America’s grand reopening postponed, World News
September sparkled in the distance. As a hopeful spring gave way to summer, this was to be the month when pandemic restrictions and government assistance ceased altogether, and a new season of live rallies, face-to-face teaching. face and office work would begin.
But events unfolded unpredictably. Several New York Times photographers in the United States have spent the past six months documenting the coronavirus economy as intrigues shifted, fractured and diverged.
Many of their images echoed the widespread isolation of the previous year, while the spring economy also showed the progress was real. More than half a million jobs were created in May, almost double the previous month. As COVID-19 vaccinations accelerated, maskless crowds jostled markets and restaurants. The metro cars were bustling with activity. People gathered, hugged, hugged.
Then, in the summer, a more contagious and insidious variant of the virus emerged, and the recovery faltered. Job creation rose from over a million in July to 235,000 in August. Suburban centers that normally throbbed with activity experienced enduring episodes of desolation. Disputes over the need for masks, restrictions and vaccinations have escalated.
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When September arrived, the finish line still seemed inaccessible.
The availability of vaccines in early spring sparked an exhilaration of hope. Distribution was slow and uneven at first, however, and valuable doses were initially rationed. Sometimes making a date was like finding a golden ticket in a Willy Wonka chocolate bar.
Then eligibility widened and the pace of vaccinations accelerated. By mid-April, half of all adults had received at least one injection and the number of new cases reported had fallen sharply. The economy was slowly recovering from the catastrophic COVID-19 recession that put 22 million people out of work last year.
But progress was uneven and fear of infection persisted, preventing many from venturing again.
In many places, restrictions remained – on restaurants, theaters and indoor gatherings. Across the country, downtowns, rail cars, classrooms and daycares were empty.
Meanwhile, an army of essential workers – often in low-paying jobs – continued to show up even during the dark days. They delivered groceries and fuel oil, repaired fiber optic cables and sanitized public buses, stocked warehouses and cleaned windows.
As the number of cases plummeted in late spring, people began to emerge from last year’s crippling lockdown. Finally, it was an opportunity to satisfy the deep and pent-up hunger for face-to-face contact and unhindered mobility. Everything was a bit exhilarating. It was like a victory.
With summer, a joyful and luxurious feeling of freedom erupts. Hundreds of thousands of people have returned to work and the economy has accelerated. About three-quarters of the jobs that disappeared when the pandemic first hit have returned.
People flocked to restaurants, bars, shops, hotels, museums, markets, theaters and stadiums, clogging sidewalks, parks, ferries, tourist attractions and beaches. Businesses – especially in the hospitality, tourism and retail sectors – have returned or even exceeded their pre-pandemic levels.
In other sectors of the economy, however, the recovery has been halted, weak or non-existent. Persistent problems in the supply chain hampered production, deliveries and sales. The prices of cars and houses have gone up. Store owners and restaurant managers have complained about unanswered help announcements, forcing them to ask waiting customers to be patient or to close earlier due to understaffing.
Some of the problems were a natural by-product of a hibernating economy that suddenly woke up and workers reassessed their priorities and perspectives. But a more cunning and persistent problem lurked.
The assumptions that the pandemic was coming to an end were premature. Deep-rooted suspicions and myths, fueled by worms of misinformation and distrust of drug companies and the government, have led many to reject COVID vaccines as well as preventative measures like masks and quarantines.
The most contagious delta variant of the virus has gained a foothold among unvaccinated populations and has spread like wildfire. Today, more than 150,000 new cases are reported every day, or 10 times the tally at the start of the year. The daily death toll topped 1,500, rivaling figures for March. Ideological divisions, political maneuvering and varying tolerance for risk shattered hopes for a coordinated government response.
The decline was reflected in the labor market. In the past month, employers have become more cautious about expansion. Workers often stayed home because they lacked child care or feared they could be infected.
Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Starbucks, along with a growing number of companies, have also postponed the reopening of their offices which was scheduled for September.
These decisions, in turn, mean no customer returns for salads and sandwich shops, boutiques, restaurants, nail salons, shoe shines and nearby liquor stores. Some stores that had been scratching for months might not survive.
Again, the impact was uneven: in Georgia, for example, the unemployment rate fell below 3%. In other states, especially those with large metropolises and tourist economies, including California, New York, and Illinois, it has remained above 7%. Nationwide, the largest job losses were among black and Latin American women and those at the bottom of the education ladder.
Masks have become mainstream again and there is a growing feeling that we should be staying a little further away from each other. Bookings at restaurants, hotels and airlines have plummeted. Fewer and fewer people are entering the stores.
Yet there are signs of hope amidst the anxiety and a strong desire for normalcy. After the outbreak in late summer, the number of cases and hospitalizations began to decline.
People may have to show vaccination cards, but they still go to museums, sporting events, bars and theaters. They visit friends and family at home and toast birthdays and anniversaries.
Autumn is finally coming. It’s just that instead of reassuring predictability, we return to a season of worry and uncertainty, with little choice but to fend for ourselves.