New York Learns to Live with Covid-19
As the city reopens, many New Yorkers feel cautious about City Hall's decision to sound the all clear
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Next week, I am going on vacation and really taking some time off. So I’ll be back with my next post on Friday, July 30. Please feel free to share this one, and any other post you like, with a friend, and invite them to:
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Like many New Yorkers, I have mainly lived in a more bucolic place since the Covid-19 crisis hit in mid-March 2020. But, in part because of some book research, I have been re-starting urban life for a few months now. And let me tell you: after the initial exhilaration, New Yorkers don’t seem to believe that Covid-19 is over. In fact, even though no one in charge at City Hall will say it, I think we may be entering a period of learning to live with the virus indefinitely. Although they must know that there will be consequences for public health, city officials and corporations have decided to return to business as usual.
And no one—in Washington, City Hall, or in any corporate board room—has the courage to mandate vaccinations.
My sense from what I saw this week is that Manhattanites, at least, are skeptical about this decision. Subway ridership is still visibly low. When I took an uptown 1 train to the Upper West Side last night at about 6:30, when it would normally be packed with people coming home from work and attending events at Lincoln Center, there were four people in my car. Of course, Lincoln Center, except for its outdoor performance park, is still closed, and only 20% of workers are back in the office. Buses also mostly seem empty, and both modes of city transportation contrast with a much larger number of bikes, scooters, skateboards, electrical wheeled objects, and cars on the streets and sidewalks. CitiBike stations are routinely 1/2 to 2/3 empty.
This is all to say that I suspect there has been a dramatic shift away from mass transportation that no one will resolve any time soon. Even masked people do not feel safe there—and I had no sense that this had anything to do with crime since when there was lots of crime on the subway back in the 1980s, everyone rode the trains anyway.
It’s the virus. Delta variant cases are creeping up in New York: two weeks ago, positive tests topped 1%, and they continue to head north, fueled in part by the good people of Staten Island sneezing all over each other under their Trump 2024 flags. Rates of vaccination in the five boroughs vary wildly, from 100% in some neighborhoods to under 40% in others.
New Yorkers know what’s up, and many more of them were wearing masks outside than even two weeks ago. They are required on public transportation, but they aren’t anywhere else. Usually, there is a polite sign on the door of a commercial establishment stating that you don’t have to wear a mask if you are vaccinated. But there is no way of checking this, which may be why, in every store I entered—Duane Reade, Trader Joe’s, the West Side Market—the preponderance of customers, sometimes all of them, were wearing masks. This was also not true two weeks ago.
Yet tourism is back up, something that the city—unwisely from a public health perspective, in my view—desperately wants. One lesson that might have been drawn from the last year and a half, and wasn’t, is how risky it is to build such a large part of a city’s economy on vacationers and conventioneers.
That didn’t happen, and the city has gone full steam ahead with a $30 million advertising campaign to win tourists back. Mayor Bill De Blasio held a press conference yesterday to celebrate a rebound in out-of-town visitors. He cited the almost half a million full hotel rooms as “incredible progress.” He also said that out-of-towners were coming “just to experience outdoor dining here,” which seems more than little nuts since you can eat outdoors practically anywhere in the world right now.
I understand the city's problem. The economy we have is the economy we have, however foolish it might seem to bet the future of an urban area on pleasure-seekers and conventioneers. The virus forced a third of New York’s hotels to close in the last eighteen months, and half a million is a number far under the normal population of tourists we have to deal with in a normal summer.
But is it really time to pretend everything is fine and encourage people to travel on a pre-pandemic scale? The United States has not reached its aspirational vaccination goals in most places and has fallen radically short in some states. Under these conditions, why would City Hall invite people of unknown vaccination status to visit the city a month before school openings?
It will really call the question about how well prepared the city is to live with this thing. Fool us twice; shame on us. Click the button below to tell us what’s going on in your community.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).
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