Sudden Decision to Reopen Leaves New Yorkers Dizzy and Divided
The news longed for by so many for so long landed like a jolting boom: New York City is reopening — not someday, not hopefully soon, but in two weeks. Last year’s erasure of the city’s nightlife, culture, dining and shopping — the things that make New York New York — would be suddenly undone.
By Tuesday, a day after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s announcement, New Yorkers were responding with a mix of joy, did-I-hear-that-right double-takes and doubt. The idea of having so much come back so soon — on May 19, a seemingly random Wednesday around the corner — was, for many, dizzying.
“It doesn’t quite feel real,” said Charlie Cloud, 16, a high school sophomore from Manhattan. “We’ve lived like this for quite a long time, this happened all a little fast.” But that’s not stopping him from making plans to get back to his hangouts: “My favorite place is Bowlmor,” he said.
The reopening coincides with similar measures in Connecticut and New Jersey. From the Kabab King in Queens to Our Hero’s Sandwich Shop in Jersey City to the Atticus Bookstore Cafe in New Haven, people reacted happily or warily to the news, a moment to be remembered by a generation, as clearly as the one when everything suddenly shut down.
Some doubted the safety and logic of the timing. Too soon, too rushed, they said. Others smiled in a way that they hadn’t in over a year, and made plans: a blockbuster movie on the big screen, a favorite corner table at a jazz club, where the rumble of a passing subway plays behind the tinkling of glasses and the music. The simple thrill of interacting with the city again, of leaving home and returning hours later, spent, but also invigorated, alive.
“It’s almost like love is in the air,” said George Mercado, 56, working in the back of Bouquets and Baskets, a florist in Jersey City, on Tuesday morning. “For the past year and a half we’ve done a lot of funerals, a lot of funerals. Now we’re finally doing a lot of baby arrangements and weddings.”
In Brooklyn, Jose Hernandez, 52, a deli worker in Red Hook, still sounded a bit in disbelief as he waited for a downtown bus. “It’s about time,” he said. “It’s going to happen.”
Of course, the news of reopening for restaurants, bars, offices and stores at 100 percent capacity only led to more questions for many. With social-distancing restrictions still in place, the vast majority of restaurants and bars can’t fully reopen to prepandemic crowds. What will elbowing up to a bar feel like when the next elbow is six feet away?
“I want to see the restaurant open 100 percent and have business back to prepandemic days,” said Shaukat Ali, 68, the owner of Kabab King in Jackson Heights. “It has been difficult. Business has come back slowly, and it could be better if the city reopened completely.”
The reopening is far from universal. The Broadway League has said that most theaters will remain closed until September. And while some large employers like Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase expect to bring their workers back in the weeks ahead, many of the city’s larger corporations continued to plan slow phases of reopening.
About 16 percent of office workers in the New York City region went into the office during the last week of April, up from about 10 percent last summer, according to Kastle Systems, an office security firm that tracks employee security swipes at some buildings. Only San Francisco has a lower rate among the largest metro areas in the country.
As the city reopens, the many employees who have worked from home for the last 14 months and have become increasingly alarmed at reports of rises in crime may be encouraged to return to work, said Kathryn Wylde, the president of the Partnership for New York City.
“Crime is nothing like it was in 1990 — it’s a fraction, but people have gotten used to us being a very safe city and are really upset about the deterioration,” she said. “Which may not be fair. People are so on edge and so uncertain about their own future that all these situations are exaggerated.”
Her hope is that the reopening will bring places like Midtown Manhattan back to their vibrant selves, she said. “We’re no longer asking people to come back to a ghost town,” she said. “That’s key.”
The announcements of the reopenings in the region were not universally praised. Many people suspected some combination of politics and unfounded optimism about vaccination rates and a perilous disregard for emerging variants of the virus played roles in the reopening date.
“The time is no good,” said Felipe Perez, 48, a construction worker in Manhattan. “It’s too fast.”
Natasha Reich, 21, a recent graduate of Barnard College, said that reopening “seems a little hasty,” and that she’ll continue to behave in a way that feels right. “It’s been less about rules than about the feelings,” she said. “Sitting indoors makes me feel weird, and I think I’ll feel weird for a while.”
Kiara Neri, 15, a high school sophomore in Manhattan, said she fears the plan will backfire. “A lot of people won’t wear masks or get vaccinated, and then they’re going to close everything down again, including our school,” she said. “We just started going back a month ago.”
The speed of the reopening seems reckless to some. Michael Cortez, 59, was highly pessimistic. “I think this is just a knee-jerk reaction to what’s going on in all the politics with Cuomo and everybody else,” he said. “It’s crazy. And then we all ended up paying for it down the road. What’s the end game?”
Amadou Diallo, 52, a screenwriter, worries that people will lie about having received a vaccine and will endanger others.
“If it’s something where you have to have an app where you can verify it, then I’m fine,” he said. “I think this last year and a half has shown that people are selfish, and you can’t really trust them.”
But many business owners are upbeat, having looked at their nearly empty stores and imagined their customers finally returning. Atticus Bookstore Cafe, a shop in New Haven, has been selling books online for the past year, limiting two customers inside the store at a time, with an A-frame sign blocking normal entry.
“We will be removing the gate there and opening up the bookstore,” said Brandi Hawkins, a manager. “In the most normal way as possible.”
In Jersey City, Al Pilone, 72, the owner of Our Hero’s, looks forward to getting rid of the orange cone blocking off his dining room for the past year. But he said he’ll wait a little longer.
“I’m waiting until there is that 100 percent everyone is safe, maybe 70-80 percent of the population vaccinated,” he said. “I don’t want to subject the staff to anybody if I don’t know they’ve vaccinated.”
But for many, now was a time to simply enjoy the good news. Wanda Antonetti, 50, a nanny in Manhattan, thought of the things she has missed the most, going to movies and eating inside restaurants. The idea of returning to that life soon brought a smile.
“It sounds good!” she said.
Reporting was contributed by Sadef Ali Kully, Matthew Haag, Alicia Napierkowski and Nate Schweber.