New York City’s reopening — a milestone longed for over the last 14 months — arrived at last on Wednesday. It was less a grand gala than a soft opening, a finish line at the end of a long race that no one wanted to be the first to cross.
423 days since the city shut down, on a Sunday in March 2020, when it accounted for half the nation’s coronavirus cases, its first day fully back in business was messy and inconsistent and confusing. In short, it was New York City, and a single set of new rules statewide was widely superseded by the personal comfort levels of the city’s millions of residents.
Masks, no longer a hard requirement for the vaccinated in most situations, remained firmly in place by the majority of people, whether in the big-box stores and tiny boutiques of Manhattan or the shaded paths of Prospect Park in Brooklyn.
“It’s still store policy,” said Raj Lalbatchan, 23, a worker at Victoria, a clothing store in the Bronx. Nearby, Elisabeth Ocasio, 51, a server at the restaurant La Isla, said it is standing firm with the status quo. “We don’t know who’s vaccinated and who’s not,” she said. “We’re doing everything the same here.”
Across United States, other states were also moving to reopen amid a drastic drop in new cases and expanded vaccine eligibility to those 12 and older. But the pace of average vaccinations has decline precipitously since mid-April and even some inoculated Americans have shown some skepticism of the new federal guidance allowing for fully vaccinated people to go without a mask in most circumstances. As of Tuesday, 48% of people have received at least one shot, according to federal data.
Outside the U.S., France loosened its rules on Wednesday, and the European Union agreed to reopen its borders to visitors who have been fully vaccinated with an approved shot, just in time for summer tourists. And yet, the virus continued to ravage India, which recorded 4,529 COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday, the pandemic’s highest single known daily death toll in any country so far.
As the virus was crushing New York City last year, testing was limited, hospitals were full and thousands were dying every day. The living retreated to their apartments and the city, almost overnight, transformed into a shadow of itself. The city’s known death toll sits at more than 33,000 people.
But on Wednesday, scenes of joy alongside those of caution played out throughout the city. The owner of DuPont Dry Cleaners on Amsterdam Avenue in the Upper West Side, Byong Min, 64, spent 90 days in a hospital suffering from COVID-19 last year, the scar from his tracheotomy visible above his collar. On Wednesday morning, a customer arrived and asked tentatively: Could she enter without a mask?
He said yes. But he regretted it moments later.
“She told me she was vaccinated and I am vaccinated, but wow, maybe I should be more careful,” he said. “I wasn’t really thinking. I just said OK.”
In Red Hook in Brooklyn, the Chelsea Garden Center, a bustling nursery, considered removing its two-customer indoor limit, but stopped short. “It’s a little scary to change things,” said Bethany Perkins, an employee. “We’re so used to the rules right now.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Wednesday morning that he planned to keep mask rules in place at city offices because there would be a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated people there, and that he planned to wear a mask in most cases out of an abundance of caution.
“When you’re not sure, my personal advice is wear a mask,” the mayor said, adding “we’ve done it, for god’s sakes, for a year, we can do it a little bit longer to finish the job.”