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Covid Outdoor Gatherings Are Back in New York Amid Surge

“The whole notion of having to stay away from people again is mind-numbing,” said Manny Fidel, 29, a video producer who lives in Brooklyn.

While he acknowledged the gravity of the current Covid-19 surge in New York City, which has set records for new cases and caused a mad dash for testing, Mr. Fidel also expressed fear that the Omicron variant would reduce social life in New York to its socially distant diminutives: stoop cocktails in puffer coats, long walks with friends to nowhere and a long line of park hangs.

“It gives me a headache just thinking about the days that I was bug bite ridden, sitting six feet away from dear friends, drinking warm beers and rushing through a conversation because we only had like an hour of sunlight left,” Mr. Fidel said.

In a Tuesday address from the White House, President Biden emphasized that “this is not March 2020.” Still, New Yorkers can’t help but feel a sense of déjà vu.

Madeleine Cravens, 26, a graduate student studying poetry at Columbia University, tweeted last Monday that the rising cases had revived for her an early quarantine pastime: going on “little strolls like it’s the Victorian era.”

A Brooklyn resident, Ms. Cravens considers long walks through the city — Victorian or not — to be one of the great joys of urban living, along with lazy afternoons lounging with friends on the Great Lawn of Prospect Park.

But not when they are the only option, and especially not after months spent in the refreshing company of friends and strangers at bars and restaurants. “I love inhaling people’s germs at a bar,” Ms. Cravens said, “and this past summer, there was something intoxicating about all the physical proximity.”

Despite what the president said, Ms. Cravens feels a vibe that is eerily like 2020 when it comes to charting a course through social gatherings this winter. “It’s like a scramble,” she said. “Who are the people close to you when everything is falling apart? What are the safest ways to see them?”

That question is complicated by the timing of the current wave: right before Christmas and as the city begins another long winter.

“Winter 2020 felt like a precisely planned ski trip — without any of the pleasures of skiing,” said Rymn Massand, 51, a creative consultant and travel writer who lives in SoHo, and found a social lifeline during Round 1 with a mix of early morning tennis matches while shivering on public courts, long walks in all kinds of weather, and finger-numbing dinners in “streeteries.”

This time around, she hopes to keep her spirits buoyed with trips to museums, the movies and restaurants (outdoor, preferably), presuming another shutdown is not in order.

“Do I want to be walking endlessly on the West Side Highway?” she said. “Probably not. This year, I will do less of that enforced outdoorness.”

This is obviously not to say that urbanites “dread” the outdoors as a concept, particularly during the pandemic. Quite the opposite. Several people interviewed praised the intimacy and sense of invigoration they felt during long walks with friends and park meet-ups, where the drinks were a lot cheaper than bars.

Since March 2020, the city’s green spaces have seen a surge in foot traffic. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden is drawing around 4,000 people a night to see its dramatic Lightscape exhibition — ten times the garden’s average daily visitors — and has also seen an uptick in daytime visits in the past week, said Adrian Benepe, a former city parks commissioner, who is now the president of the garden.

“There’s no question the parks and gardens of New York City have been lifesavers — literally — during the pandemic,” Mr. Benepe said, adding that this period has led to “a huge reconnection of people to nature.” (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has long maintained that the risk of outdoor transmission of the coronavirus is very low.)

“I’ve heard from people who said they literally never noticed the bird songs before, because they were not tuned in,” he said.

After all that time outside, some key lessons have been learned. Among them? The right gear is crucial.

Mr. Fidel, for example, bought a folding camping chair for park hangs after experiencing back soreness from huddling on a blanket in the grass. “I often found myself carrying my foldable camping chair around everywhere just in case someone wanted to meet up,” he said. That was a challenge since he often found himself avoiding the subways, “so I felt like the ‘Stranger Things’ kids, having to bike everywhere.”

Daniel Pelosi, 39, who started a popular cooking site called GrossyPelosi during the pandemic, recently bought a portable, smokeless fire pit from Solo Stove for socially distanced meetups outside his apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant. The portable fire pit, he said, will help keep people toasty while dining at the picnic table he installed on the concrete next to his front stoop.

“Pumpkin-carving parties, dinner parties, birthdays, you name it,” Mr. Pelosi said. “That table has saved my entire pandemic.”

Another lesson carried over from the first Covid winter? Dress accordingly. In preparation, Mr. Fidel loaded up on thermal leggings, as well as heat-trapping socks and gloves.

Ms. Massand, the creative consultant from SoHo, had also geared up for outdoor gatherings. She had a bit of wisdom to share: “Buy in bulk from Uniqlo,” she said. “Their Heattech socks need poetry dedicated to them.”

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