Rise in Covid Cases Alarms New Yorkers: ‘It Never Went Away’

The city grapples with a new surge in cases and questions. The only shared emotion is uncertainty.

By Sarah Maslin Nir

For a fleeting moment, New York was a city reveling in itself. Just a month ago officials declared it fully open for business; masks slipped to chins and restaurants packed in customers as vaccines rolled out. The virus seemed to be losing.

Today, the coronavirus has crept back, in a new, more infectious form that has driven up cases and hospitalizations, primarily among those still refusing vaccination, sending a city just staggering back to life into a tailspin.

For some New Yorkers, scarred from the thousands of deaths at the pandemic’s painful peak, every new case, though few in comparison, comes with pit-of-the-stomach foreboding. For others, the spiking rates, and the fact that if infected, few vaccinated people fall gravely ill, portend a new reality of cohabiting with the virus — maybe indefinitely.

Perhaps the only shared emotion is uncertainty. As the variant known as Delta entrenches across the city, there are questions in its wake: Is this simply what the future looks like? Despite a maskless, celebratory summer of social closeness, is the pandemic forever?

“It’s like the flu, the flu never stops,” said Nelson Lopez, 45, a resident of East Harlem, who said he still cannot walk down his block without tallying every neighbor he lost to the virus. “People will be afraid forever.”

Over the weekend, Hua Cheng, 55, and her husband, Keith Hu, 60, both electrical engineers, drove in from their home in Randolph, N.J., to visit the Metropolitan Museum in a city that suddenly once again felt precarious. When they got out of their car, they pulled on masks.

“I thought I was safe!” said Mr. Hu, at the foot of the museum steps. The couple are back to wearing masks, even though they are vaccinated, as the Delta variant has continued to spread. “Before this we didn’t take it seriously,” Mr. Hu said.

On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that vaccinated people should return to wearing masks in public indoor spaces in areas that have recorded more than 50 new infections per 100,000 residents over the previous week, or where more than 8 percent of tests are positive for infection over that period.

All of New York City’s boroughs fall under those criteria. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has resisted reinstating a mask mandate, said at a news conference on Wednesday that his administration was reviewing the C.D.C. guidelines.

The seven-day average of new coronavirus cases is near 1,000, up from just about 200 last month, and about 75 percent are attributed to the Delta variant, according to city data. Though the numbers of patients hospitalized for coronavirus in New York City remain at just under 300, they account for a 75 percent increase from earlier this month. The vast majority of those hospitalized are unvaccinated people, according to the city.

“The Delta variant has really thrown us a curve ball,” Mr. de Blasio said at a news conference last week, at which he announced that all public sector health care workers must be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing. On Monday the mayor expanded the mandate to all of its approximately 340,000 city employees, setting the deadline for mid-September.

Also this week, California introduced similar mandates, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs announced that all of its frontline health care employees must get vaccinated within eight weeks or face penalties, including removal.

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