The morning after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that fully vaccinated Americans could hedonistically head outside, unmasked, under most circumstances, I left my apartment with a certain set of expectations.
There would be no more KN95s, no more Liberty of London paisleys obscuring the faces of everyone else around. There would be sidewalk conversations that allowed you to hear the other person speaking. (“No, no; not Miley Cyrus. Cyrus VANCE.”) There would be the thrill of walking down the Brooklyn Promenade staring at the 26 messages from your pandemic text group without having your glasses fog up. Here, finally, was freedom.
The question, though, was whether we were ready for it — ready for this new mood of abandon after a year of rules and protocols and terror and hand sanitizer and taking antibacterial wipes to tubs of hummus. The dam seemed to be breaking all at once.
As the C.D.C. lifted its strictures, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced that he would no longer require New York restaurants to serve food along with alcohol — even as drinking has clearly become a problem for many people during the pandemic. Restaurant curfews were also coming to an end; meals with groups larger than 10 were in the imminent future. The governor’s office said that in early May it would deliver “guidance for dancing,” which probably ought to be reframed as “guidance for dancing in clothes that don’t have an elastic waistband.”
But are we really ready to go maskless? Before I had even leashed my dog that morning, I reflexively put on a striped cotton mask I had worn and washed 100 times. Outside my building in Brooklyn Heights (face coverings are still required in the elevator and other common spaces), I saw construction workers, cops, fellow dog walkers, nannies, mothers, small children — all of them in masks, all worn regulation-style, above the nose.
I ran into a neighbor who was making her way up Pierrepont Street in a cheetah-print face covering. She said she was used to the habit and wasn’t comfortable moving on yet. Her father-in-law had been vaccinated but contracted Covid-19 anyway.
Someone else I bumped into had a partner with underlying conditions. She wore two masks and was facing down relatives who didn’t believe in the merits of vaccination. Others told me that they considered wearing a mask a matter of etiquette, a way to let the world know that you were not some selfish jerk who cared only about the airborne particles traveling up your own nasal passages.
My neighborhood is fussy, but reports from colleagues and friends living elsewhere in the city — in Park Slope, Crown Heights and Harlem — suggested a continued high compliance despite the relaxation of mandates. In this way, it is easy to see the mask evolving as an expression of cosmopolitanism long past its necessity. If defiance was the style of one kind of culture warrior, mask commitment, regardless of the science, would be the ritual of another. New York is not Daytona Beach.
For months now, many have wondered whether the aftermath of the pandemic would bring a reprise of the Roaring Twenties — a nonstop nightlife that followed the end of the Spanish flu and the First World War. The historical bar is quite high. By the peak of Prohibition, New York City had 32,000 speakeasies — twice the number of saloons that had been shut down before dry laws went into effect. Mores around sex, but also around everything, were radically changing.
Whatever happens, many of us will not be able to let go of the fear and insularity that the pandemic has brought. Even the fully vaccinated are, in many instances, still choosing outdoor seating when they go out to eat. However irrational it may be, eating roast salmon inside a restaurant still feels vaguely wanton and scary. We are hostages still beholden to the demands of our captor. Somewhere, someone is still hoarding Lysol wipes.