Three days after New York loosened its restrictions, a doorman at Marie’s Crisis Cafe left his post at the front of the line to make an announcement. “Last call in 15 minutes,” he informed us. “If you want a drink, you might consider going somewhere else.” The couple in front of us heeded his advice and joined the cocktail-seekers storming Chelsea. But we stayed, stubbornly hopeful. He let in a party of three. We moved up. The clock ticked closer to midnight. He looked at our longful expressions and, with an air of resignation, asked to see proof of our vaccinations. We showed him photos of our vaccination cards on our phones, and within seconds, we were belting out Broadway show tunes in a piano bar with other liberated songbirds.
“Let it go, let it go
“Can’t hold it back anymore
“Let it go, let it go”
After 14 months, we could finally let it go – our sense of isolation, our anxiety, our masks.
On May 19, the Empire State, which had enacted some of the strictest rules in the country, ended capacity limits for most businesses and mask requirements for vaccinated individuals outside and inside. New York City, meanwhile, rescinded the midnight curfew on restaurants and bars with outdoor seating and allowed establishments with indoor tables to resume their pre-pandemic hours on May 31. Gotham’s subway system started running overnight again, and the mayor announced that the city will eliminate the 5.8 percent hotel occupancy tax from June through August.
The recent advancements are widening the door that the state unlatched in April, when it waived quarantine and coronavirus testing requirements for out-of-state and international travelers. (Visitors must still submit a travel health form.) New York City hopes to boost tourism, which fell from 66 million visitors in 2019 to 22.3 million last year, with a $30 million “NYC Reawakens” campaign.
To be sure, the City That Never Sleeps is stirring from its long slumber, but it’s not quite ready for an all-nighter. While most NYC landmarks are open, such as museums, parks and architectural statement pieces, Broadway will remain dark until September. (At least two theaters are staging shows: “Perfect Crime” at the Theater Center and “Blindness” at the Daryl Roth Theatre, which only sells tickets for two-seat pods.) A few rules are also still in place. Unvaccinated individuals must wear face coverings, for instance, and businesses must adhere to social distancing guidelines, which limit the number of people they can accommodate. To avoid getting shut out, make a reservation as soon as the idea pops into your brain – whether it’s for lodging, dining and drinking, or entertainment. I arrived at the new Moynihan Train Hall at Penn Station with six reservations in my pocket, plus one (Brooklyn Children’s Museum) I added on the fly and two that I begged for (Little Island and Magic Hour, the rose-bedecked rooftop bar at the Moxy Times Square) but was denied.
My first booking was for the Plaza, on the night of its grand reopening. The opulent hotel with the long list of film and TV credits (most recently: “Succession”) shuttered last March and only started welcoming guests back May 20. “We didn’t decide to close; we just closed,” George Cozonis, the hotel’s managing director, told me. “We had all cancellations and no new reservations. The luxury hotels were empty.”
The hotel returned at 30 percent capacity and sold out its rooms and suites. The lobby, however, was empty when my friend and I arrived, save for an elegantly dressed employee who greeted us warmly before asking us several health questions and taking our temperatures. Instead of a welcome aperol spritz or petit four, she offered us a sanitary kit containing wipes, a mask and hand sanitizer. (The following day, Cozonis removed this step from the check-in process.) After I received the key to our room, another staff person led us on what she called a VIP behind-the-scenes tour. I felt important until I realized where we were headed – to the service lift. Apparently, the spirit of Eloise had been behaving puckishly and disabled the guest elevators. (Cozonis had a less fanciful theory for the mechanical issue.) Two women from California who were visiting a friend in New York joined us in the tight space. “We’re vaccinated,” they assured us.
Disembarking on the 18th floor, we opened the door to discover a maintenance man inside. He was fiddling with our broken TV but took a break to point out the sweeping view of Central Park. The three of us lined up by the window and sighed. We had to switch rooms, but now all of the elevators were out of commission. Cozonis and Cleo, his Havenese, climbed 16 flights of stairs to deliver our key. My original plan was to grab a celebratory drink at the Palm Court, but the restaurant closed at 5 p.m., and the Champagne Bar hadn’t opened yet. So we ordered a bottle of bubbly through room service and cheered the return of the Plaza, New York City and the elevators.
During my weekend visit, I noticed that the two sides of New York City – pre-pandemic and present-pandemic – often overlapped, creating a new whole. At the American Museum of Natural History, security checked our temperatures, but not our bags. After exploring the unchanged Hall of African Animals, I went to the Hall of Ocean Life to visit the 94-foot-long blue whale, whose ridged belly was my sheltering sky during a museum sleepover years ago. The whale was sporting a bandage on his left fin; below, medical professionals in protective gear administered vaccinations to patients waiting by the walrus diorama.
“Honestly, this is history,” a woman said to her companion as they posed in front of the vaccinated whale. “When is this ever going to happen again?”
The Brooklyn Children’s Museum is also a vaccination site, though I trekked out to Crown Heights not for a shot but for a photography exhibit called “Stoop Stories.” Last March, Marj Kleinman started photographing and collecting stories from her Brooklyn friends and neighbors from the safety of their stoops, a social perch that comes in many styles, including a fire escape and two chairs set on a sidewalk. “A stoop is a state of mind,” said Kleinman, who was chatting up museum-goers and her portrait subjects on opening day. “It’s a safe space and an extension of your living room.” It appears in her work in its traditional manifestation, as well as two chairs outside a doorway and a fire escape.
More than 150 photos of families, couples, essential workers, activists, mayoral candidates and pet dogs hang throughout the museum, the oldest of its kind. On the top floor, within eyeshot of the vaccination station, I met several of the participants, including Jose Rolon and his three young children. I asked one of his twin girls whether she remembered the day of the stoop shoot. London looked at the image and then at me, and said she did. It was a memorable day, she recalled, because her old babysitter had braided her hair.
“I felt isolated,” Rolon, a wedding planner, said about the pandemic. “It was nice to connect with someone outside our support system.”
Kleinman and her co-producer, Lara Weinberg, said they will continue to document New Yorkers’ stories even as the health crisis wanes and the city transitions to the next phase in its recovery. “It started as a pandemic project,” Weinberg said, “but it has evolved.”
The Friends Experience first opened in the NBC sitcom’s hometown in 2019. (The attraction is also in Chicago and will set up shop in Atlanta in mid-July.) It returned this March in a new location (Gramercy) and during an apt time: “Friends: The Reunion” aired recently. Upon entering the attraction, an employee took my temperature and led me to a machine that asked for my personal information. “Is this for contact tracing?” I asked her. “No,” she replied, “it’s for your photos.”
The exhibit is a mix of props – the ones in glass cases are authentic – and sets where you can snap a photo of yourself, say, lounging on Rachel and Monica’s lumpy couch or riding Pat the ceramic dog. During these photo ops, guests are allowed to remove their masks. I passed on the photos but spent an inordinate amount of time watching clips of the show accompanying the pop culture artifacts – the Thanksgiving turkey head, Ross’s black leather pants, Rachel’s 18-page handwritten note to Ross after their so-called break. A trivia board lets you test your “Friends” knowledge. I became Monica competitive and created a scene straight out of “The One With the Embryos.”
The idea for Little Island sprang from another tragedy, Hurricane Sandy, the 2012 superstorm that pummeled Pier 54 on the Hudson River. Barry Diller and his wife, Diane von Furstenberg, envisioned a micro-retreat with modern architecture and art amid a timeless pastoral setting. (Imagine giant egg cups filled with flowers and grass.) The free public park opened May 21, with reservations required for the peak hours (noon to 8 p.m.) but not the less popular times (6 a.m. to noon and 8 p.m. to 1 a.m.)
I arrived after 8 on a Saturday night and noticed a crowd swarming the entrance. A woman who was surprisingly calm amid the chaos told us that we needed a ticket to enter. “But I came all the way from the Bronx,” a woman in braids protested. I approached the gate and asked her why the policy had changed. She said so many people had shown up on the first day, they had to extend the reservation system till closing time. She said, however, that I would not need a ticket for the morning shift. “Come at 7 a.m., so you can get a cup of coffee,” she recommended.
In the morning, I followed a stream of people onto the island and up the steep and winding paths that peaked with views of Lower Manhattan and New Jersey. Artwork and flowers freckled the landscape. In the center, food trucks lined the periphery of a covered dining area. I bought an iced coffee and savored the moments before the Little Island switched from carefree to careful.
Fifth Avenue at Central Park South
The Plaza is steps from Central Park, and many of its rooms have partial views of the green space. The Palm Court, which is known for its afternoon tea service, recently expanded its cocktail hours to midnight. The fitness center and spa are open, but the steam room and sauna remain closed. The Champagne Bar is not open, but you can order bubbly through room service. Rooms start at $725 a night.
The Friends Experience
130 E 23rd St.
The two-floor tribute to the hit sitcom features memorabilia and TV snippets plus sets, including Monica and Rachel’s apartment and the Central Perk couch. Timed tickets cost $45 for nonpeak hours and $52.50 for peak hours, such as weekends. Open Thursday through Sunday.
Marie’s Crisis Cafe
59 Grove St.
The legendary piano bar specializes in Broadway show tune singalongs. To access its downstairs space, you will need proof of vaccination, such as a paper or digital vaccination card. Guests without proof are still permitted in the upstairs bar. One-drink minimum per set; cash only.
American Museum of Natural History
200 Central Park West
The museum, which is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, requires timed-entry tickets. The new Mignone Halls of Gems and Minerals will open June 12, with a virtual line. Tickets cost $23 for adults and $13 for children ages 3 to 12. Special exhibits, such as “Creatures of Light,” are additional.
Brooklyn Children’s Museum
145 Brooklyn Ave., Brooklyn
“Stoop Stories”will run through the fall. The museum is open Thursdays from 2 to 5 p.m. and on weekends from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2 to 5 p.m. It closes for an hour for cleaning. Admission for visitors over age 1 is $13.
Pier 55 in Hudson River Park at West 13th Street
The 2.4-acre urban retreat is open daily from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m., with free tickets required from noon to closing. The island will host special events, such as weekly music series and culinary talks. Bring your own picnic or assemble a meal from the local vendors that sell food and drinks roughly from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.
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