It was two years ago that the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic, and after nearly one million deaths across the United States, the virus is far from gone. Rates of new infections, while improving, are still higher now than the beginning of last summer.
But after signs of progress and exhaustion, even cities and states with the strictest coronavirus precautions have been rolling them back. For millions of Americans who kept their masks on and socially distanced long after much of the country abandoned safety measures, it is a moment that has stirred relief, but also disappointment, frustration and queasy ambivalence.
“I’m confused at how we go so sharply from one extreme to the other,” said Lindsey Liss, 47, an artist and mother of four teenagers in Chicago, who lifted her indoor mask mandate for businesses late last month. “I feel like I’m missing something. If we finally got it under control, why wouldn’t we ease back into things and test it out rather than jump all the way in? ”
In places like Florida and Texas, people have been living for months with few if any restrictions. But residents of Covid-cautious cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco said they were now trying to figure out the new rules of the road after two years of anxious vigilance.
Should they let themselves go maskless in public? Would they make others feel uncomfortable at the supermarket or gym? They worried about alienating or infecting vulnerable friends and family. Some parents said they were glad their children could finally attend school without a mask while others worried that children still too young to get vaccinated were now at greater risk of infection.
Several people said they felt whipsawed as Democratic mayors and governors who once championed safety measures as a public good and emblem of civic virtue now seemed ready to turn the page on a pandemic that, while easing, is still killing more than 1,000 people every day across the United States.
“We’ve built up this armor of strategies to reduce transmission, and it’s just hard to take that armor off,” said Marcel Moran, an instructor at the University of California, Berkeley, who taught his first unmasked classes this past week after the university dropped its indoor requirement.
Mr. Moran had always found it annoying to lecture for three hours with a mask, so he was glad to remove it. He said most of his 70 students still wore masks as they sat and discussed urban planning, with the classroom windows and doors thrown open for ventilation.
The mandates are lifting at a hopeful moment for the national coronavirus outlook. New cases have plummeted from the height of the winter Omicron surge. New cases have fallen to 36,000 a day from a peak of 800,000, and the number of hospitalized Covid-19 patients has fallen by 75 percent.
In New York City, fewer than 700 new infections are being reported daily, about 2 percent of the number seen at Omicron’s peak.
But as the country approaches the grim milestone of one million deaths, the pace of new vaccinations has slowed, rising just slightly since the beginning of the year. About 65 percent of Americans are now fully vaccinated, and children younger than 5 remain ineligible to be vaccinated.
After so many false victories and deadly surges in the past two years, many people said they feared dropping their guard now only to invite a pernicious new variant to dash their hopes yet again.
In interviews, Americans concerned with the easing of restrictions said they were bewildered by what felt like an abrupt change, especially given the enduring threat Covid-19 poses to older people and those with disabilities and weakened immune systems.
“It feels like we’ve truly been left to die,” said Elizabeth Kestrel Rogers, a writer in Mountain View, Calif., With cystic fibrosis. “It seems too much too soon, like people are giving up because they can not be bothered anymore.”
Ms. Rogers said she and many friends would keep wearing masks. She was frustrated that the state had offered little advice for how people with disabilities or weakened immune systems should confront a world where even the most cautious places seem intent on marching back to normal.
“How are we supposed to go to work?” she asked. “How are we supposed to get groceries and basic supplies and see doctors?”
Elected leaders have faced relentless pressure to undo virus restrictions from conservatives and protests like the trucker convoy circling the Beltway in Washington, DC Others say the restrictions are no longer worth the price of isolation, depression, rising crime and damage to children’s educations.
Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now says that about 98 percent of Americans live in communities where they no longer need to wear masks. Passengers must still wear masks on planes, buses and public transit through at least April 18, but the CDC said on Thursday it was beginning to review its guidelines for masking on public transit.
As mandates end, public opinion surveys show that Americans are still concerned about the pandemic; half or more support masking and other restrictions to control the spread of the virus.
The easing has also troubled public health officials like Thomas LaVeist, the dean of public health at Tulane University who also serves as co-chair of Louisiana’s Covid-19 Health Equity Task Force.
“Everyone is worn out. Everyone is exhausted. I am as well, ”he said recently. “But we lost 1,400 Americans yesterday to Covid and we’ll probably lose another 1,400 today. And I do not think anything has happened that suggests to me that vaccine mandates and mask mandates should be lifted. ”
Other wary Americans said they felt safe going unmasked, but worried about offending or infecting friends and family. Some said that loosening restrictions would actually make them feel less secure about going to supermarkets or bookstores, driving them back into their homes.
“We just have not learned,” Dr. David Goldberg, 32, an internal medicine physician, said as he and his wife took their 1-year-old daughter, Isabel, for a walk through their neighborhood in Richmond, Va.
Parents of children younger than 5, who are not eligible to be vaccinated, said they had been left exposed as the restrictions lapsed.
Dr. Goldberg said he was acutely worried about the risk of Covid-19 for Isabel, especially given so many uncertainties about the virus’ long-term effects on children. He said he was standing in line at a grocery store recently when a man next to him complained that he did not feel well.
“I was like, Dude, what are you doing?” Dr. Goldberg said. “I feel for parents who are just waiting. They feel left behind. Kids can get sick and they can die. ”
In New York City, where people still remember the wails of ambulances early in the pandemic and images of morgue trailers outside hospitals, there was a mix of relief and worry in response to Mayor Eric Adams’ decision to repeal mask mandates in schools and let people back into restaurants, gyms and indoor entertainment spaces without proof of vaccination.
Residents in Elmhurst, Queens, one of the city’s neighborhoods hit hardest by Covid-19 during the early months of the pandemic, were particularly wary. Neha Shah, 25, worried about her diabetic father, and said she had been trying to avoid tightly packed restaurants and cafes.
“I just feel like it’s for public safety,” Ms. Shah said. “I’m not OK with them being dropped.”
For Emily Suardy, a barista at Furman’s Coffee in Brooklyn, masks could not come off soon enough. They made work in her small coffee shop hot and uncomfortable, and she felt safe going about her daily life given that she and her co-workers, friends and family were vaccinated.
Even if there is a spike in positive Covid-19 cases or another variant pops up, she said, she would be reluctant to go back to masking up inside unless the city reinstates its mandate.
“I’m really tired of it,” Ms. Suardy said. “If it’s not mandatory, I will not use it.”
That was not the case with one of New York’s most well-known recovering Covid-19 patients, the Broadway icon Patti LuPone.
For two years, Ms. LuPone said she had taken every precaution. But as Omicron ebbed, she said, she had started going out and grown a bit lax about mask-wearing. Then, late last month, she tested positive before a performance of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company,” and had to leave the theater.
For 10 days, Ms. LuPone had to isolate, a lady who lunched alone in her apartment as she coped with flulike symptoms and fatigue.
“I never want to have another bowl of chicken soup again in my life,” she said. “I’m not going to be lax about it the way I was. I did not think about putting my mask on going into the theater. I was putting other people at risk. ”
She returned to the show this past week and said it was reassuring to again see a theater full of people in masks. Broadway audiences must wear masks through at least April, and Ms. LuPone worried about the consequences of undoing that rule.
“These theaters are small and these seats are very close together,” she said. “We’re not out of this.”
Mitch Smith, Giulia Heyward spirit Robert Chiarito contributed reporting.