Traces By no means Felt So Good: Crowds Herald New York’s Reopening
The line to the Metropolitan Museum of Art pulled out the door, down the rainy stairs, around the trees and past the fountain and hot dog stands on Fifth Avenue, while visitors waited under dripping umbrellas. You were among more than 10,000 people who had the same idea of how to fill a rainy Sunday in New York City and make the holiday weekend the museum’s busiest since the pandemic began.
In Greenwich Village, jazz fans lined up to go to Smalls, a low-ceilinged, dimly lit, basement club where they could shake their heads and tap their feet while listening to live music. All five shows of Fellini’s “8 ½” limited capacity sold out on Monday at the Film Forum on Houston Street, and when the Comedy Cellar sold out five shows, a sixth was added.
If the rainy, cool Memorial Day weekend resulted in barbecues and beach trips being canceled, it revived another kind of New York Rainy Day tradition: queuing to see art, listen to music, and watch movies, in a way Which felt like more liberating than a year of pandemic. The rise in the number of vaccinated New Yorkers, coupled with the recent easing of many coronavirus restrictions, made a dramatic and happy change from Memorial Day last year, when museums sat eerily empty, nightclubs were silenced and faded, outdated posters slowly outside yellowed cinema.
For Piper Barron, 18, going back to the cinema felt surprisingly normal.
“It just felt like the pandemic hadn’t happened,” she said.
Under the marquee of Cobble Hill Cinemas in Brooklyn, Barron and three recently graduated friends waited for Cruella, Emma Stone’s new film about the villain, One Hundred and a Dalmatian. Before the pandemic, the group had a habit of watching movies together on Fridays after school, but that tradition was put on hold during the pandemic.
“We haven’t done that for a long time – but here we are,” says Patrick Martin, 18. “This is a milestone.”
Over the past few weeks, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo has eased many of the coronavirus restrictions that restrict culture and entertainment, and Memorial Day weekend was one of the first opportunities for venues to try out the new rules with a growing number of tourists and vaccinations New Yorkers look forward to a summer full of activities.
The Met drew more than 10,000 visitors each Saturday and Sunday, a record for the museum during the pandemic and roughly double what it was two months ago before the state eased capacity restrictions, said Kenneth Weine, a museum spokesman.
Despite the almost constant rain, museum-goers and movie-goers agreed: This was much better than anything they did on Memorial Day weekend last year. (“Nothing, just stayed at home,” remembered Sharon Lebowitz, who attended the Met on Sunday with her brother.)
And when the sun rose on Monday so did the people, as the High Line in Chelsea drew crowds that could rival the old days.
Of course, the pandemic isn’t over yet: an average of 383 cases are reported per day in New York City, but that’s 47 percent less than the average two weeks ago. And there were physical memories of the pandemic everywhere. In the Cobble Hill Cinemas there were temperature controls and the guarantee that each occupied seat had four free seats around it. At the Met, a security guard told visitors who were queuing at the popular Alice Neel exhibition to stand further apart.
There were masks everywhere, although earlier this month, in most cases, Mr Cuomo lifted the mask mandate for vaccinated people indoors. Most of the museums in the city adhere to the mask rules for the time being, as not all visitors would feel comfortable being surrounded by a sea of naked faces.
“It’s certainly not all back to normal,” said Steven Ostrow, 70, who examined Cypriot antiques at the Met.
“If so, we wouldn’t look like Bazooka Joe,” he added, referring to a gum-wrapped comic strip in which a character has a turtleneck that is pulled up over his mouth like a mask.
And at the Museum of Modern Art, the gift shop had masks up to 35 percent off, perhaps a sign that the precaution might be on the way out.
Although the state has lifted explicit capacity limits for museums and other cultural institutions, indoor spaces still require two meters of space, meaning many museums have their own limits on how many tickets can be sold per hour. And some have kept the capacity limits of the previous months, including the Museum of Jewish Heritage, which capped attendance at 50 percent, and El Museo del Barrio, which remains at 33 percent.
Venues that only allow vaccinated guests can forego social distancing requirements, which is proving to be a tempting option for venue owners looking to pack their small spaces. And there seems to be no shortage of vaccinated viewers: On Monday, the Comedy Basement, which sells tickets for vaccinated people and negative coronavirus tests within 24 hours, had to add an extra show due to the great demand.
Nobody was more excited about the visitor lines than the venue owners, who spent the past year eating up their savings, laying off staff and eagerly awaiting federal pandemic aid.
During the lockdown, Andrew Elgart, whose family owns Cobble Hill Cinemas, said that he sometimes watched movies alone at the cinema with just his terrier for company (no popcorn though – it was too much work restarting the machine). Reopening to the public was nothing short of therapeutic, he said, mostly because most people seemed grateful to just be there.
“These are the most polite and patient customers we’ve had in a long time,” he said.
The reopening has been slower for music events that tend to book talent months in advance and who say the economics of reopening with social distancing restrictions is impractical.
These capacity limits and social distancing requirements have kept most of the city’s jazz clubs closed for the time being, but Smalls in the Village is an exception. In fact, the club was so keen to reopen at every capacity level that it briefly tried to position itself primarily as a bar and restaurant with ambient music in February, said club owner Spike Wilner. That decision resulted in a heavy fine and ongoing bureaucracy, he said.
Yet for Wilner there was no comparison between this and last year, when he “hid” with his wife and young daughter in a rented house in Pennsylvania.
“It feels like a kind of Tolstoy novel: there is the crash and the redemption and then the renewal,” he said as he led the audience into the jazz club. “To be honest, this is my first time feeling positive. I’m just relieved to work and earn some money. “