracle. By the time I was done, my bedroom looked like it had been ransacked. I had to leave behind all my furniture, my art and a bag of truly outrageous ’70s clothing I had rescued from a curb in Kensington. There was no time to say goodbye to any of my friends or give notice to my landlord. Both of my roommates were asleep when I booked my flight, so they didn’t know I was leaving until a few minutes before I walked out the door. I told them they could use my deposit to cover next month’s rent. By 11 a.m., I was on my way to the airport.

Pearson was a mess: the crowds were worse than a Black Friday sale. Every line was long, people were impatient and there wasn’t enough space for us to stand six feet apart, so we were heel to toe. Security asked every passenger whether they felt okay before they let them through. The hangover didn’t help my case—I was sweating and worried they’d think I was sick—but I still made my flight.

I had layovers in L.A. and Auckland before I got to Gisborne. As we were about to land in New Zealand, a flight attendant cried as she made the final announcement. She said it would be her last flight for a while, and that she was happy she could get us all home. Flights were being scaled back at that time, and New Zealand closed its borders to international travellers the next day. Inside the terminal, the line for health screening was long. I ended up missing my connection to Gisborne and had to wait four more hours. They asked passengers if they were feeling okay; if you said yes, they let you through.

Since I was coming from overseas, I had to go into quarantine right away. My dad and my sister drove separately to meet me at the airport, but they weren’t allowed to get close. They tossed me a set of car keys from a few metres back, and I drove myself home after 30-something hours of flying. The hardest part of all of this was not being able to hug my family after being half a world away for almost a year.

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When I got home, I moved into an old, rickety camper van parked in our driveway. There’s only one spot that gets WiFi and I’m too tall for the bed—my head and feet touch the walls when I sleep—but it wasn’t so bad. I binged the entire Bachelorette New Zealand. I messaged some Toronto friends to tell them I had to leave, but I hope I’ll be back. One of them is going to drop by my apartment to pick up some of the things I forgot, like my travel journal and my night guard.

My dad works as a firefighter and I can’t get him sick, so I’ve been extra cautious: I only go into the house to shower, and when I do, I wipe down everything I touch with bleach—door handles, light switches, the toilet flusher.

I was counting down the days until I can sleep in a real bed and finally sit down for dinner with my family. On March 29, when I only had four more days to go, I received an email from the community health board saying that I’d been in close contact with someone who had tested positive for Covid-19. It was a guy seated in my row on the flight to Gisborne. I had to drive to my local health centre to get tested. They blocked off the entire street and two nurses dressed head to toe in protective gear came out to my car to pass a mask through a crack in my window. They escorted me inside and shoved a cotton swab so far up my nose it felt like they might poke my brain.

Three days later, the test results came back negative, and I was finally able to hug my family. I miss Toronto and wish I’d had more time to say goodbye, but I’m just glad I could get home safely. In the meantime, I’ll be watching another season of The Bachelorette.

—As told to Nicole Schmidt

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