NEW YORK – From the frightening, grief-filled early days of the pandemic until perhaps even now, a return to normalcy seemed so out of reach in New York City, where people kept breathing through masks and avoiding indoor gatherings even as other places abandoned COVID-19 safety protocols.
But with the city preparing to lift more mask and vaccination mandates, the question is: Are New Yorkers mentally prepared to turn the page on the virus and give up 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 Monday, with a decision likely to come before the weekend on the timing of the rollback.
There will still be some rules: Masks will still be required on public transportation. Public and private employers in the city will still — for now — be required to bar unvaccinated people from the workplace.
Even with those restrictions, though, New Yorkers will face choices unthinkable just a few months ago. Do they send their kids to school without masks? Can they keep eating at restaurants without the assurance of knowing whether the unmasked person next to them is vaccinated?
Tim Okamura, a city resident who could see one of the city's temporary morgues for the coronavirus dead from his kitchen window, said it’s been difficult to shake the trauma of the spring of 2020.
In a little more than six weeks, 20,000 people died in the city. Another 20,000 have perished in the two years since then.
“My experience was one of tragedy, of depression, of suffering. So it’s very real for me,” said Okamura, who contracted COVID-19 himself in March 2020, about the same time the first refrigerated trucks for bodies began parking on his street in his old neighborhood in Brooklyn. He learned of his infection the day the virus killed a cousin.
But at some point, he said, his city needs to begin a new chapter.
“Like so many others, I do have fatigue. I’m tired of walking into businesses and putting on a mask or forgetting my mask,” he said, “If something else happens, well, we know the drill. We can always go back.”
For Audrey Montas, this is not a moment to celebrate.
She understands the impulse people have to put things behind them, but the 48-year-old high school English teacher just got a new kidney in September and feels ignored in the conversations about returning to normalcy and lifting mandates.
“My biggest gripe has been that when they talk about mandates ... I’m like, you know you’re leaving immunosuppressed people out. And as far as I know, there are a whole bunch of us out there who live very limited lives, because other people want their freedoms and other people want things to go back to normal.”
Montas worries about what her third-grader could 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,” she said.
Parents will have to navigate tough decisions, said Maggie Moroff, a policy coordinator with the Advocates for Children of New York.
Families “are going to keep puzzling over this and trying to figure out what makes the most sense for them in their homes and with their students,” she said.
“There are peer pressure issues that we all know exist in school,” she said, “either to wear masks or not to wear masks.”
Columbia University psychology Professor George Bonanno said New York City possesses the resiliency to recover — as proved from tragedy after tragedy over the years — but he worries the seeming suddenness in lifting restrictions could sow confusion.
“Putting this behind us will mean we have to feel that it’s safe again,” he said. “We have to feel that we’re going to be OK if we go back out again.”
He said he’d be uncomfortable with the possibility that he could be dining near people who haven’t been vaccinated and who aren’t wearing masks.
“It’s going to be hard to give up the habit of being careful. I think it will make people very uneasy,” said Bonanno, who recently published a book called “The End of Trauma,” which delves into the science of resiliency, including a chapter on the pandemic.
New York City would be easing its restrictions at a time when the omicron wave is fading, even if the virus continues to kill at elevated rates compared to a few months ago.
More than 200 people died of COVID-19 in New York City the week that ended Feb. 19, the last full week for which city health officials say reliable data is available.
That’s way down from nearly 900 killed the week that ended Jan. 15. But it is still four times as many deaths as occurred the first week in November.
Sharai Lewis-Gruss bemoans what she sees as a lack of empathy, an unwillingness from people to live with COVID precautions that would help those who are more at risk feel safe.
“It feels like a missed opportunity for the idea that we’re doing this to have compassion for most vulnerable members of society,” she said.
She’s vaccinated and has actually had COVID more than once, but still plans on wearing her mask in public spaces and limiting her social life as she has been for the last two years.
Businesses will still be free to set their own rules for entry. Broadway theaters still plan to require patrons to show proof of vaccination to see shows through at least the end of April. Signs saying “masks required” still hang on some shop windows.
“We need to return the joy back into people’s lives,” said Andrew Rigie, the executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, whose members were among the worst hit economically 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 and eat and 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 cleaned apples with disinfecting wipes out of fear, has been longing for the days before the pandemic — even if things may never again be the same.
“There’s definitely lingering trauma from what we witnessed outside our window, but it’s a memory that hopefully will start to fade,” he said.
“I think there’s still hope to be back to where we were,” he said. “Considering the amount of things that have come and hit New York City, we still get back on our feet.”