On a cloudless April day on the West Side of Manhattan, Erin Fox emerged from the giant glass building where she had gotten the first dose of her Pfizer vaccine against COVID-19. The Javits Center—normally the home of various comic-book confabs and one highly dramatic presidential non-victory—had become “operational nirvana,” said Fox, a vice president of operations for Kaplan North America. The convention center had transformed into a key hub of a New York City vaccination push that by April was inoculating close to 100,000 people a day.
Fox was in and out with her first dose in less than half an hour. Walking into the afternoon sun, she said she felt “surprisingly emotional,” almost like “back to school jitters.” It was finally warm enough to loosen her jacket, and the light was beaming off the center’s walls. “It’s like the COVID spring,” she says. “It’s poetic that the vast majority of people are getting vaccinated just as spring is coming, and spring is a symbol of emerging from the dark COVID winter.”
A year ago in New York, sirens blared day and night as the city became the first epicenter of the nation’s battle against the disease. Streets were empty, restaurants were deserted, and a hospital ship was docked not far from the Javits Center. A temporary field hospital and morgue were built in Central Park, where the trees are now starting to bloom.
America isn’t past the pandemic yet. Dangerous variants of the virus are circulating. Lockdown fatigue has caused countless people to experience anxiety, depression or burnout. The U.S. still averages roughly 60,000 new infections every day, according to the CDC. More than 550,000 Americans are dead, millions have lost loved ones, and the brutal effects of the pandemic are still reverberating through the communities of color who were hardest hit. Nearly 10 million Americans remain unemployed, and more than 100,000 small businesses have gone belly-up.
And yet, it’s undeniable that green shoots are beginning to pop up everywhere. From vaccination rates to new jobs added, the pace and scale of the recovery has outstripped even the rosiest projections. The White House announced Monday that 1 in 4 US adults are now fully vaccinated. By April 19, every adult in America should be eligible for the vaccine, President Biden said Tuesday, and many states have already expanded eligibility to anyone over 16. The US has administered nearly 170 million doses, more than any other nation in the world, and leads the pack in vaccination rates among similarly-sized countries. (Smaller countries—like Israel, the United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates—have higher vaccination rates but also fewer people.) According to the CDC, the U.S. is now administering an average of around 3 million shots a day.
Meanwhile, the stock market has climbed to record highs. The economy added 916,000 jobs in March, smashing expectations and bringing the unemployment rate down to 6%. U.S. manufacturing activity soared to its highest level since 1983, according to the Institute for Supply Management, while consumer sentiment reached its highest point in a year, according to the University of Michigan’s Survey of Consumers. Pent-up demand for everything from travel to restaurants to entertainment is leading economists to predict a major post-pandemic economic boom.
“I’ve probably never been as confident about the outlook as I’ve been today,” says Mark Zandi, the chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, who predicts the next 6 to 18 months are “going to be rip-roaring. It’s going to be gangbusters growth.”
All this means that America may now be coming out of a period of collective hibernation, clawing its way back into the sun after one of the longest, darkest winters anybody can remember. We’re emerging from our cramped, dark isolation to blink at the fresh new world that awaits. Save-the-dates for rescheduled weddings are appearing in mailboxes, baseball stadiums are beginning to fill up and vacations are being planned. People are reconnecting with old friends they haven’t seen since before the pandemic. Grandparents are finally hugging their grandchildren.
Parts of the old life are coming back—the best parts, we hope—but this particular spring is also a time for new beginnings. A year of rumination has forced many Americans to rethink their frenzied pre-COVID routines. We’re moving to new cities, launching new careers, building new relationships and considering how we want to spend our working hours. It’s not yet clear how permanent any of these changes will be—the buds are just only just emerging, after all—but after a nationwide trauma, Americans are re-imagining what they want their post-pandemic lives to look like.
But first, many of us are making more immediate plans. In interviews outside the Javits Center, newly vaccinated New Yorkers said they had urgent business to attend to. Fashion designer Rita DeLa Rosa, 50, said she planned to go back to the Dominican Republic to visit her parents and to Florida to visit her children. Carol DiSanto, 62, who survived COVID-19 early last year, said she couldn’t wait to go to a concert at Jones Beach. Tuscany Foussard, 24, said he was excited to “finally meet up with my Tinder and Hinge matches.”
The optimism has pervaded even the industries that have been hardest hit by the pandemic. Airline leaders are optimistic that more Americans will be eager to travel as vaccinations increase. The theater industry is preparing for a big comeback. “Six months ago we were at the lowest point, and now we see light at the end of the tunnel,” says Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League, the trade organization for Broadway theaters. Subscriptions for ticket sales have jumped, and 40 shows are scheduled to open on Broadway in the 2021-2022 season. “The mood has changed.”
For some, true security is a long way off. “There are certainly reasons to be optimistic, yet there is not a sense of immediate optimism,” says Sean Kennedy, executive vice president for public affairs at the National Restaurant Association, adding that the restaurant industry was one of the first industry to be impacted by the pandemic and would likely be one of the last to fully recover. “We are not at the point where restaurants are spending every month asking if this is going to be the last one,” he says. “But we are nowhere near the ‘happy days are here again’ moment that a lot of other industries are seeing right now.”
But as spring flowered in New York, that moment seemed to be approaching, even if it is not quite here yet. Blocks from the Javits Center, families gathered outside the Hudson Yards shopping center for pizza. One woman told another this was her first shopping trip in a year. The sun had come out.
“It’s almost symbolic: we were kind of in the dark, and in the cold, and now it’s almost new life and new beginnings.” says Tim Berner, 29, who got his second vaccine dose in early April. “It’s a renaissance.”
Correction, April 8: The original version of this story misstated Erin Fox’s vaccination status. At the time of the interview, she had only received her first dose, not both doses.