On Wednesday afternoon, Mark Levine, the New York City Council member and likely the next Manhattan borough president, met me on a busy corner of Broadway, a few blocks from his apartment, in Washington Heights. He had invited me to his neighborhood for a tour and a conversation about mask use in the city. “How is it in there?” he said, jerking his head toward a bodega behind me. He meant mask-wise. We walked in to find out. Inside, a half-dozen people were browsing the cold drinks. A few were masked up, a few had masks across their chins, and some went maskless. Levine, masked, grabbed a bottle of water and made small talk in Arabic with a guy working the register–Levine calls himself a language buff—then walked back out into the afternoon. “I’d say there’s now fifty per cent mask wearing in bodegas, on a good day,” he said. This, for Levine, was bad news.
Levine, who is fifty-two and sports a tidy salt-and-pepper beard, has spent almost eight years on the City Council, where he is the chairman of the health committee. Before running for office, he started his career as a junior-high math and science teacher. This combination of experience and skills became particularly useful in the spring of 2020. Through his government work, he had relationships with doctors and health-care experts. His years in the classroom had made him a patient explainer of complex subjects. He began tweeting prodigiously about COVID-19 and the city’s response to it, and quickly became one of the most active and helpful purveyors of pandemic information in New York. He was thoughtful and thorough, not alarmist or absolutist. “It’s time to update the all-or-nothing messaging on Covid-19 risk,” he wrote in a widely-shared Twitter thread in May, 2020, when the city was still at the height of its pandemic vigilance. “Let’s give people the tools to understand that the riskiness of social activities lies on a spectrum. . . . Given the long road ahead, it’s simply not realistic that we tell people to indefinitely avoid all in-person social contact outside their household.” Within months, Levine’s Twitter account had more than sixty thousand followers, triple the number he used to have. From testing to reopening and vaccine distribution, Levine helped to set the debate and shape the public’s understanding of the pandemic. “It’s very much defined my job for the last year and a half,” Levine told me, of his Twitter activity. “Things are constantly popping in my head that I want to post, or I start feeling that there’s a fight that I need to wage. It can become all-consuming.”
Last weekend, Levine posted something that he knew would bum people out. “Cases are rising in NYC (up 2x+ in past 2 weeks), driven by delta,” he tweeted, referring to the new coronavirus variant. “Indoor mask use in NYC is falling—in delis, stores, subways, movie theaters etc. We need to reverse this trend. It’s time to renew the indoor mask mandate, including for those who are vax’d.” For much of the city, the spring and early summer had been a time of joyful reunions and reopenings. For a few weeks, from late March to early May, the city was vaccinating at least seventy-four thousand people a day—an astonishing feat. Deaths, hospitalizations, and infection numbers all fell. In mid-May, the C.D.C. announced that vaccinated people could stop wearing masks in most settings. A few days later, Governor Andrew Cuomo lifted most of the state’s pandemic restrictions. New Yorkers crammed into bars, restaurants, and Madison Square Garden. The exuberance was such that people even started expressing warm feelings toward Bill de Blasio. And, while masks were still required on the subway and in certain other settings, there was a strong temptation, for many, to ditch face coverings for good. “People watch disaster movies about global pandemics, where at the end they discover the vaccine, and everyone hugs, and the credit rolls,” Levine told me, as we walked up Broadway. “But the real world is messier. Viruses evolve. People are complicated. And, unfortunately, public health is a collective struggle. And the continual evolution of the virus, and the challenge in bringing everyone in our society along, means this isn’t over yet.”
In New York, as elsewhere in the country, progress on vaccinations has recently stalled, as the Delta variant has surged. More than forty per cent of New Yorkers remain unvaccinated. Trend lines on infections and hospitalizations have begun to move in the wrong direction, raising fears of a fourth wave. Earlier this month, Los Angeles reinstituted its indoor mask mandate. San Francisco stopped short of a mandate but is recommending that everyone, even the vaccinated, mask up indoors in social situations. Reinstating local mask mandates is being discussed in states as varied as Missouri, Arkansas, and Massachusetts, as well as in the Biden Administration. In New Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy has warned that a mask mandate may be necessary if vaccination rates don’t rise. Levine thought that the C.D.C.’s over-all guidance on masks may have held if it weren’t for the rise of the Delta variant, but, now, once again, the public narrative of the pandemic and the political response were scrambling to catch up to the scientific reality. “There are people who are overreacting to the danger, and people who are underreacting,” Levine said. “You have to strike the right balance. We are not headed into a repeat of March of 2020. But people want to go back to the summer of 2019. And it’s just, unfortunately, not back to that level, either.” He believes that masks should be worn indoors in settings where it is uncertain whether everyone is vaccinated. Levine said that he knows many “smart, science-based” people who are tired of the battle with the virus. “But you know, New York City could still lose thousands of people to this virus,” he said. “We could lose another 9/11 worth of New Yorkers in the coming wave.”
We turned a corner and Levine raised his arm to greet a man standing on the sidewalk, wearing a blue ball cap and a Brooklyn Nets zip-up vest. This was Rafael Barett, his barber. “The barber for all the males in my family,” Levine said. Barett greeted Levine in Spanish and invited us into his shop. We put on our masks. “It’s hard to know right now with this new variant, even if you’re vaccinated, how much you’re protected,” Barett said. The shop had been closed for three months in 2020, but it had reopened as soon as guidelines allowed. Business still hadn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels, Barett said, but some new faces had replaced the old customers who had disappeared. It was impossible for the shop to know who was or wasn’t vaccinated. “You know, until recently, we were taking everybody’s temperature, insisting on masks,” Barett said. “But, after the governor lifted everything, we can’t keep insisting on it. The governor said so.” He snapped one of the straps of his mask. “But I protect myself,” he said.
“One of the better ones,” Levine said, approvingly, as we left the shop. We walked a few blocks and sat down at a table outside a diner. His call for a new mask mandate had earned some support locally—“We waited before, & people died,” Jumaane Williams, the public advocate, tweeted a few days ago—but, so far, City Hall has resisted the idea, suggesting that it would distract from the vaccination effort, and that masks wouldn’t put much of a dent in the infection numbers. “Masks have value, unquestionably,” de Blasio said on Monday. “But masks are not going at the root of the problem. Vaccination is.”
I asked Levine whether his call for a mask mandate was about stopping infections or about readopting a symbol of vigilance against the virus. He suggested that it was a bit of both. “The honor system was never going to work,” he said. “All of us wear masks or none of us wear masks. The idea that we’re going to ask supermarket staff to sort out who is and isn’t vaccinated is completely unrealistic.” Levine said he welcomed an announcement that de Blasio made on Wednesday, that public hospital workers would be required to be vaccinated or undergo weekly testing. But he called it a “pretty mild first step.” City data suggests that as little as sixty per cent of the city’s education employees are vaccinated. For the N.Y.P.D., the number is under fifty per cent. Levine wants to see the city “set the standard,” and require that more of its employees be vaccinated. “Hopefully, private employers will follow suit,” he said. I asked whether he thought reimposing a mask mandate would open the door to further restrictions, of the kind that we all lived through last year. “I don’t think the kinds of shutdowns we lived through are on the table now,” he said. “But vaccine requirement in the workplace is definitely on the table. I think we’re already behind on that. Honestly. There’s very few settings where you need to demonstrate that you’ve been vaccinated. Almost none.” Levine thinks that the vaccination numbers won’t rise again until remaining unvaccinated becomes much more inconvenient. “We’re vaccinating only about five thousand or at most ten thousand people a day in New York City,” he said, referring to people receiving their first dose of vaccine. “At that pace, you’re talking more than a year to get everyone vaccinated. And that doesn’t count kids.”
Levine is genial and patient, but also a worrier. He was concerned about the toll of another wave on the city’s health-care workers, and about losing the momentum of the past year. He was exhausted, too, he said. Last month, he won the Democratic Party primary for Manhattan borough president. “I had planned that July and August would be much calmer for me with the campaign over,” he said. The younger of his two sons is moving away to college, in August. “I’d planned to spend a lot of time with the family,” he mused. “Unfortunately, what this pandemic has taught us, again and again and again, is that you can take relatively modest actions now, or you’re going to be forced to take more difficult steps down the road.”
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