At the height of the pandemic, see New York City’s empty streets from above

From a helicopter, photographer Stephen Wilkes captured the startling stillness of New York City under lockdown to fight the coronavirus.

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Normally, lanes would be jammed with traffic around the Lincoln Tunnel, which joins New York and New Jersey. But during the COVID-19 lockdown, this was the view at an evening rush hour in early April 2020.
This story appears in the August 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Stephen Wilkes is a photographer, TED speaker, and creator of fine art. But at his core, he’s a New Yorker. Wilkes was born in the city, and most of his life has unfolded on its streets and avenues. This identity brought extra heartache in the spring when New York earned unenviable distinction as a global hot spot and the U.S. epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. The “city that never sleeps” finally did—for weeks, and then, for months.

As the city went on lockdown in late March, Wilkes asked for clearance to fly over the famously protected nerve center of American commerce and culture. Officials said yes, and Wilkes and his longtime friend, pilot Al Cerullo, took a helicopter high above the avenues and subway stops. They peered down at a tent hospital in Central Park and at the occasional rooftop sunbathers and dog-walking apartment dwellers.

But mostly they saw stillness: nothing, and no one, moving. Empty streets, empty tunnels, Bryant Park without its typical midtown lunch crowd, and an absence of office workers circulating around the Empire State Building. “New York is like a river, always running with energy and motion,” says Wilkes. “When you see New York empty, it doesn’t make any sense.”

The city will bounce back, as it has before. And when it does, Wilkes hopes it’ll be as vibrant as ever. People will likely be bursting with pent-up energy, he says. But just as it did after September 11, 2001, it will also be grieving.

As Wilkes flew over Times Square—which annually hosts more than 50 million visitors and one of the world’s largest New Year’s Eve parties—a screen flashed a message now universally embraced: “For those fighting for our lives, thank you.” 

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Sunlight gilds the skyscrapers in this view of Manhattan from the air on April 6, during the pandemic lockdown.
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The Empire State Building—a beloved New York City landmark that for roughly 40 years held the record as tallest building in the world—is often lit in bright colors for celebrations or holidays. This spring, the building’s operators chose to light the 1,454-foot-tall building in red and white to honor the service and sacrifice of doctors and nurses.
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During the early weeks of the pandemic, an aerial view across Manhattan’s Central Park captures the white tents of a field hospital for COVID-19 patients (lower left).
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An aerial photo that Wilkes made in early April captures a sunset view of Manhattan’s skyline as seen from New Jersey.
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Bryant Park, usually filled with tourists and with workers on break from the office, is seldom so empty.