From the Bronx to Staten Island, Chinatown to Fifth Avenue, to Michelin-starred restaurants and humble corner cafeterias, hardware stores and funeral homes, New York made a cautious move to get back to normal on Wednesday (19). Scenes of normality that people remember intermingle with others characterized by caution.
It was the moment so many longed for when they spoke in countless Zoom calls or lined up in frustrated silence to walk into a store. It wasn’t so much a big party as it was a discreet reopening – a finish line at the end of a long race. And no one wanted to be the first to cross that line.
New York City closed 423 days ago, on a Sunday evening in March 2020, at a time when the city was responsible for half of the nation’s coronavirus cases. Governor Andrew Cuomo has ordered all non-essential workers to stay at home behind closed doors. The city has seen a partial reopening in recent months, but Wednesday was the first day that commercial and other establishments were able to operate with fewer restrictions and at near normal capacity.
New rules that relaxed the mandatory mask and capacity limits were in the background, in many cases, given the personal comfort level of millions of people. The reopening was confusing and uneven – in short, it was typical of New York. Many merchants have chosen to continue to require consumers to wear a mask. As a result, Wednesday doesn’t look or felt much different from Tuesday.
But the reopening was also celebrated. In the shade of the garden of the Museum of Modern Art, Julie Ross described the day in a nutshell.
“Fabulous!” She says. “Seems like the streets are a bit more lively, don’t they?”
The first day of the hesitant reopening was marked by an easing of restrictions in the region. With Covid cases continuing to drop at home and abroad, Connecticut and New Jersey have adopted plans similar to those in New York. In view of the summer tourist season, the European Union announced on Wednesday that it would reopen its borders to visitors who have been fully vaccinated or coming from a list of countries considered safe from a Covid-19 point of view.
At the same time, however, the virus continues to devastate India, which on Tuesday recorded 4,529 deaths from Covid-19 – the highest single-day death toll from the pandemic in any country to date.
The jarring headlines, where good news collides with grim news, seem to have left many New Yorkers hesitant to let their guard down and remove their masks. It’s no longer an absolute requirement, but many people still use it, both in big chain stores and small shops in Manhattan or on the shady aisles of Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Many stores, like Victoria, a clothing store in the Bronx, still post warnings about the mandatory use of the mask on their premises.
“It’s still store policy,” said Raj Lalbatchan, 23, store manager. Nearby, Elizabeth Ocasio, 51, a waitress at La Isla restaurant, said the restaurant had not changed its standards. “We don’t know who is vaccinated and who is not,” she explained. “We continue to do all the same.”
On the Upper West Side, the owner of the DuPont laundry on Amsterdam Avenue, Byong Min, 64, was behind the counter like any other day. He is a Covid survivor: he spent three months in hospital last year, 36 of them on a ventilator. The scar from the tracheostomy he was supposed to do is still visible above his cervix.
Min said a customer arrived on Wednesday morning and asked if she could enter without a mask. He said yes. But he reassessed the question moments later.
“She told me that she was vaccinated and that I already had the vaccine. But maybe I should be more careful? I didn’t stop to think about it before saying “ok”. “
Since Wednesday, most businesses and commercial establishments have been allowed to resume operations at 100% capacity, provided customers keep a distance of two meters from each other. In most cases, people who have been vaccinated are no longer required to wear masks in closed or open spaces, except when stores require it.
Theaters and other large spaces, including stadiums, can return to full capacity, instead of just a third, but regulars must show proof of vaccination. Residential parties can happen again; up to 50 people can meet in private homes.
In Red Hook, Brooklyn, the Chelsea Garden Center garden store considered revoking its limit of two customers only at all times in its internal space, but decided to keep it for now. “It’s a little scared to change the way things are going,” he told Bethany Perkins. “We’re already used to the rules.”
Robert Newell Jr., president of the Local 1500 United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents supermarket and food production workers, has called on companies to keep the mask mandatory for now. “It’s been like this for over a year. Two more weeks won’t bother anyone, ”he said. “Keep the signs indicating that the mask is mandatory.”
Something that will soon be gone, but still present, are things that will be remembered as the Covid-19 artifacts: the guns to measure the temperature, the forms to fill out for contact tracing, the arrows on the floor of the supermarket. One day, a child will come across a sticker on the ground imposing a social distance of two meters and will not understand what it is for.
It was a meaningful day. But it should be noted that it was also just a Wednesday like any other, the day that marks the middle of the work week for many people. The crowds of people some imagined would fill stores or restaurants did not materialize. A small crowd came to MoMA to see an exhibition by sculptor Alexander Calder and enjoy the sunny day.
“We went to other museums during the pandemic, but today the atmosphere is more relaxed,” Ross said. “But maybe we’re just designing. We are relaxed.
At St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the midday mass drew a small congregation of masked and distant believers. A spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York, Joseph Zwilling, said church leaders were working late Tuesday night to set the rules for the reopening, which included the return of unmasked choirs, hymns and bulletins from the parish, which were suppressed when the pandemic arrived. But the changes to be adopted will in fact be defined by the local bishops and priests.
“Some pastors and choir leaders will ask singers to provide proof of vaccination, but others will take their word for it,” Zwilling said.
Some people watched with concern on Wednesday. Nick Kamoutsas, who runs a food stand that closed last year, returned last week to sell pancakes at a location near Lincoln Center. He said most people arrive without a mask to place their orders. He still doesn’t know if it’s safe.
“I’m confused,” he said. “I don’t want to be afraid, I don’t want to panic. I try to follow the rules, but at the same time I want to stay alive. “
At Madison Cafe on Willis Avenue in the Bronx, manager Gavino Hernandez, 40, said he applauded the city’s reopening, but still wouldn’t get the ‘no mask no service’ sign displayed at the entrance.
“I will wait for everyone to act,” he explained. “I’ll wait and see what happens.”
The only thing that came close to a uniform attitude on the streets of New York on Wednesday was wait and see – don’t wait to find out what state guidelines are, but to see what changes your neighborhood peers adopt. One trader after another, everyone seemed to be waiting for their neighbor to take the first step.