From the terrifying and painful early days of the pandemic until perhaps now, a return to normalcy seemed unattainable in New York City, where people continued to breathe with masks and avoid indoor gatherings even as other places ditched safety protocols. of COVID-19.
But as the city prepares to lift more mask and vaccination obligations, the question is: are New Yorkers mentally prepared to turn the page on the virus and abandon the precautions that got the city through its darkest days?
Mayor Eric Adams has said he plans to lift mask requirements in schools and vaccination mandates in restaurants, bars, gyms, theaters and other cultural and entertainment venues as soon as March 7, and that Friday will take a final decision on when to withdraw.
Some rules will still exist: Masks will remain mandatory on public transport. Public and private employers in the city will continue – for now – to prohibit access to work to unvaccinated people.
However, even with these restrictions, New Yorkers will have to make decisions unthinkable a few months ago. Will they send their children to school without masks? Can they continue to eat in restaurants without the security of knowing if the person next to them without a mask is vaccinated?
Tim Okamura, a city resident who could see from his kitchen window one of the city’s temporary morgues for those killed by the coronavirus, said it’s been hard to shake off the trauma of spring 2020.
In just over six weeks, 20,000 people had died in the city. Another 20,000 have perished in the two years since.
“My experience was one of tragedy, of depression, of suffering. So it’s very real to me,” said Okamura, who contracted COVID-19 himself in March 2020, around the time the first refrigerator trucks for corpses began to arrive. park on his street, in his old neighborhood of Brooklyn. He found out about the infection from him the day the virus killed a cousin.
But at some point, he said, his city needs to start a new chapter.
“Like so many others, I’m tired. I’m tired of going into business and putting on a mask or forgetting to wear a mask,” he said. “If something else happens, well, we already know what to do. We can always come back.”
For Audrey Montas, this is not a time to celebrate.
She understands the urge people have to leave things behind, but the 48-year-old English teacher just got a new kidney in September and feels left out in talk of getting back to normal and lifting mandates.
“My biggest complaint has been that when they talk about mandates … they tell me they’re leaving out the immunosuppressed. And from what I know, there are a lot of us who live very limited lives, because other people want their freedoms and other people They want things to go back to normal.”
Montas is concerned about what her third-grade daughter might bring home from school if masks are optional, even though her daughter will continue to wear one in the classroom.
“If you don’t want to wear a mask and you don’t want to get vaccinated, that means I have to stay home,” he said.
Parents will have to make tough decisions, said Maggie Moroff, policy coordinator for Advocates for Children of New York.
Families are “going to keep thinking about this and trying to figure out what makes the most sense for them in their homes and with their students,” he said.
“There are peer pressure issues that we all know exist at school,” he said, “to wear masks or not to wear them.”
Columbia University psychology professor George Bonanno said New York City has the resilience – as demonstrated in tragedy after tragedy over the years – but worries that the apparent abruptness in the lifting of restrictions can sow confusion.
“Leaving this behind will mean we have to feel like it’s safe again,” he said. “We have to feel like we’re going to be okay if we go out again.”
He said he would feel uncomfortable about dining near people who have not been vaccinated and are not wearing masks.
“It’s going to be hard to get out of the habit of being careful. I think it’s going to make people very uncomfortable,” said Bonanno, who recently published a book called “The End of Trauma,” which delves into the science of resilience, including a chapter on the pandemic.
New York City is reportedly easing its restrictions at a time when the omicron wave is fading, even as the virus continues to kill at high rates compared to a few months ago.
More than 200 people died of COVID-19 in New York City the week ending Feb. 19, the last full week for which city health officials say there is reliable data.
This figure is much lower than the nearly 900 deaths in the week ending January 15. But it is still four times as many deaths as occurred in the first week of November.
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Sharai Lewis-Gruss laments what she sees as a lack of empathy, an unwillingness on the part of people to live with COVID precautions that would help those most at risk feel safe.
“It feels like a missed opportunity because of the idea that we’re doing this to have compassion for the most vulnerable members of society,” he said.
She is vaccinated and has actually had COVID more than once, but she still plans to wear her mask in public spaces and limit her social life as she has for the past two years.
Companies will remain free to set their own entry rules. Broadway theaters still plan to require patrons to show proof of vaccination to see shows through at least the end of April. Signs that say “masks required” still hang in some storefronts.
“We need to bring joy back into people’s lives,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, whose members are among the hardest hit financially by the pandemic.
“We need cheerleaders for New York City. There has been so much doom and gloom, but it is in the human DNA to go out, eat, drink and socialize. And when we see other people doing it, it will help other people drop their inhibitions,” he said.
Marc Kozlow, who also watched hospital workers load refrigerated trucks with corpses and had wiped down apples with disinfectant wipes out of fear, longed for the days before the pandemic, even if things may never be the same again.
“There is definitely a lingering trauma from what we witnessed outside our window, but it is a memory that will hopefully start to fade,” he said.
“I think there is still hope to get back to where we were,” he said. “Considering the number of things that have come and hit New York City, we’re still on the mend.”