Thursday, April 30, 2020
Parkside Lounge owner Christopher Lee talks about his recovery from COVID-19
Text and photos by Stacie Joy
I almost don’t recognize Christopher Lee when I see him hop off his bike at the corner of Houston and Attorney Street, right by his bar, Parkside Lounge.
He’s wearing a mask, and so am I; additionally, it’s humid out, which has caused my glasses to fog up. When we finally make eye contact there’s a shared smile that can be seen even under our face coverings.
Chris is happy to be healthy, out and about again, and I am happy to see that’s he’s survived his battle with the coronavirus that has taken so many people in its viral path.
The bar, at 317 E. Houston St., is, like most in NYC, shuttered right now due to the COVID-19 crisis, which is deeply personal for Chris. He lost a friend and performer to it and also did a lengthy stint fighting it off.
We step into the closed-up lounge and, from a safe distance, we talk about what happened, how it happened, what COVID-19 felt like, and what may be next for Chris — and for Parkside.
First off, I’m relieved you are feeling better. And I appreciate your willingness to share your story! That being said, what happened? Can you walk us through it? Any ideas about how you may have contracted the virus?
This is a tough one. I was in rehearsals in Midtown every day in addition to being around at the bar all the time. I could have caught it on the subway or from a CitiBike, but I probably picked it up at the bar when I was battening down the hatches on Monday, March 16.
I also want to throw in a “who really knows?” The subway seems to be ideal for spreading germs. We had musician Alan Merrill perform at Parkside the weekend [March 8] before the shutdown and he ended up passing away due to COVID [on March 29], so we know it was in the bar. We found that out before I even got my test results back.
At what point did you think that you may have COVID-19? What was the diagnostic process like?
When I first got sick, I dismissed any notion that I had COVID and thought instead it was a nasty flu. I thought about the possibility [of COVID-19] but dismissed it as paranoia. Then two things happened.
My initial symptoms of fever and aches went away pretty quickly — less than 24 hours. I knew from my staff that the flu was putting people in bed for at least a week and took everyone significant recovery time. I have a strong immune system [but] I probably couldn’t kick the flu that fast. It was a bad sign.
When I got my test for COVID-19, they also tested me for the flu. My doctor said it was a way of ruling out COVID without having to wait who-knows-how-long for that test to come back. It was both nostrils for the swabs — the right for flu, the left for COVID. If the flu test came back positive, I could dismiss the COVID concerns. Well, I got the flu test back and it was negative and this is when I knew I had COVID-19. I also had pretty much kicked it by then so it was just a matter of quarantine until I got the official test results back.
What were the worst of your symptoms?
The headache was incredibly intense. Days of just excruciating pain anytime I looked at anything. During the “double tap” — after I had been symptom-free for nine days and thought I was in the clear — my fever was 103 for three days and the sweat was not something I even thought my body was capable of producing.
My entire nervous system was affected. My skin felt like someone had given me a rubdown with sandpaper but there wasn’t any irritation apparent. My sense of smell went pretty early on. That’s happened to me before, back when I was younger and had the flu so I wasn’t shocked. My taste buds — this was bad. I woke up and it honestly felt like I had fallen asleep with a handful of garlic in my mouth and then tried to wash it down with liquid copper. It was overwhelming.
I also experienced blurry vision along with the crazy headaches as well as an acute sensitivity to light. I couldn’t find my mouse cursor on my computer monitor at one point. I ended up wearing sunglasses inside for a couple of days for some relief. I was usually on the couch half sitting up with my eyes closed. Never comfortable. There was no position I could get into that allowed for restful sleep. Enter the NyQuil!
What has been the worst part of the experience?
The worst part of the experience is the complete lack of understanding of what we’re really dealing with. The White House has been contradicting the medical community. Meanwhile, those folks don’t seem to understand COVID either and they’re blaming it on China not telling us everything.
I was told by my health-care provider that after three symptom-free days I could break my quarantine and go outside. Really? Because after nine fever-free days without any real symptoms I was laid up worse than I was the first time around. Apparently, that was common in the outbreak in China but why wasn’t that communicated to us? Seems like a really good way for a pathogen to get passed on.
I’ve been completely symptom-free now for eight days and I’m second-guessing every little ache/pain I feel. It’s allergy season and I’m allergic to the cats in my apartment as well. You get to feel like COVID is just something that’s always going to be part of you, which I know is not true but the paranoia is real.
Another horrible part of this whole thing is worrying about all the people I’ve come into contact with. I’m terrified I passed it on to my wife but so far, she’s had no symptoms whatsoever. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that she’s part of that small percentage with some immunity because she spent practically a month locked in quarantine with a very infected person. Side note: she’s been incredible throughout this whole thing.
Any upside to this experience
There’s always a silver lining somewhere! I’m ecstatic that I’ll be able to help people in need recover. I’ve got an appointment at the New York Blood Center to donate my plasma for antibody treatment. I’m hoping after the double-tap from COVID I’ll have a strong antibody count and will be able to give support to somebody else fighting this asshole of a virus.
I’m glad that I got sick instead of any member of my staff or family. I mean, the buck stops with the owner, right? Rather than have my staff endangering themselves battening down the hatches of the bar when it was time to close up for quarantine, I did it. It’s completely unreasonable to put people in that position and I’m Exhibit A.
How has your recovery been?
Recovery has been full of trepidation. I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop — again. Every little sniffle, every hint of a sore throat from allergies, every sore muscle from exercise makes me wonder if I’m about to get sick again. That shouldn’t be possible, but then again, I really don’t think we know anything close to the whole story on COVID-19.
What helped get you through the experience?
When you say you have COVID most people’s first question is, “how are your lungs?” What seems to be the most deadly aspect of the virus is people getting pneumonia and their lungs failing. There are breathing exercises that popped up all over the internet from doctors dealing with COVID patients in ICUs. I can’t stress doing them enough. Breathe deeply. Regularly. If you can do it in a hot shower with eucalyptus oil, even better. I took very long hot showers!
During the first round I tried not to take any fever reducers so my body could burn out the virus and we went pioneer-style and just used a cold washcloth on my forehead to try to give me some relief. But during the double tap when my fever was higher and the head and body aches were worse an important tool for me was inarguably NyQuil. NyQuil was my best friend. It allowed me to sleep and for the most part, I did wake up feeling better than I did the night before. I also drank water with electrolytes to help replenish what I lost from the fever sweats.
Any thoughts/concerns about the future of the bar?
I’ve always had a good relationship with the Parkside’s landlord. Hurricane Sandy really put us in a hole but we worked through that and I’m hopeful we’ll be able to do the same with this pandemic.
Our lives have all changed and the social environment we knew is probably permanently altered. Right now, we’re not even allowed to be open so there’s no money coming in to pay rent. When society does open up, I expect bars to be one of the last businesses the city allows to open their doors. I’m sure it will include capacity restrictions that will slowly get back to normal as the virus infection rates wane.
On top of that, the Parkside is a venue and I don’t see the city letting live music events happen for a long time. DJs, private parties, burlesque shows, live theater, film screenings — these are a huge part of the business model for not just the Parkside but also the entire nightlife industry in New York City. Even worse, and harder to anticipate is how society as a whole will adapt. Will people still want to go to bars at all?
I know landlords citywide are expecting their rent. It’s their business just like the nightlife is ours and at the end of the day, it’s about money. I’m cautiously optimistic that the Parkside will be able to find a way to keep being the Parkside by coming to an agreement with our landlord. We’ve all got to communicate and agree that the next few years will be completely different for our industry than the previous 10.
Downtown NYC has suffered for years because landlords have been getting tax breaks on their boarded-up businesses. Hopefully, this will be the impetus that is needed for City Hall to weigh in to discourage those tax breaks. Then we — and the neighborhood — will be in business.