(*Or at least that’s the hope.) After several false starts, New York’s latest comeback finally feels like the real thing.
Ginia Bellafante writes the Big City column, a weekly commentary on the politics, culture and life of New York City.
For the past several weeks, mayor Eric Adams has been exhorting businesses to get their employees back in the office, first making an appeal to conscience and then to cultural personality. Without a steady flow of commercial traffic, delis, restaurants, dry cleaners and all the remaining places that mix poke bowls while you wait on line will disappear, he has argued, endangering the livelihoods of hourly wage workers.
When that wasn’t quite working, he tried a new approach, in a recent speech in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, sounding like a fed-up parent unable to rouse a lazy teenager from under his comforter. The mayor wanted all New Yorkers who have continued to confront the world largely by way of screens and homemade lunch eaten at a kitchen table to know that they needed to be “out” and “cross-pollinating.” It was no longer an option to “stay home in your pajamas all day,’’ as he put it, because, “that’s not who we are as a city.”
Who we are as a city has been a central question of the pandemic, but this week, more than at any other point during the past two years, who we are finally began to feel more like who we were. The Covid positivity rate fell to under 2 percent, and fewer than one-sixth of New Yorkers remained unvaccinated.
Assuming the case rate does not significantly tick upward, Mr. Adams has said that the mask mandate for public schools will end by Monday, giving children the normalcy they have craved. He set the same time frame for proof-of-vaccination requirements in restaurants, gyms and theaters to end.
On Tuesday night, I saw a friend who had gone to her office, near Lincoln Center, for the first full day since March 2020. She had been anxious about what it would be like to re-enter the world with a radically altered metabolism. Free of the daily stresses of so much rushing around that working from home allowed for so long, she was feeling defenseless. Could she hack it?
When she climbed up the subway stairs reaching Broadway and 72nd Street that morning, she realized that she had endured a long stretch of sensory deprivation; she had missed the smell of a gyro cart, the smell of coffee bought from a vendor on the sidewalk.
What was she doing here — what are any of us doing here — if not to encounter these distinctive markers of the hustle, to live them, to engage the world of public intimacies? The comforts of moving from a bed to a French press to a desk 10 feet away were never going to compensate for the loss of a kind of immersive experience — of standing at a crowded intersection, inhaling the aromatics of someone else’s piping-hot Guatemalan blend while they yell at a divorce lawyer on the phone.
Pessimists will say that we have been here before. The freedoms of the past summer were followed by the dread that accompanied the Delta variant, which were then proceeded by more punishing restrictions imposed by Omicron. But now parties are happening without anyone having to take antigen tests first, and on Wednesday The Wall Street Journal ran a headline that announced: “Networking-Starved Professionals Get Back on the Gala Train.’’ This is how bad it had become — people were desperate to stand around in windowless hotel conference rooms wearing name tags.
(In the event that you were wondering what was going on convention-wise, Alan Steel, chief executive of the Javits Center, tells us in the article, “We’re back to running hard again.”)
The arc of the pandemic, from the dark beginnings to this new awakening, is efficiently told through the story of the chef Sean Rembold, who has worked in some of Brooklyn’s best loved kitchens. For him, the past week was clearly a turning point. Mr. Rembold and his wife, the fashion designer Caron Callahan, had Covid in the initial phase of the pandemic, that long, terrifying stretch when you could not be sure that you would get a hospital bed if you needed one. He spent a lot of time worrying, and he lost his taste for four months.
Immediately before that he had been working as a private chef and taught cooking to people who had come out of prison. But when the crisis upended everything, he somehow saw an opportunity to open a restaurant of his own. He had wanted to do that for a long time. During the preceding five years he had looked at every available space in Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens, but nothing quite worked.
Then, last winter he found something on a residential stretch of Hicks Street on the north end, a block off the water. The space had previously been occupied by a longstanding neighborhood restaurant that closed early in the pandemic.
“We said we’re not going to move upstate; we’re not going to move to Nashville,” he told me. “We are going to stay and commit and be a part of whatever was going to happen next in the city.” Mr. Rembold had always wanted a neighborhood restaurant, “not a concept.”
His restaurant, Inga’s Bar, quietly opened this week after many months of stops and starts. At one point it was to open in early December and then in February, but supply chain issues, the labor shortage and the increasingly slow pace of the state’s liquor-licensing apparatus — also a result of the shrinking labor pool — delayed everything.
On Wednesday, the restaurant received friends and family. Neighbors walked by and took pictures. Mr. Rembold imagined a place where an architect might land at the bar next to a contractor, a writer next to an editor and so on. He was, in his heart, a cross-pollinator.
But at the same time it was true that you might walk several blocks and still find many people wearing masks outside. And why was it that, despite the science about surface viral transmission, some restaurants continued to deal only in those pointless digital menus? For the immuno-compromised, the pandemic is certainly not over but it’s unclear how a measure like that will help them. It will take a long time for all of us to recalibrate, to shed pandemic worn habits. But for now, at least, it feels like a moment.
Is the Coronavirus Pandemic Over? New Yorkers Are Cautiously Optimistic. – The New York Times