Dan Haar: A half-masked New York City emerges from COVID’s shadow
Madison Square Park in the heart of Manhattan had a bit of everything Thursday afternoon, a painting of summer in clear view of the Flatiron and Empire State buildings: two boxers sparring with masks, a circle of pregnant women without masks, sunbathers sparsely spread on the lawn, a jazz band near the café and three refusenik mothers in the playground, spurning pleas that they take precautions.
Here was the slice of coronavirus life in the city I was looking for as New York inches back to a normal that no one can yet describe. When it comes to measures to ward off a second wave of COVID-19, it’s a mixed picture.
Among the thin crowds - visitors remain scarce, vast numbers of city dwellers have decamped and many remain holed up in their apartments - about half are keeping a distance, covering their faces.
And half are saying, “Coronavirus? Fuhgetaboutit.”
This, of course, was the global heart of crisis in the spring, with a daily death toll over 200 for 44 straight days, now approaching 23,000 fatalities. But this is New York.
As I watch a half-dozen young children in a day-care group gyrate high on a tire swing, only one with a mask, a city worker in a red vest comes into view. She’s clutching a satchel of blue surgical masks and her vest reads, “Social Distancing Ambassador.”
She eyes two women, one in a sun dress, both with children. She approaches, asking them to wear masks and keep some distance. They’re not buying the idea. Four seconds after the ambassador walks away, a third woman approaches the other two and hugs them both, tightly.
I approach, mask and New York Rangers hat affixed, and ask how they feel about face covering and distancing.
“The way we feel is sort of what you’re looking at,” one says. “Going about our lives.”
“The recovery rate is so high that I just can’t imagine not being able to breathe in the heat,” another says.
Just then, a second city employee approaches, in a tight black mask and the uniform of a park supervisor. She tries to reason with the women. “Do it for the children,” she says. The women say little, and the supervisor gives up.
“It’s got its good days, it’s got its bad days,” says the ambassador, who informs me she’s not allowed to give her name. “It’s hard to tell the kids but all the adults over here should be wearing masks.”
My friend is wearing her mask inside-out, which I had not noticed. The ambassador gives her a new one and tells her to toss the old one in the trash, it’s ruined.
We were midway through a tour of the city and the compliance scene was pretty much the same everywhere - at Union Square where the protests raged a few weeks ago, in Bryant Park at the library, along Fifth Avenue by St. Patrick’s, in Central Park’s lush Conservatory Garden way uptown at dusk, on the steps of the Met, at Grand Central Terminal in the afternoon, in the East Village at night.
Crowds sparse. Some people careful, some not.
And some are spectacularly cavalier, like the dozens of people out and about in East Harlem along Lexington Avenue - maybe 15 percent with masks -- and the dance party that broke out around 1 a.m. on a SoHo sidewalk.
Across from Gramercy Park, we see construction workers on a second-story scaffold, most with masks but one without. I raise a camera. He quickly turns his back, then faces us and waves, mask in place.
The restaurants offer outdoor service including drinks, with seating that here and there spills beyond the sidewalks into the streets. New York was supposed to return to indoor dining by now, as Connecticut did on June 17. But the lax behavior, combined with rising COVID-19 rates across the country, prompted New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to put it off, with a stern lecture.
That’s the same pattern that helped convince Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont to postpone the start of Phase 3, with larger outdoor gatherings and the reopening of bars.
It’s lax, but not openly defiant in New York. You won’t easily find opponents of distancing in the city claiming freedom, invoking liberty, making some kind of anti-government point. It’s more of a shrug, a swagger, or perhaps the arrogance of privilege like we saw with those women in Madison Square Park.
“New York has been good,” declares a rapper who performs as Geeda, trying to sell CD’s to non-existent passers-by in Times Square, explaining why he’s unafraid. “I feel a lot more comfortable because of the way they’ve been doing the whole COVID thing. They’ve done a great job.”
There, in Times Square, where few New Yorkers venture except to make a buck off the tourists or catch a Broadway show in better times, stretches of sidewalk bake in the sun undisturbed. It’s not eery, like it was in April; just subdued, so much that it’s hard to tell whether Skechers and the Hard Rock Café are even open. They are.
Some stores remain closed all over the city, a retail checkerboard with no pattern.
Geeda, from Harlem, is one of a dozen or so young men gathered in one spot, each with his own CD’s to sell. Some have half-mast masks, down by their chins, covering nothing.
The day before, seeing bigger crowds and not much protection in East Harlem, I stopped in at Levels Barber Shop, where Juss R., one of two barbers, aimed a touchless thermometer at my forehead as I walked in. The other barber wore a face shield. Their level of concern contrasted with the group of eight or nine people on the sidewalk next door, standing close, not one mask to be seen.
Heading down to the East 80s, my friend and I passed Dorrian’s Red Hand on Second Avenue, where people milled around outdoor bar tables just like it was 2019. At that same location, 84th and Second - nine blocks from where I was born - it was a madhouse on the last Saturday night in June, with unmasked, undistanced crowds of young people in full party mode.
That same Saturday night, we were at a restaurant around 12:30 a.m. on Spring Street downtown, safely away from crowds. Suddenly the sidewalk picked up energy. A gaggle of Gen-Zers rubbed right up to the edge of our table. I asked for space and they apologetically complied. Around 1 a.m., a small Black Lives Matter and Gay Pride protest march made its way down from the Village.
Then in a flash, we were surrounded by a dance party, sparked by an itinerant DJ who had set up a curbside gig, tip jar and all. It was as if 2020 had never happened.
That contrasted with a street party at a bar this Wednesday night in the East Village, where every single person among easily two dozen wore a mask, properly snug - and they were all young. Scratching my head over the odds, I approached a young man in a striped Izod shirt, named Francesco Boccalatte.
Well, he says, “We work for a hospital.” They are physicians and researchers at NYU Langone, many, like him, from Italy.
I’m struck by what it’s like for them, and for all of us. As the city emerges from the horrors of triage, its famed institutions remain idle. Just finding a bathroom requires strategy.
And yet, at its core, even with Broadway dark, the High Line roped off for a few more days and the stadiums empty, New York is every bit its magnificent self.