Brooklyn, New York, US – Bahar Bybordi remembers hearing a “code blue” every 10 to 15 minutes or so; it was the early days of the coronavirus pandemic at The Brooklyn Hospital Center – and that intercom message meant someone was dying or needed to be resuscitated.
The frequent wailing of family members of the deceased would be so loud that Bybordi, on her breaks, would lock the door to her office and turn up the music to drown out the cries.
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“I have friends, attending physicians, who got intubated,” the physician told Al Jazeera. “There were seven or eight hospital employees who died last year: patient transport, clerks and a chef.”
Early last year, New York City had one of the worst COVID-19 infection rates on the planet. Many worried the city would be overcome by fear in the streets, sirens ringing out against empty skyscrapers and bodies piling up in freezer trucks – including one ominously placed outside that Brooklyn medical facility.
But state leaders are counting on an increasingly swift reopening plan to revitalise the biggest metro economy in the United States and turn the page on a terrible chapter, even while much of the world is still reeling.
With the benefit of a robust vaccination effort and flowing federal stimulus dollars, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has re-emerged after allegations of sexual harassment and accusations that his team purposefully hid data on care-home deaths.
Cuomo announced earlier this month – just days after his political rival New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio touted a July 1 reopening date for many businesses – that May 19 would mark the beginning of a “major” restart.
Most capacity restrictions for offices, retail, food service, gyms and museums are being lifted on Wednesday as part of a coordinated effort by the states of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
Gary Newton, a resident of the Fort Greene area of Brooklyn whose apartment is opposite the hospital complex, said he is “excited for the city to open back up”.
“It’s been really depressing because I’m a hip-hop DJ and promoter and everything was closed for a while,” he told Al Jazeera. “I have friends who left, family who left.” Newton recently received a first dose of the Moderna vaccine even though he was sceptical, in advance of a work trip to Mexico where he would “rather be safe than sorry around thousands of people”.
He described the peak of the pandemic in New York as “very painful”. Yet, Newton said, “I’m on the side of going back out and enjoying my life. There are a whole bunch of diseases around, but it’s hard to stop living.
“I couldn’t survive another year of not working that much,” he added, suggesting that the governor is making the right move by hastening the return to normalcy.
New York has justified its swift reopening by saying that social distancing measures will stay in effect, per guidelines from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of maintaining six feet (two metres) apart.
At a news conference, Cuomo explained the reopening measures last week by drawing a comparison between the nationwide positivity rate of approximately 3 percent and the state’s rate of about 1 percent – a level not seen since mid-2020.
“Maintaining this progress is critical, and in order to keep moving in a positive direction, New Yorkers must continue to take all the proper precautions,” said Cuomo in setting the new guidelines.
“If we let up now, we could slide backwards, and that is something nobody wants,” he added. “Let’s be safe and for anyone who has yet to be vaccinated, please do so as soon as you can.”
Surveys have continued to show that many across the US, including in New York, remain hesitant to go on vacation, take aeroplanes and attend large events, however.
Meanwhile, the state’s vaccine effort, though enormously successful, has slowed since peaking in April – a trend that has been seen locally and at the federal level, as well. Just more than half the state’s adult population is fully vaccinated, Cuomo announced on Saturday.
The vaccination rate is still well below the 70 to 80 percent threshold needed to achieve “herd immunity”. De Blasio has already pivoted away from that, however, saying “functional immunity” is the city’s new goal, with the city health commissioner citing “community immunity” as most feasible. That would mean treating COVID-19 as a seasonal malady that can be managed, rather than defeated, in the long term.
But by creating separate sections for vaccinated and unvaccinated people at baseball stadiums, for example, Cuomo hopes to incentivise the jabs. Free tickets to games are also being provided for those who get a dose, while new local incentives include free one-week subway passes and complimentary french fries at popular fast-food chain Shake Shack. The state’s mask mandate is also being relaxed as of Wednesday, in keeping with federal guidelines.
“It’s not a question of whether the reopening is right or wrong,” said epidemiologist and health equity expert Ashwin Vasan, who emphasised efforts to push through the “last mile” of vaccinations.
But many are still reeling after the state suffered more than 50,000 deaths linked to the coronavirus and lost one million jobs, or 10 percent of the workforce, last year.
“We still have a lot of folks, including essential workers, who are hesitant about getting the vaccine or can’t easily access vaccination sites due to transportation barriers, poor internet access, inability to take time off, language barriers and proof-of-eligibility requirements,” he told Al Jazeera.
“For over 15 months, we have faced a collective trauma akin to nothing any of us have ever experienced before,” he said. “This pandemic has affected everyone in different ways, and we need to have policies that allow for everyone to re-enter society at their own pace.”
For weeks, residents across the state have been able to use the Excelsior Pass mobile app – a vaccine passport – to attend sporting events, cultural performances and live entertainment. Broadway theatres are to open on September 14, subject to the owners’ decisions on whether to mandate vaccination.
As of Wednesday, indoor social gatherings will be allowed to include up to 250 people, with 50 the limit for indoor residential gatherings and no limit for outdoor residential events. Large-scale indoor and outdoor venues will maintain capacity limits at 30 percent and 33 percent, respectively.
The governor also has said he aims for public beaches and pools in the state to be open at 100 percent capacity by the Fourth of July.
Already, in New York City, 24-hour subway service resumed on Monday after a year of nighttime closures for cleaning the trains. A curfew for outdoor dining also just ended, with the indoor dining curfew scheduled to lift at the end of May.
Many houses of worship are fully opening their doors for in-person prayer, and even the iconic Plaza Hotel is set to reopen on Thursday after a one-year closure.
Regina Byrnes, 54, said she is grateful that she has been personally unscathed by COVID-19 thus far. “New York is headed in the right direction,” she told Al Jazeera as she waited on a bench for a ride outside the community hospital in Brooklyn.
“A lot of people have been vaccinated, and we seem to be getting back on track.” Though unvaccinated herself, Byrnes intends to get a haircut soon for the first time in many months and said, “Travelling would be nice.”
“It’s springtime but I just wish the violence level would go down,” she added. “Public safety is a bigger concern now than the coronavirus. All over our city, there is a lot of shooting, which could be a [byproduct of] the pandemic.”
Despite the surge of optimism, many New Yorkers have concerns about the rising crime rates, idle office buildings, vacant retail storefronts and people leaving for greener pastures.
But 23-year-old convenience store clerk Ziyad Alkhulaidi said with the metro region’s COVID-19 infection rate dipping below 10 cases per 100,000 population last week, commerce “is stronger, and coming back slowly but surely”.
“It’s time to [reopen], though everything won’t be the same as it was before,” Alkhulaidi, who lives with his family and said he got the vaccine for the safety of others, told Al Jazeera from Greene Bites, which serves many hospital patients.
“I hope people are still conscious about coronavirus and stay careful,” he added.