On Saturday night, for the first time in over a year, I hired a babysitter and took a cab downtown. I’d heard rumours about the parallel realities of different neighbourhoods in New York, divided along lines of age and proximity to bars. It was hard to imagine, however; uptown, in areas heavily populated with families, the streets were and still are mainly empty by 9pm. As I got out of the cab on 14th Street, it was like being dropped into Ayia Napa after spending a year in a monastery.
So it has been since the beginning of all this, a tale of two pandemics, in which each successive wave has brought more and more cartoonish divisions with it. If it started in March last year with people fleeing their apartments for large second homes, moving on through the stark divide between fully functioning private schools and the shuttered state system, into vaccination access and the overweening schism between working-from-home and sudden redundancy, then the new border, across and within social groups, is venturing out and how far one will go.
Some of the prohibitions are, at least technically, legal, although as with so many pandemic restrictions, they rely on voluntary compliance for their efficacy. It has been a source of continuous amazement, for those in the US with links to Britain, to observe just how conscientious Brits have been about following the baroque and (to our eyes) largely arbitrary rules governing meet-ups from different households and what constitutes “exercise”, while simultaneously going about their business often totally unmasked. In the US, where masking is mandatory for even the youngest children hoping to enter a building, decisions to meet up in small groups has been left to individuals.
Many of these decisions are reflected at the level of manners. Prior to doing anything wilder than watching TV, there is the question, these days, of what one feels comfortable doing, and also what one wishes to broadcast as one’s position on what one is comfortable doing. This was most evident, recently, in the first few waves of vaccinations, during which a certain type of well-padded middle-class person made extravagant gestures of getting to the back of the line, while feverishly checking out how he might ultimately qualify. Vaccination martyrs abound in my timeline, including those with serious co-morbidities for whom delay is absurd, but more socially rewarding, presumably, than piping down and turning up along with everyone else.
Now the new line is travel, at home and abroad. Flight bookings in the US are surging, while travel advisories differ between those who are vaccinated, and those who aren’t. (For the former, there’s no need to take a Covid test before leaving the country, which the unvaccinated are still required to do, although testing is mandatory for all those boarding a return flight to the US). Travelling to countries with Covid mutations, meanwhile, might incur additional quarantine on the way home.
As with every other stage of the pandemic, what one does or doesn’t do is governed as much by social pressure as formal restrictions. Booking a babysitter on Saturday night felt outlandish, even more so when she came in and – having been vaccinated – took off her mask, the first time in over a year that anyone outside a tiny number of people has been unmasked in our house. Meanwhile, pushback from the teaching unions against fully reopening the schools is starting to crack as group behaviours change. With bars, restaurants and businesses long open in New York, keeping millions of students at home on Zoom appears increasingly absurd. Now, in the wake of changing guidelines on social distancing, and more opaque changes in expectation, some individual elementary schools are announcing that they will reopen full time.
None of which, I have to say, prepared me for the vision of downtown on Saturday night. On the street, a quarter of the crowd was unmasked, a number that dropped to zero inside, save for servers. As we waited in line to get in, a strange split-screen reality took hold. Except for the mandatory temperature check at the door, everything looked precisely as it had two years earlier: large groups of people, hammered enough to be weaving from one side of the pavement to the other, drinking straight from the bottle and yelling at top volume. An ancient feeling resurfaced: wow, I’d forgotten how much I hate going out.