NEW YORK — She strode up beside me as I stood at the corner of Madison Avenue and 42nd Street: a slim, blond, middle-aged woman, stylishly dressed right down to her carefully coordinated mask.
She raised her arm and a taxi swooped over. The driver had a mask, but it was pulled down around his neck.
She wagged a finger at him and hollered through the passenger window, “You got a mask?”
“Put it on!”
That could be New York City’s new official slogan, finished with “And show me your proof of vaccine while you’re at it.”
I was there Sept. 16-20, during the week New York City began to enforce its new vaccine requirements to stem the surge of the coronavirus, after starting the regulations in August.
It was also the week Broadway began to reopen after being dark for 18 months. The theaters were ahead of the curve — they had announced vaccine proof and mask requirements in tandem with announcing their reopenings.
It was very different from my state, Florida, where the governor has strongly opposed mask mandates and made vaccine proof requirements illegal. On the day I flew north, in the middle of the delta variant surge, Florida reported 1,554 deaths. New York state reported 45. I had been avoiding air travel for a year and a half, but I figured I’d be safer in New York.
Could the biggest city in America do business with vaccine and mask mandates in place? With vaccine card at the ready and plenty of masks in my suitcase, I went to find out.
In five days I went to two plays, a TV taping, a major museum, several restaurants and a board meeting for a nonprofit group, and everywhere I went, those famously argumentative New Yorkers seemed just fine with the rules.
The city regulations for proof of vaccination cover indoor theaters and concert venues, restaurants, bars, museums, nightclubs, gyms, arenas, hotel meeting areas and more. To enter, all workers and customers age 12 and over must show identification and proof of at least one dose of vaccine. (The week I was there, about 66% of eligible New Yorkers had received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine, according to the city’s data. It’s since risen to 84%.) The state and the city have free apps for storing your ID and vaccine card on your phone for quick scanning.
As for masks, the city requires them in outdoor public settings for anyone who is unvaccinated, and for everyone riding or driving public transport, including cabs, buses and subways. It also requires customers to abide by mask policies at any business.
Masks were on almost every face when I arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport after a no-drama flight, although the dash for the sidewalk, where people could remove them, reminded me of the days when smokers were still numerous.
My driver from the airport was masked, as were the staffers at the desk at one of my favorite places to stay, the Library Hotel. Housekeeping, they told me, was by request only, because they had to have my permission to enter the room. That was the only difference I encountered.
My first night out was a taping of "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert." The show tapes at about 5:30 p.m., but when I got my ticket the email noted I should get there an hour early and bring ID, proof of vaccine and a mask.
My walk there took me through Times Square, which is as bustling and surreal as ever. The only difference I noticed was that every couple of blocks, in the middle of the pedestrian-only street, there were kiosks offering free COVID-19 tests.
At the Ed Sullivan Theater, I lined up with a couple of hundred others on the sidewalk. Briskly efficient, masked young staffers from the show scanned our tickets, IDs and vaccine cards and gave us wristbands for entering the theater.
Before the show began, the stage manager rehearsed us. Our job, he said, was to make noise and create energy, and we’d have to put in extra effort to make enough noise through our masks. We managed.
The next day, I headed for the Museum of Modern Art, one of my favorites. I hadn’t visited in several years — it was closed for a $450 million expansion and renovation, reopening in October 2019, several months after my last trip to New York.
The architects couldn’t have anticipated the pandemic, but the renovation has made the galleries, which in the past could feel quite crowded, more spacious.
In addition to mask and vaccine requirements, the museum has gone to a timed ticket policy, which also helps to control the number of people in the building. I can remember past visits at busy times when the entire huge entrance area was a scrum of tightly packed people in line for tickets.
No such crowds this time, although plenty of people flowed past a huge exhibition of Paul Cezanne’s drawings and an astonishing five-story-high multimedia installation by Adam Pendleton, titled Who Is Queen?, being assembled for its opening the next day.
I had scored a ticket to the reopening night of "David Byrne’s American Utopia," the Tony-winning hit — well, musical might not be the exact word for something so unique. But the packed house at the St. James Theatre loved it: It got seven standing ovations, starting with one for Byrne just for walking out on the stage.
Once again, my ticket had come with an email outlining the rules and recommending early arrival. Our vaccine proof and tickets were scanned on the sidewalk before we entered the theater. The announcements before the show reminded us to keep our masks on. I can testify it’s possible for a theater full of people to stand up and dance at their seats, singing “There. Has. Got. To be a way. BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE!” through their masks.
There was lots of singing through masks in the audience the next day at a matinee of "Hamilton," too. The drill to enter the theater was the same: vaccine proof check on the sidewalk, masks on inside. I did see an usher admonish one man near my seat who had let his mask slip below his nose. But the little girl just in front of me, decked out in a tiny sea-blue Eliza Schuyler dress, managed to keep her matching mask in place all the way through the almost three-hour performance.
All in all, the mask and vaccination rules didn’t take any of the joy out of my return to a city I love and missed. A little extra time in line before a play, less than a minute at the host desks in restaurants to be checked before I was seated — those minutes were worth the sense of increased safety I felt. And every business I dealt with seemed to be booming.
Since my trip, coronavirus rates are dropping most places, even Florida. It’s great news. If only we could figure out how to keep it that way.