New York City is poised to lift most COVID-19 restrictions in just two short weeks, returning the city to the closest version of itself we’ve experienced since March 2020. But many New Yorkers are left feeling as bewildered by this rapid “return to normal” as they were last spring when the restrictions were first imposed and the shutdown turned our city on its head. We surveyed W42ST readers to get a better sense of how you feel about this “new normal” (a big thank you to the 132 who responded!) and the results were revealing.

W42ST readers have many words to describe their feelings of a “return to normal”.

Overall, our readers are embracing a sense of cautious optimism around NYC’s big reopening, as evidenced by your response to this week’s opening up of bars. 38.6% of respondents said they love the idea of being able to sit at a bar again but don’t feel quite ready to do so yet, while only 29.5% are ready to hit up their favorite bar right now. 

Over 37% are deciding to keep their mask on, despite the CDC clearing the way for fully vaccinated people to go maskless outdoors. 24.2% have been comfortable walking around without a mask since the CDC revised its guidelines, and that number might be greater if we hadn’t all become so socially accustomed to our masks. An additional 21.2% of readers said they’d want to remove their mask, but are cautious about it since so few people are going maskless. 

“While we’re ecstatic to be maskless, we also don’t want to be freaking out our Hell’s Kitchen neighbors who aren’t ready for the change or if they’re not vaccinated yet,” Judy Kuan said. “Convenience-wise, it does seem almost easier at this point to just keep a mask on all the time instead of remembering/putting it on before entering stores, etc.”

Judy Kuan and her husband are keeping their masks on for now.

“I think the return to normalcy probably should have been a bit slower,” Ally commented. “I’m all for letting smaller businesses open up a bit more or providing them with additional resources, but when there are still so many unknowns as well as a decent amount of the population that will likely refuse to ever get vaccinated, I’d rather we proceed with a bit more cautious consideration.” 

Ally echoed the overarching trend we noticed among our survey responses, a tendency to want to tiptoe back into normalcy rather than plunge right into the deep end. “I think it’s too soon,” said Patty. “I’m hoping and praying that I am wrong. I will continue to wear my mask and keep distances from others until I see the numbers in the next month.” 

“I’m treating COVID like the flu, and assume everyone is able to spread the virus at any time — even if vaccinated,” Paul Devlin said. “Living in a neighborhood that attracts so many people from so many places, I’m taking a cautious approach to large gatherings in interior spaces.” 

Paul Devlin is “treating COVID like the flu.” Photo: Phil O’Brien.

For many of us, the habits we’ve picked up over the past 14 months aren’t so easy to forget about or unlearn. “It’s hard to ‘go back’ when we have been told the people and air around us could kill us for over a year now,” Susan Knipper said. “It’s hard to think of things as safe when we know invisible enemies can kill, especially to those of us who have lost a loved one. And COVID isn’t gone, it seems more like we are tired of it so people are like ‘Hey, let’s open up’ because we want to.” 

Some COVID protocols came with their own silver lining, and various New Yorkers are keen to keep them up. “I haven’t gotten sick in the past year, so masks on the subway and in large groups are here to stay for me,” an anonymous reader shared. “I hope they keep the timed entrance thing at museums because I love seeing the art with less crowds,” Martha Keating said. 

After more than a year of isolated living, the psychological toll is not easy to simply bounce back from. “I feel like we’re lacking a level of guidance. Perhaps it’s because of the way I consume media, but I’m barely seeing any messaging on what’s safe, what’s not, and how to navigate the emotional adjustment moving forward,” Gregg said. “I feel like we should be getting a ton more messaging from public health officials, and real encouragement and advice on HOW to return to normal.” 

While some expressed a desire to keep tourism at bay, more recognized it as a vital part of the city, particularly in Hell’s Kitchen where crime has been on the rise. “The best thing for NYC is for tourism to return,” Heather said. “Hopefully that will end the high crime rate in Hell’s Kitchen and make our city overall safer.”

Several of you are looking to Broadway as a metric for the real return to normal. “Normal is the return of Broadway but happy for the baby steps,” Matt Fox said. “I’d like to wait until the summer to go completely mask free outside, and I have theatre tickets for mid October so I’m using that timeframe to go maskless indoors,” Julie Rothman added. 

Matt Fox at Fine and Dandy. Photo: Phil O’Brien.

We can probably agree that, however we move forward, our definition of normal has inherently changed. “It will NEVER be the old ‘normal,’” Kevin emphasized. “Normal in 2022 will be different from pre-pandemic… but we will be stronger,” Douglas Leland said, closing out our survey with a sentiment we all believe in!

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