New York City Officially Reopened. It Was Quite a Day—and Night. 1

The pandemic has made me softer, I tell myself. I want to be kinder to people, and more empathetic. We’ve all shared the collective tragedy of the past 15 months. We’ve all felt loss. Now we are returning to a “normal” world, but we’re bruised and slightly broken. Why wouldn’t I show compassion to everyone I see?

I think this as I leave my apartment on May 19, the day of New York’s grand reopening. Then I step on the sidewalk. Almost immediately, a man mere feet away leans over and hocks a loogie, right in front of me. Another woman and I look at the wad of phlegm, and then each other. Nope, I think. Fuck that nice shit.

“Seriously?!?” the woman asks, seething. “Real cute,” I agree.

New York City is back! This, according to New York—or at least our leaders. Gov. Andrew Cuomo lifted capacity limits on bars and restaurants and eased mask mandates for the vaccinated this week. After over a year of limited service, the subway once again runs all 24 hours. Mayor Bill de Blasio promised 2021 will be “the summer of New York City.”

What does that look like? More than half of New Yorkers are vaccinated. There are certainly more people in the streets, parks are full, and no one pays attention to the 6-foot sticker markings at my local grocery store anymore. (De Blasio failed to note this as one of the main components of any supposed “return.”)

In Washington Square Park, dozens of NYU grads smiled for photos underneath the famous arch, celebrating their new degrees. An older woman wearing athletic clothes and toting a large cold brew seemed confused about the new mask rules.

“How do we know someone’s been vaccinated?” she asked. “Are we just supposed to trust them?”

But most businesses I passed were still requiring masks, and on such a sunny day few people chose to eat inside anyway.

One exception: the Equinox gym in West Chelsea, where impossibly fit members can once again show off their unfairly hot faces while they lift weights or hit the treadmill. I didn’t see anyone wearing a covering except for the custodial staff, who roamed through the maze of flexing abs and biceps, cleaning up after patrons’ errant aerosols.

Inside of a tiny clear “membership services” office, a woman sat at a desk and spoke with a man. Both were mask-free. The man excused himself, walked into the lobby, and sneezed into his elbow. Then he walked back inside. Consider this a new courtesy.

A coffee cart vendor named Zia was parked on 23rd and 6th, steps away from a much-used subway stop. He’s worked the area for more than 15 years.

“I stopped on March 15 and started end of September,” Zia, who lives in Flushing, Queens, said. “When I came back, it was nothing. Very slow.”

Since then, Zia said business has picked up “by about 20 percent.”

“It’s mostly construction people,” he added, not office workers or tourists. “I hope the rest come back, but I don’t know yet.” Despite a slow day, Zia insisted I take an iced coffee for the road, on him.

The pure office districts, in midtown and lower Manhattan, are pretty quiet. But they’re slowly picking up.

Office worker

It was around lunchtime. The Shake Shack in Madison Square Park, a favorite of office workers nearby, had a short line of customers.

“For a Shake Shack line at this time of day, this is dead,” a man who worked in real estate told me. “It’s a good wait for me. When I used to work down here, you’d wait an hour easily.” He was there to get his free fries—a new vaccine incentive.

A co-worker in a plaid shirt and pastel trousers stood next to him. Both men have been coming into their offices a few days a week since last September, but they recently noticed “a much greater level of street activity.”

“Street life has pretty much been increasing downtown since last summer,” one of the men said. “The pure office districts, in midtown and lower Manhattan, are pretty quiet. But they’re slowly picking up.”

Both men wear masks in their office. But when they get outside on the street, one said, “we rip ’em off—as of a week ago, that is, when that became OK.”

A couple takes a wedding photo near Times Square.

Alaina Demopoulos

The storied Plaza Hotel, across the street from Central Park, has been closed to the public since March 28, 2020. About 95 percent of staff lost their jobs. I walked up its red-carpeted steps one day before it was set to re-open. There I found a doorman named Tony Guerrero. It was his first day back. Was he nervous? Nah.

The Plaza doorman Tony Guerrero celebrated his first day back at work since March 2020.

Alaina Demopoulos

“This is my home, it feels amazing,” Guerrero said. “I call this my home because my house belongs to my wife. I live in the Bronx. No one can kick me out [of the Plaza], but my wife can kick me out.”

Guerrero spent most of the day “talking to the neighborhood people” and other workers. “We’re happy to see each other,” he said. “But tomorrow is the most important part—meeting guests.”

He’ll continue to wear his face mask while greeting visitors. “Most of the people in New York are vaccinated, but we don’t know where the tourists are coming from,” Guerrero said. “So it’s mandatory for them.”

Guerrero has spent 32 years at The Plaza. He worked his way up from security guard, a gig he found after leaving the Marines.

“I’ve been doing this for so long, it’s my life,” he said. “Thursday, March 26 was my last day, and it was empty. I stood on Fifth Avenue and there was no one around. What was I going to do? If Fifth Avenue is empty, there’s nothing here for me.”

I wanted to go out later that night, so I sat down in Central Park to download my Excelsior Pass, a proof-of-vaccination app. It was exactly two weeks after my second dose. But when I tried to get my QR code, a screen appeared that said it “couldn’t find” any record of my shot.

Apparently, I’m not alone—the Albany Times Union reported this has been a glitch for “many” users. I texted my boyfriend and asked him to take a photo of my CDC card, which I safely keep in a jewelry box on my dresser. He quickly did, but when I opened the picture I could see his nubby fingers in the shot. I hoped anyone who needed to check my status would disregard the man hands, in the same way some bouncers took pity on the very bad fake ID I had back in college that listed my gender as “male.”

It feels totally normal. It’s really freeing. It’s a relief to be fully vaccinated and not worry anymore. We missed this.

Marina Rusinow

Around 9 p.m., no one cared to check my vaccination card at Union Pool, a dive bar in Williamsburg known as a good place to go if you’re trying to hook up. It was their first night back-in-business since 2020; there was a bit of a wait to get in.

Three friends who live nearby, Marina Rusinow, Dani Gibbs, and Annette Duvorak, met up at the spot. They dressed for the occasion with wavy blowouts, crop tops, and maxi skirts. It was their first proper night out since the start of the pandemic.

“I’ve been to a lot of dinners, drinks outside, but sitting inside a bar with people—it’s been a long time,” Gibbs said.

“It feels totally normal. It’s really freeing. It’s a relief to be fully vaccinated and not worry anymore. We missed this,” Rusinow said.

The women all met because, as Rusinow put it, “our dogs are friends.”

“We all got COVID puppies,” she added. “We hang out at the dog park every morning. It’s hard to make friends in your early 30s, but we did it—our dogs did it first, and then we did it. We’re like a soccer mom crew, but with dogs.”

What did it feel like to put on “normal clothes” and leave the pups at home? “Freedom!” Rusinow cheered.

“Physical contact is back,” a German expat named Michael told me. A moment later, his friend appeared, bearing drinks. I introduced myself, and the friend immediately went in for a hug. I turned it into one of those half-hugs celebrities give overzealous fans as a last-ditch means to establish boundaries.

“Nightlife never left,” Michael informed me. The men planned to hit up a “Bushwick warehouse party” later. Much later. “Around 3 a.m., probably,” one clarified.

They had started the night at a German beer garden. “We were drinking a shot, and there were two ladies next to us who asked what we were drinking,” Michael said. “They had no problem whatsoever taking the shot from us and sipping the rest of it. No one is paranoid anymore.”

Except for me. I was paranoid now.

I grabbed my friends, and we decided to make moves. We all rattled off names of places we’d gone before the pandemic and looked up their Instagrams. Many had closed completely. Some were reservation only and fully booked. A gay club we love had DJs who would be spinning until 4 a.m.—great, we’d head there. Then we double-checked the ad: the event was for Friday.

A new sign: vaccinated patrons only.

Alaina Demopoulos

So it was on to another dive, one I knew for its pool table and generous pours. This time the bouncer did check our vaccine passes. A woman behind us, with friends, did not have hers. After drunkenly, emphatically promising that she was vaccinated, but she’d keep her mask on anyway, he let her in.

There were tons of bare faces inside. Most of the people who wore masks seemed to be doing so for fashion’s sake. There was a beautiful boy in a body harness and red leather gimp mask. Another patron with pink hair had on a mask that disclosed pronouns: she/they.

Two friends, Kate and Katie, danced by the bar as they waited for drinks. “I came down from the Upper East Side,” Kate said. “Most of my friends left the city, so I need some human interaction with the people who stayed.”

The back patio was quieter. A twenty-something couple on a first Hinge date sat in a corner booth. They were dressed casually. Contrary to my friend Michael’s prediction, physical contact had not yet returned to their universe.

The whole inside vibe is not my thing, still. It’s intense. People are too comfortable with it.

Connor

“I feel a lot in the back of my head about the circumstances of being out again,” Connor, the man, said. “It’s just weird, readjusting to the social world.”

“It’s definitely weird to see people inside,” Connor’s date, Alex said. “It’s more crowded. And that’s weirder to me than talking to an individual out here.”

“The whole inside vibe is not my thing, still,” Connor added. “It’s intense. People are too comfortable with it. People are so hyped to get back to this. This is cool, but it’s telling if you crave it that much. It’s just like: OK, this is not euphoria.”

On the opposite side of the patio, another couple furiously made out.

Later, I would run into one of the kissers in the bathroom. She loved my blazer and actually started applauding for my outfit. I gave her a little bow. It was not euphoria, exactly. But I have missed ephemeral bar restroom friendships. And I was grateful my mask somewhat filtered the stench of piss.

We did not stay out all night; I was in bed by 1 a.m., which was a pandemic record for me considering the restaurant curfew was 11 p.m. just a week ago. I felt it the next morning, waking up with the nauseously sweet taste of tequila in my mouth, and a slightly sore throat from shouting over music. Nothing insane, but then again the so-called Summer of New York has only just begun.