New Yorkers ready to party again -- just not indoors

©Agence France-Presse

Yesenia Herra celebrates her daughter's first birthday outdoors in Central Park

New York (AFP) - After 14 months of lockdown and restrictions, New Yorkers can now enjoy a city where most of these limitations have been lifted. 

But many have retained the cautious approach they adopted at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, and are hesitant about partying and returning to the social life they enjoyed "before."

Yesenia Herra, 33, who organizes dinners and special events for tourists and who "loves to go out," last weekend had her first party since March 2020, inviting around twenty friends and family to celebrate her daughter's first birthday.

For the safety of her guests, almost all of whom are fully vaccinated, she organized the get-together outdoors in Central Park, with folding tables and chairs, balloons tied to tree branches, and enough food to feed an army.

"I didn't celebrate or do a baby shower. I didn't do like a welcome home when we got out of the hospital unfortunately because of the pandemic," she told AFP.

"And so this is my first celebration for her and I really wanted to do it with my family and friends and you know, I know she might not remember it but I want her to know that this did happen," she said. 

While her guests seemed delighted to be together, many pointed out that they did not want to invite people to their homes yet -- except for very close friends who they would be sure have been vaccinated.

"I don't know if we'll ever go back to complete comfort with that... not in the immediate future," said Merry Mathes, 58.

Farther into the park, Marcus, a 25-year-old vaccinated paralegal, was partying alongside a dozen friends, with a synth and a hired DJ. 

He has only been to two parties since March 2020, both of them outdoors: one, which was limited to 10 people, was for his best friend's wedding, and the other was in Central Park in early May.

"I am not ready for parties inside, but maybe in the fall," he said.

What if it came back?

"Business is picking up, it started last week," said Lemuel Rodrigues, a party store manager in Manhattan.

"Most people are having it at home, or in parks, with other family members that they know," he said.

Even though his business is still idling, he praised the continued caution of his customers: Despite 60 percent of the city's adult population having received at least one dose of the vaccine, many New Yorkers continue to wear masks on the streets, even though that regulation was lifted at the end of April.

"A lot of people just want to go back to normal real fast. And we are more reluctant here. Can you imagine if this started to come up again?"

Such caution has boosted business for by Amanda Orso, who organizes small-scale parties, usually at homes.

In recent weeks, she has been asked to throw several small gatherings by people keen to celebrate "just being vaccinated" -- with some nods to the pandemic, like drinks served in syringes. 

Laurence Anthony, 36, a motivational speaker and writer, was among the first, back in April, to request her services: After more than a year of abstinence, he invited 10 people, all vaccinated, to brunch in his Harlem apartment to celebrate his newfound immunity and his new digs.

"It was kind of an opportunity to reflect and to acknowledge... the importance of connecting" after the pandemic, he said.

In mid-May, he went to an indoor party that brought together some 50 people. "It was the first event I have been to where I didn't know the majority of the people," he said.

The gathering was so close to the old "normal" that "a week later we still talked about it, and how different it felt to be at a normal party."

Bars and restaurants have been allowed to open at full capacity since Wednesday.

But when will the big gala evenings that make New York a hot spot for the jet set be back? 

According to Marcy Blum, who organizes parties and weddings for a wealthy clientele, even if the large reception venues do not reopen before September, her books are already full until April 2022.

The phone started ringing a month ago, "when it was clear we were all going to have access to vaccines," she said.

"Everything comes out of the woodwork at once," she added, noting that people who had postponed their weddings are now scheduling them, but "people are still cautious... everybody still wants an outdoor venue or a tented venue."

The Met Gala, one of the most popular social events in the world, is likely to symbolize this recovery: Traditionally held in May and canceled in 2020, it is scheduled to take place on September 13, 2021.