New York’s Pandemic Christmas: Muted Cheer, but Some Stick to Traditions

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There was no Santa Claus at the flagship Macy’s store, no Rockettes dazzling audiences with sky-high kicks at Radio City Music Hall. Broadway stayed dark through what is usually its busiest season, and with tourism severely diminished, there was so much room at New York’s inns that many hotels had to close.

Amid a pandemic that has killed thousands of New Yorkers while upending the rhythms of daily life indefinitely, the holiday cheer that typically buoys city residents through dark winters and fills the streets with tourists has been muted this year.

Still, New Yorkers’ resilience was evident on Christmas Day, with some people determined to observe the holiday largely as they always have, though with alterations to accommodate current circumstances.

Despite gray skies and a steady drizzle, people in masks strolled in Central Park and ambled along Fifth Avenue to gawk at holiday window displays. Christmas Mass was still celebrated at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, with attendance limited.

Although the area’s bus and train stations were remarkably quiet — a sign that people were heeding the repeated urgings of federal and local officials not to travel — a small number of residents were leaving the city to be with loved ones.

“I feel like it’s important to visit family in times like this,” said Christian Deleon, one of the few people on the platforms at the Metro-North Railroad’s 125th Street Station. He was toting bags of gifts that he was taking to his brother and sister-in-law in Connecticut.

Robert Lima, 35, and Curtis Engelhart, 33, were on their way from Astoria to visit relatives in Danbury, Conn. Standing at the station in colorful Christmas-themed sweaters, a Corgi strapped to Mr. Engelhart’s back, they said they were determined to keep the holiday bright.

“We’re just trying to make the most of it in small ways,” Mr. Lima said. “Trying to keep the spirit alive as much as possible. Each day feels the same. Anything to make the day feel a little bit special.”

The weather added its own wrinkle to some holiday celebrations. Overnight, driving rain and fierce wind gusts knocked out power in much of the region. Con Edison said that more than 22,000 customers in New York City and the Westchester County suburbs had lost electricity. By 5 p.m., more than 5,000 customers, most of them in Westchester, were still without service.

In New Jersey, more than 75,000 households woke up Christmas morning without power, officials there said, as did 30,000 in Connecticut. It was unclear whether all those who had lost power would get it back by day’s end.

The outages threatened to cast even more of a pall on Christmas plans that had already been darkened by the pandemic’s shadow. Coronavirus cases have been rising in the region for weeks, as have hospitalizations and deaths linked to the virus.

On Friday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said there had been 122 virus-related deaths in the day prior. Mayor Bill de Blasio reported the city’s seven-day average positive test rate was 6.69 percent, the highest since late May, when testing was far less widespread and New York was emerging from a monthslong lockdown. If the seven-day positive rate hits 9 percent, the city’s schools must close under state guidelines.

Mr. Cuomo and Mr. de Blasio have urged residents to avoid holiday gatherings outside their own homes and have pleaded with them to avoid traveling. Both actions, the governor and the mayor warn, could cause another dangerous spike in virus cases that would force nonessential businesses to shut down again.

Shakira Lewis, 24, said her family had heeded the warnings. There are usually at least 20 people at their annual Christmas celebration in New Jersey; this year, the limit was 10.

“It wasn’t exactly the same, but it was still fun,” she said on Friday afternoon as she stood in the Port Authority Bus Terminal, which was mostly empty. “It’s important to celebrate.”

Even those who were observing more secular traditions tried to hold to them in some way. Nick Resnick, 27, and two childhood friends from Birmingham, Mich., met in Manhattan’s Chinatown to partake in a longstanding tradition among Jewish people: eating Chinese food on Christmas.

With the weather bleak and restaurants limited to serving patrons outdoors, the neighborhood’s narrow streets, which are usually bustling at holiday time, were relatively empty. Several restaurant owners said business was down sharply and that they had not gotten the influx of customers they had hoped for.

Still, Mr. Resnick and his friends were thrilled to partake in a holiday pastime.

“I’m excited we even get to do this,“ Mr. Resnick said through his mask, gesturing to the damp streets. “This is beautiful.”

In addition to hurting business owners, the economic damage created by the pandemic has also exacerbated the harsh conditions experienced by the city’s neediest residents.

Volunteers and workers at the Harlem headquarters of the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, which has fed hungry New Yorkers on Christmas for decades, said the number of people seeking meals this year was practically unprecedented.

Katrina Jefferson, who has organized the Christmas event for six years, said that when she first started, the group would serve about 600 people. By the end of Friday, she said she expected that nearly 3,000 people would be fed at this year’s event.

“The need this year is astronomically higher,” Ms. Jefferson, 41, said.

New Yorkers lined up down the block to wait for meals or toys, some of which Mr. de Blasio handed out. Among those who were waiting was Sidney Jones, a food service worker who currently lives in a homeless shelter. Mr. Jones said the pandemic had kept him from traveling to see family members outside the city.

Still, despite a hard year, he said he was determined to keep a shred of hope.

“2021’s got to be better,” Mr. Jones, 49, said. He added: “Everybody’s holding on by a thread.”

Sarah Maslin Nir and Brian M. Rosenthal contributed reporting.

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