At long last, America reawakens from its pandemic slumber

Remi Nelson, 19 of Brandon cheers for beads during the 2021 Tampa Pride Diversity Parade, on Saturday, May 22, 2021 in Ybor City, Florida. (Luis Santana/Tampa Bay Times via ZUMA Wire)
Remi Nelson, 19, at the Tampa Pride Diversity Parade on Saturday in Ybor City, Fla. (Luis Santana/Tampa Bay Times via Zuma Wire)

NEW YORK — There were people, hundreds of them, lounging in Sheep Meadow in Central Park, and hundreds more jogging, cycling and power walking, sweating their way through an early spell of summer heat. Tourists gorged themselves on dirty-water dogs. They took selfies at Times Square, wandered mutedly through the 9/11 memorial in lower Manhattan.

None of this was extraordinary, as far as a normal spring afternoon in Manhattan was concerned. Which was the most extraordinary thing about it. For this was late May 2021. To laze beside a stranger in the summer grass had been a practically forbidden act for many months. What had been human was prohibited. What had been normal was deemed dangerous overnight.

Yet after an abnormal year, things across the country seemed to finally return to normal. They did so haltingly, incompletely — but also undeniably.

Since the previous year’s February, the nation had been battered by the coronavirus pandemic. Only this past weekend did that same nation — much changed, yet seemingly much the same — seem to collectively reawaken, to realize with some measure of certitude that the pandemic was coming to an end.

People enjoy socializing without masks in Central Park in the Manhattan borough of New York City, on May 23, 2021. (Caitlin Ochs/Reuters)
People socializing without masks in Central Park in New York City on Sunday. (Caitlin Ochs/Reuters)

Plenty of other problems remain. Racism has not gone away; poverty and economic inequality, in some ways exacerbated by the lockdowns necessary to contain the virus, persist. The pandemic exposed those issues but also short-circuited our ability to even begin to resolve them. Some hope that the energies that have been channeled to battle the pandemic can be devoted to battling other, more persistent ills.

New challenges have also emerged throughout this pandemic year, including a rise in violent crime across much of the country. That violence has alighted on the same neighborhoods where the pandemic has proved most devastating. So while recent weeks have brought relief to some, they have brought new waves of anguish to others.

Still, as dismaying as American life could be before the pandemic, last weekend was evidence that most people want at the very least to return to the baseline of the old normal before striving to make the country better than it had been.

“At some point we have to live our lives. That time is now,” wrote Johns Hopkins surgical oncologist Marty Makary in the New York Post over the weekend. Not all will agree with his conclusions, yet the joyous crowds in Central Park militate in favor of that argument.

So do the crowds on the beaches of New Jersey, as well as the worshipers gathering in churches, mosques and synagogues, many of them for the first time since late 2019. Sports fans crowded into seats, even as some venues, like Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, continue to serve as vaccination sites.

A maskless crowd cheers as Phil Mickelson celebrates after winning the final round at the PGA Championship golf tournament on the Ocean Course on Sunday, May 23, 2021, in Kiawah Island, S.C. (Matt York/AP)
A maskless crowd cheers as Phil Mickelson celebrates after winning the final round at the PGA Championship on Sunday in Kiawah Island, S.C. (Matt York/AP)

Next weekend, some 37 million Americans are expected to travel, a 60 percent increase over 2020’s Memorial Day. Much remains unresolved in the United States today, but if Americans are united in anything, it is in their desire to close the Zoom window once and for all, to zoom out into the real world once again.

For now, the nation has been shaken out of its lockdown stupor by a determined vaccination effort that has at least partially inoculated 61 percent of Americans over the age of 18, distracted from its face-mask culture wars by the fact that face masks are no longer required for 130 million people in the United States who’ve had both of their shots. (Another 33 million have had one shot and are therefore halfway there to mask emancipation.)

Just weeks ago, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director, revealed that she felt a sense of “impending doom” over the pandemic’s trajectory. Speaking at a briefing last Friday, however, she noted that the seven-day average for infections had fallen below 30,000, while the seven-day average for deaths dipped below 500.

“These data give me hope,” Walensky said.

The data gave hope to others too. Pensacola, Fla., will return to hosting its renowned Pride festival over Memorial Day weekend. “We’ve had people purchase tickets from all 50 states and seven countries,” an organizer told the Pensacola News Journal. Lollapalooza will be back too, with perhaps as many as 100,000 people expected to show up in Chicago in late July for the music festival.

Smiling faces and bright colors are seen behind a wall of bubbles and foam being sprayed to the crowd during the Tampa Pride Diversity Parade, on Saturday, May 22, 2021 in Ybor City, Florida. (Luis Santana/Tampa Bay Times via ZUMA Wire)
Spectators behind a wall of bubbles and foam sprayed to the crowd during the Tampa Pride Diversity Parade on Saturday in Ybor City, Fla. (Luis Santana/Tampa Bay Times via Zuma Wire)

Proof of vaccination will be required to hear Foo Fighters and Tyler, the Creator, but vaccines are now widely available across the United States, even as they remain scarce across much of the rest of the globe. Some things in this world are complicated. This is not. If you yearn to be pressed against thousands of sweating people in Grant Park as Miley Cyrus does her thing onstage, roll up your sleeve.

Some are looking to party, while others search for sustenance of a more profound variety. At an Armenian church in a predominantly Latino community in East Los Angeles, pews that had been empty were suddenly full again.

As the pastor explained to the Los Angeles Times, “People want to come back. I think the pandemic was like a spiritual retreat for them to think. It puts them on top of a hill. Either you are close with God or you’re going to fall on your head.”

There had been moments of hope before, in particular about a year ago, when months of lockdown restrictions, combined with the warm weather — which drove people outdoors, where the coronavirus does not spread easily — seemed to augur a turning point in the battle against the virus.

Only back then, it did not last. The coronavirus surged in states like Texas, Florida and Arizona, where Republican governors had contravened public health advice and lifted restrictions early, potentially perpetuating the pandemic for the rest of the country.

Now, though, we have vaccines. Those vaccines have been turned into memes. They have been vilified by sweaty-palmed conspiracy theorists. And yet they have continued to beat the pandemic back, with the help of governors who have offered gratifications immediate (beer) and delayed (savings bonds) in an effort to encourage immunization. It is easy to mock such efforts as public health gimmicks yet also difficult to see how, absent such gimmicks, we’d be where we are today.

Emily Baumgartner, left, and Luke Finley, second from left, join friends from their church group in a birthday toast to one of the members, upper right, during their weekly
Emily Baumgartner, left, and Luke Finley, second from left, join friends in a birthday toast at the Tiki Bar on Manhattan’s Upper West Side on May 17. (Kathy Willens/AP)

The progress is refreshingly collective, as all genuine progress must be. For months, red America and blue America had engaged in a herky-jerky dance, a game of pandemic politics that saw restrictions fall away in some places and tighten in others. And though political divisions have hardly healed, the advent of vaccines has made those divisions largely irrelevant for now.

If the pandemic has united us in anything, it is in weariness with the pandemic. We are united in our restlessness, as reflected by a rise in travel bookings, as well as the difficulty of scoring a prime restaurant reservation in many major cities.

Much of the world remains mired in the pandemic, and there are serious questions about whether the United States has done enough to help ailing nations like India. And many Americans do want elected leaders to answer those questions, not merely to pay lip service to them. America always helps. Americans know that.

Inside the country, though, the mood is shifting, and if the spirit is not identical to the one experienced in 1945 — when Americans spilled into the streets to celebrate victory over fascism — it is not entirely alien, either.

You could certainly see it in New York, where last March and April the city was left hauntingly empty, save for the wail of ambulances. Reports of the city’s demise, however, appear to have been somewhat premature. At the Playwright Tavern in Times Square last weekend, tourists packed in to hear a guitarist deliver his renditions of ’80s hits, in flesh and blood.

People take a selfie in Times Square on May 23, 2021 in New York City. On May 19, all pandemic restrictions, including mask mandates, social distancing guidelines, venue capacities and restaurant curfews were lifted by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. (Noam Galai/Getty Images)
People take a selfie in Times Square on Sunday in New York City. On May 19 all pandemic restrictions were lifted by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. (Noam Galai/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, on the observation deck of Rockefeller Center, international tourists snapped photographs of Manhattan’s iconic skyline sparkling as the sun tumbled toward New Jersey. No, the new normal was not exactly like the old normal. Masks, temperature checks and plastic screens have made that clear, from Manhattan to Santa Monica. But the new normal is also a marked departure from the weeks and months of enforced isolation, deprivations of the human touch, life led over laptops, soggy dinners delivered in Styrofoam containers.

“Everybody’s a little more comfortable, a little happier, and a little more social,” Aniket Shah, a visitor from Atlanta, told a Washington, D.C., news outlet.

You didn’t need CDC data to tell you that, to announce that after months of lockdowns and restrictions, a new feeling is in the air.

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