NEW York City roared back to life on Wednesday as businesses began operating at 100 percent capacity and fully vaccinated people were finally allowed to ditch their masks.
Residents of the Big Apple responded to the easing of the city's Covid-19 restrictions by flocking to bars, restaurants, and parks in largely maskless droves as temperatures soared into the mid-80s.
NYC was one of the hardest-hit cities during the first few months of the Covid-19 pandemic, and for a long time was considered the US epicenter of the virus.
For the last 13 months, the city has been under some of the strictest measures in the country, forcing the so-called "city that never sleeps" into an uncharacteristic slumber.
But finally, the city turned a page on the pandemic yesterday as vaccinated New Yorkers were able to shed their masks and abandon social distancing, both indoors and outside in large groups.
Businesses such as restaurants, retail stores, gyms, barbershops and many others were also allowed to operate at full capacity so long as social distancing could be practiced inside.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo called the city's reopening a key milestone in the state's fightback against coronavirus.
"This means that, 399 days after New York was the first state in the country to implement a mask mandate, effective today, fully vaccinated individuals no longer need to use a face covering in most public places," Cuomo said.
Mayor Bill de Blasio also celebrated the winding back of COVID restrictions, declaring Summer 2021 as the "summer of New York City."
"Vaccination equals personal freedom. And vaccination equals freedom from COVID for all of us," the mayor said.
Many locals told The Sun they too were relieved to see the light at the end of the pandemic's tunnel.
"I think it's been a long time coming," 30-year-old Ingram Drye said as he sunbathed on a bench with friends in Washington Square Park.
"Of all the cities in the United States, New York City was locked down very hard and hit pretty hard – and people stuck to the rules and stayed home, and to have this now, I think it's something we've earned and we're happy to be here.
"I think New York is back," he added with a smile. "And we never left."
Throughout the late afternoon, Washington Square Park was filled with sunbathers, skateboarders, and an eclectic array of musicians.
Large groups of NYU students also posed in their graduation gowns in front of the park's famed fountain as children played and splashed in the water behind them.
Dentistry major William Ferrante, 26, told The Sun that he thought it was "fitting" that he and dozens of other students were able to celebrate their graduation on the day of New York's long-awaited reopening.
"It's amazing," he said. "It's almost like we're celebrating New York too."
Classmate Greidy Lazo added: "[The atmosphere] is kind of overwhelming. But it's great to see things slowly moving back to normal."
When asked how they would be celebrating their graduation night, with bars in the city extending their curfews to midnight, the pair responded: "With family, friends – and a lot of champagne."
After the sun set, the party atmosphere remained inside the park long after dark.
Fashion designer Danny Boards, 38, said he's been coming to Washington Square throughout the pandemic, calling it an "oasis" amid lockdown.
"I'm glad New York is opening back up," he said. "It feels good to see the stores open, the shops, the hotels.
"It's too early to tell if New York is back to what it was. It may become what it was, it may never become what it was, or it may be something new. And honestly, I like the new."
But standing outside of East Village Social on St. Mark's Place, Frank Wood said he can't wait to get back to the New York of old.
Having spent nearly five decades in the music industry booking bands and working with the likes of The Rolling Stones, The Who, and Bruce Springsteen, Wood said the pandemic forced him into a temporary career change.
After live music venues and bars shuttered across the city and much of the country last Spring, Wood said he took to door tending to get him through the pandemic.
Wood said he's hoping to delve back into the world of live music in July but puts a "more realistic" estimation on September.
He also said he'd grown tired of lock down restrictions.
"I've survived the CBGB's bathroom," he said of the now-shuttered legendary Manhattan rock bar. "I'm immune to anything."
In the West Village, groups of patrons were seen lining up outside of the Comedy Cellar attempting to buy tickets on the door.
Others were seen dining outdoors in tightly-packed wooden structures as several musicians serenaded them from the streets.
Budding comic Osama Basal, visiting New York from Michigan, had just been to his first stand-up show in the Big Apple when he spoke to The Sun.
"New York seems to be coming back," he said. "I think it's good to open up economically speaking, and even from a mental point of view it's nice to be around people again. And everyone seems to be being responsible."
In addition to restrictions on businesses and the state's mask mandate being eased, subways will now also now resume a 24-hour service.
In the weeks ahead, midnight curfews for bars and restaurants will be thrown out and Broadway tickets will go back on sale – with the curtain set to rise in September.
As further proof of New York regaining its bustle, 80,000 city employees returned to their offices in at least a part-time capacity this month.
Subway and commuter rail ridership is averaging about 40 percent of normal after plunging to 10 percent last spring, when the subway system began closing for several hours overnight for the first time in its more than 115-year history.
Shakeem Brown, an artist and courier who works late in Manhattan, spent up to three hours a night commuting back to his Queens apartment before 24/7 service resumed Monday.
Brown, 26, said it’s “refreshing” to see things opening up.
At e’s Bar on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, “we feel the energy” of social life ramping up, co-owner Erin Bellard said. “People are so excited to be out.”
Still, receipts at the bar and grill have been down about 35 percent because of pandemic restrictions on hours and capacity, she said.
The impending end of the midnight curfew will give the bar two more crucial hours, and the owners are considering whether to regain full capacity by requiring vaccinations.
But while some celebrated what they perceived to be normalcy on Wednesday, New York City is still missing some of its defining characteristics.
For instance, sidewalks and skyscrapers of midtown Manhattan remain noticeably empty.
Big corporate employers largely aren’t looking to bring more workers back until fall, and only if they feel it’s safe, said Kathryn Wylde, CEO of the Partnership for New York City, a major employers group.
“Shutting down was easy. Reopening is hard,” Wylde said. “All the employers say that there still is fear and some resistance to coming back.”
Besides virus fears, companies and workers are wondering about safety, she said, pointing to surges in violent crimes city-wide.
Brandon Goldgrub returned to his midtown office in July, but just in the last few weeks, he has noticed the sidewalks seem a bit crowded again.
“Now I feel it’s a lot more normal,” said Goldgrub, 30, a property manager.
Visiting from Tallahassee, Florida, Jessica Souva looked around midtown and felt hopeful about the city where she used to live.
“All we heard, elsewhere in the country, was that New York was a ghost town, and this doesn’t feel like that,” said Souva, 47. “It feels like a city in transition.”
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