Just when you thought the abyss between red-state and blue-state sensibilities could not grow wider comes post-pandemic America to reveal further cleavage. Residents of my 34-story Manhattan apartment building are still wearing masks in the elevators, halls, and lobby, even though the building’s internally imposed mask mandate has been lifted. At least half of my neighbors in Yorkville wear masks outdoors, even though New York governor Kathy Hochul suspended the indoor mask mandate for New York City weeks ago. It has always been the case, no matter the rate of indoor transmission, that inhaling a large enough viral dose outdoors to become infected is almost impossible. One might have imagined that even progressives would be ready to say: “Enough of this! We’ll take our chances. Let’s get back to normal life!” But it turns out that many people have a seemingly inexhaustible appetite for fear and risk aversion, especially when linked to control.
Covid metrics are, from a blue-state perspective, depressingly low when even the New York Times has given up on frontpage crisis-mongering. For weeks, the Times has buried its Covid stories deep in the paper, if it prints them at all, because there is only good news to report. There are 25 people per day hospitalized with or from Covid in New York City, out of a pre-pandemic population of 8.5 million. That is essentially zero risk. Deaths with or from Covid are too negligible to mention.
New York mayor Eric Adams has rescinded the requirement that patrons of restaurants, gyms, and movie theaters show proof of vaccination (though he has retained the mask mandate for students under five years of age, demonstrating that irrationality still governs our public leaders). On February 25, the CDC finally changed its risk assessment to depend on hospitalization rates, not irrelevant case rates. Doing so revealed that all of Manhattan was at low risk for Covid complications, something that was obvious months ago.
So, why, then, are my neighbors still masking up, using their knuckles for the elevator buttons, and sometimes balking at entering the elevator with another person? The city’s vaccination rate is 87 percent for adults; in this building, filled with educated, conscientious individuals, the rate is undoubtedly close to 100 percent. Vaccines do prevent hospitalizations and death, yet my vaccinated neighbors act as if, without a mask, they are at risk for severe illness, even though the Omicron variant (or what little remains of it in the general population) produces average symptoms little different from a common cold.
Perhaps my neighbors have not read the news reports or noticed the large signs in the elevators announcing, “LOW RISK, masking no longer required.” The blue-state public vacuumed up every tendentious story about obscure childhood diseases possibly connected to Covid and avidly consumed articles on rising case counts. Now, it seems deaf and blind to reasons not to be afraid.
A few days after my building grudgingly changed its posted risk level to “LOW,” I got on the elevator with a father and his grammar school children. All were masked. I pointed out the mask reprieve on the elevator wall. The father shrugged. His children still have to wear masks in school, he said. That was child abuse, I replied. Oh, they’re used to it, he said breezily—as if that were a good thing. His daughter was more attuned to the ironies of this moment. “We’ve gone, in like three days, from high risk to low risk,” she chortled.
The building staff have kept their masks on as well, complicating the conservative narrative that elites were frolicking maskless in restaurants while foisting masks on the unwilling hired help. Management is not requiring the building staff to be masked; they are, by their own account, choosing to remain veiled.
Midtown employers, if they feel any civic duty toward New York, should be hailing workers back to the office. The absence of foot traffic and of store and restaurant patrons has enabled the takeover of the city’s ever-more squalid streets and subways by the criminal and the deranged. Yet the big midtown firms are proceeding with exquisite caution, not wanting to alienate their young safetyist employees. One fence-sitting CEO wrote in a companywide email recently: “While we are hopeful with reports of Omicron cases decreasing, the need to stay responsive and flexible remains. Your safety and well-being is [sic] our most important consideration as we continue to evolve our plans.” The CEO is apparently himself agnostic as to whether Omicron cases are “decreasing;” he is merely passing on what has been “reported.” In fact, they are down 90 percent nationwide from their January high. But employees need not expect a return to the office any time soon—that would be rash.
Healthy young Manhattanites are choosing fear over facts. A group of masked mothers and their masked children recently gathered on the steps of the city’s Department of Education to sing, to the tune of “Frère Jacques”: “Just because we’re tired doesn’t mean it’s over. Mandate masks, that’s our ask.” When will it be over? In blue-state enclaves, a significant constituency would say, “never.”
Photo by Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office via Xinhua via Getty Images