Almost Normal

As restrictions are lifted, New Yorkers navigate the uncertain transition from the anxiety and social distance of the pandemic

| 26 May 2021 | 11:40

Warren Buffett flew in for the opening. Dick Ravitch was there, as were Robert Caro, Paula Zahn, Ray Kelly, Carl Bernstein and the ex-wife of the prime minister of Israel.

It was by all accounts a jam-packed event. Guests were instructed to wear masks but many came off as the chattering class chattered. The New-York Historical Society reception, to open their exhibition on the life of Katherine Graham, wasn’t quite the first social gathering since lockdowns were lifted. The Frieze New York Art Fair probably claims that spot.

But as befits a history museum, it captured the zeitgeist.

“Truly, we’d planned the event some months back, but with so many uncertainties, I did not think many would show up,” said Louise Mirrer, President and CEO of the N-YHS. “The ‘transition’ for me came to life when the RSVP’s began coming in, and suddenly I realized that people longed to engage in social interaction again and, feeling liberated by the vaccine, they were eager to say ‘yes.’”

Indeed, the museum issued timed tickets to reduce crowding of guests as they saw the exhibition. But many guests seemed as interested in seeing each other.

As restrictions were lifted all around town, New Yorkers were navigating the transition from the anxiety and social distance of the pandemic to ... well, what? Almost normal?

Exactly what was OK now was on everyone’s mind. Some looked askance as others pranced. At an apartment building on West 106th St., a couple arriving for a small dinner asked a masked women if they could get in the elevator with her.

“We can break the rule,” she replied. They climbed onboard. But when they sought to thank her, she gestured to her ear buds and explained she could not speak because she was on a Zoom shiva, which from her garb she had been attending while working out.

That would certainly not have happened pre-pandemic.

New York is always an edgy place, but this moment of transition is particularly freighted. “Everyone is depressed and anxious,” reports a Manhattan physician. Another New Yorker described having panic dreams about forgetting to wear her mask.

“Right Moment”

For many New Yorkers the question of whether to get vaccinated or vaccinate their teenagers still hangs over them. “It’s about just that right moment to get vaccinated,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday in announcing that the eight millionth dose of vaccine had been administered in the city. “It’s about the moment where someone really looks you in the eye and says it’s time, we can help you, we can answer your questions.”

Half of New Yorkers have received at least one dose, including 60 percent of all adults and 71 percent of those over 65 percent, the city reported. Perhaps the simplest source of anxiety is that New York is reopening before vaccine has reached enough people to achieve the so-called herd immunity that would assure suppression of the virus.

“It’s a roll of the dice,” said one expert in how viruses spread in urban populations.

The significant disparity in distribution remains a vulnerability. In the Financial District on the southern tip of Manhattan (zip 10004), health officials report that 100 percent of the 2,900 residents have received at least one dose of vaccine. But in North Central Harlem (10039) only 36 percent of the 27,000 residents have received at least one dose.

Amidst these uncertainties, pandemic and post-pandemic life jostled against each other. Fordham Law school held a Zoom graduation Sunday as had been planned months ago, with speaker Hillary Clinton beamed in from Chappaqua. But the next day, with event size restrictions relaxed, the newly minted lawyers held a second, in person, commencement that was as much reunion as graduation.

“It was especially nice because so many of the students hadn’t seen each other except on Zoom for 14 months,” said Anne Reingold, a West Side communications strategist and proud mother of graduate Nick Reade. “It was the best closure to their law school journey and marker of the end of the pandemic. Everyone was able to be maskless and to see so many happy smiling faces made it extra special.”

It was almost normal. Almost. “It is kind of like a hurricane - you are not sure if you are in the quiet of the eye, or it’s really, truly over,” Reingold said.

Return from Lockdown

At Ellington in the Park café in Riverside Park at 105th Street, two diners gazed down on the bar scene below. Dozens of patrons crammed together, not a mask among them, a least covering their faces. The diners wondered rather epidemiologically how many were actually vaccinated.

The desire to return to some sense of normality is so insistent that the mayoral candidates and WABC News agreed that the next debate would be held in person, not on Zoom, a medium that has been among the factors blamed for the seeming lack of energy in the campaign and lack of excitement among voters.

Ordinary New Yorkers seemed focused on their return from lockdown. Sales of deodorant and teeth whitener are up, the Wall Street Journal reported. The manager of a hair salon on Broadway reported that business had revived to about 60 percent of pre-pandemic as women returned for cut and color.

Two men in their sixties sat in the upper deck at Yankee Stadium Sunday discussing whether they would resume their gym memberships or be satisfied with their new commitment to long walks and home stretching.

A tale of two cities was no longer de Blasio’s portrait of a city divided, rich and poor, but rather the dissonance between the still dormant midtown business district and residential neighborhoods.

Caroline Hirsch had created a vital moment in the resurrection of Times Square when she moved her comedy club, Carolines, from Chelsea to Times Square in 1992, “before it was cool ... or safe,” as her press representative, Cristyne Nicholas said.

Now she hopes to inspire another comeback. Thursday night she reopened Carolines, even though neither business nor tourism is back in Times Square. “It’s time to open,” Hirsch said. “NYC needs to open and New Yorkers need to come back to work, and by re-opening Carolines on Broadway I hope it will encourage not only New Yorkers to return to the club for a much-needed laugh ... but to return to New York City.”

“It is kind of like a hurricane - you are not sure if you are in the quiet of the eye, or it’s really, truly over.” Anne Reingold, communications strategist