From the Bronx to Staten Island, Chinatown to Fifth Avenue, in Michelin-starred restaurants and humble corner diners, hardware stores and funeral homes, New York moved gingerly toward reopening on Wednesday, with scenes of a remembered normalcy played out alongside those of caution.
It was a moment that so many people had hoped for, whether aloud over countless Zoom calls or in the frustrated silence of a line of shoppers outside a store. It was less a grand gala than a soft opening, a finish line at the end of a long race that no one wanted to be the first to cross.
New York shut down 423 days ago, on a Sunday night in March 2020 when it accounted for half the nation’s coronavirus cases, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ordered all nonessential workers to stay home and indoors. The city has partially reopened in recent months, but Wednesday was the first day businesses were allowed to operate with fewer restrictions and at near capacity.
The new rules easing mask mandates and capacity limits were widely superseded by the personal comfort levels of millions of people. The reopening was messy and inconsistent and confusing — in short, it was New York City. Many business owners chose to continue requiring customers to wear masks, making Wednesday look and feel not all that different from Tuesday.
But the reopening was also cause for celebration. Julie Ross, 63, in the garden shade of the Museum of Modern Art, described the day in a word.
“Fabulous,” she said. “The streets feel more alive, a little bit. Right?”
The tentative first day arrived amid lowering restrictions in the region, with Connecticut and New Jersey rolling out similar plans, as case numbers continue to fall around the country and overseas. The European Union, looking ahead to summer’s tourist season, agreed on Wednesday to reopen its borders to visitors who have been fully vaccinated or who are coming from a list of countries considered safe from a Covid-19 perspective. And yet, the virus continued to ravage India, which recorded 4,529 Covid-19 deaths on Tuesday, the pandemic’s highest single known daily death toll in any country so far.
The clashing good-news, bad-news headlines seemed to leave many New Yorkers disinclined to lower their guard — or their masks. Facial coverings were no longer a hard requirement, but many people were still wearing them, whether in the big-box stores and tiny boutiques of Manhattan or the shaded paths of Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and they remained on the signs at the entrance of many stores like Victoria, selling clothing in the Bronx.
“It’s still store policy,” said Raj Lalbatchan, 23, a manager there. Nearby, Elisabeth Ocasio, 51, a server at the restaurant La Isla, said it is standing firm with the status quo. “We don’t know who’s vaccinated and who’s not,” she said. “We’re doing everything the same here.”
On the Upper West Side, the owner of DuPont Dry Cleaners on Amsterdam Avenue, Byong Min, 64, stood behind his counter like any other day. He is a Covid-19 survivor, having spent three months hospitalized last year, including 36 days on a ventilator; the scar from his tracheotomy is visible above his collar.
On Wednesday morning, Mr. Min said, a customer arrived and asked tentatively: Could she enter without a mask?
He said yes. But he reconsidered moments later.
“She told me she was vaccinated and I am vaccinated, but wow, maybe I should be more careful,” he said. “I wasn’t really thinking. I just said, ‘OK.’”
Starting Wednesday, most businesses were allowed to return to 100 percent capacity if customers maintained six feet of distance. Vaccinated people in most cases no longer have to wear masks, indoors or outdoors, unless businesses mandate them.
Theaters and other large venues, including ballparks, can return to full capacity, up from one-third, if they require patrons to show proof of vaccination. House parties will come back: Up to 50 people can gather indoors in private homes.
Felix Barrera, a construction manager in the Bronx, likened the return to other historical events of enormous import. “You know, World War II, when they declared the end of the war?” he said. “It’s that feeling.”
Sal Rao, the owner of Mama Rao’s in Borough Park, Brooklyn, said that he and his staff — who all got vaccinated on the same day, closing the restaurant to do it — will remain masked, but they will let patrons take off their masks on the honor system.
“We are going to let them come in and enjoy some of the privileges of being human again,” Mr. Rao said.
In Red Hook in Brooklyn, the Chelsea Garden Center, a bustling nursery, considered removing its two-customer indoor limit, but stopped short. “It’s a little scary to change things,” said Bethany Perkins, an employee. “We’re so used to the rules right now.”
Robert W. Newell Jr., president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1500, which represents supermarket and food production workers, has asked employers to keep masks mandatory for now. “It’s been over a year. Another couple of weeks is not going to set anyone back,” he said. “Maintain signs that say masks are mandatory.”
Going away soon, but not yet gone, are what will be remembered as the artifacts of Covid-19: the thermometer guns, the sign-in sheets for contact tracing, the arrows on the floor of one-way grocery aisles. Someday, a child will come across a six-foot social-distance sticker on the ground and wonder what it was for.
It was a day loaded with weight and meaning. But, it should be noted, it was also just a Wednesday, the midpoint of many people’s workweek, and imagined throngs of shoppers or diners reveling in the moment did not materialize. At MoMA, a modest crowd arrived to view an exhibit of the sculptor Alexander Calder and take in the warm and sunny day.
“We have been to museums before during the pandemic, and today feels more relaxed,” said Ms. Ross, who lives in Chelsea in Manhattan. “But maybe we are projecting that. We are relaxed.”
At St. Patrick’s Cathedral, noon Mass drew a small congregation of masked and distanced worshipers. Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York, said church leaders worked until late Tuesday night coming up with reopening rules that included a return of unmasked choirs, hymnals and parish bulletins, which were removed when the pandemic struck. But the changes will ultimately be left up to local priests and bishops.
“Some pastors and choir directors will ask singers for proof of vaccination, but others may use the honor system,” he said. “It will vary from parish to parish and choir to choir.”
Some met the day with unease. Nick Kamoutsas, 42, who operates a food truck that went unused for the last year, returned last week to sell crepes at a spot near Lincoln Center. Most customers place orders unmasked, he said; he was unsure if it felt right yet.
“I’m so confused,” he said. “I don’t want to be scared, I don’t want to be in panic, so I am trying to follow the rules, but at the same time I am trying to live.”
On Staten Island, funeral parlors, restricted from allowing large gatherings, welcomed the return of a day when they could accommodate a large family grieving from loss. Michael Lanza, the fourth-generation director at Colonial Funeral Home, said sheriff’s deputies and detectives descended last year to investigate whether limits on capacity were violated after a funeral for a man who had nine children.
“We can go back to servicing people,” he said, “and not have to worry about the pandemic police coming in here.”
Staten Island still has some of the highest positivity rates. About 45 percent of the borough’s residents have been vaccinated, slightly less than the citywide average, and compared with 60 percent in Manhattan and 52 percent in Queens.
In April last year, the funeral home was managing 40 deaths a week, Mr. Lanza said. It has come down to about 10 a week, he said, still higher than in a normal year.
In many pockets of the region, Wednesday looked like just another day. At Healy’s Tavern on Newark Avenue in downtown Jersey City, more customers arrived than earlier in the week, but that had nothing to do with the lifting of restrictions. The kitchen’s special was corned beef — “That’s our big day,” said Elle Cole, 34, a bartender.
At EBM Vintage New Haven in Connecticut, the only change was the absence of plexiglass. “If I feel uncomfortable, I’ll put my plexiglass back up,” said Carol Orr, the owner. “I was happy to get rid of that. It was incredibly relieving. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I can actually see people.’”
And at Macy’s flagship store on West 34th Street in Manhattan, red velvet ropes remained in place to limit the number of shoppers in the specialty boutiques on the first floor, such as Gucci. An employee there said the restriction proved surprisingly useful in preventing shoplifting, and the red ropes would remain.
At Madison Cafe on Willis Avenue in the Bronx, the manager, Gavino Hernandez, 40, said he applauded the city’s reopening, but he’s not removing his “No Mask, No Service” sign just yet.
“I’m going to wait until everybody acts,” he said. “I’m going to see what’s going on around.”
If there was something approaching a uniform attitude on the streets of New York on Wednesday, it was one of waiting and seeing — not waiting for what guidelines were coming from the state, necessarily, but seeing what changes peers on the block were making. Shop owner after shop owner seemed to be watching for a neighbor to make a first move.
Reporting was contributed by Kevin Armstrong, Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura, Sadef Ali Kully, Alicia Napierkowski, Sarah Maslin Nir, Sharon Otterman, Nate Schweber, Jeffrey E. Singer and Liam Stack.