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Opinion: The problem with a parade for New York’s Covid heroes

These are the people who make our city great even when a pandemic isn’t raging, and they’re also the ones who have gotten us through one of the toughest times in our nation’s history. They certainly deserve a parade. But it must be more than a performance of support. This recognition must come, also, with a delivery of robust resources — and not just in New York City.

Essential workers across the country need the American public to step up to make sure these workers’ efforts will stick.

And they need cities and states that protect them. Particularly with the Delta variant raging in some states, our leaders need to take a much firmer stance to protect their most vulnerable citizens, as well as those hailed as heroes.
In New York City, with about half of residents fully vaccinated, Covid restrictions lifted, and summer in full swing, it can be easy for the more moneyed residents of this town to make like the pandemic is over. But Covid’s economic and health impacts did not hit all of us equally here.
Covid deaths were disproportionately suffered by the same groups that generally have less of the American pie: Black Americans in New York and nationwide were more likely to die from Covid than Whites, while Black and Hispanic women bore a disproportionate share of the job losses and have been slower to recover from that economic hit. Essential workers in New York City have overwhelmingly been people of color.
And all over the country, Americans without college degrees — already at a wealth disadvantage — were walloped by the 2020 downturns. The pandemic only further cleaved open the gap between the haves and have-nots: at the same time low-wage work was drying up, thanks to Covid shutdowns, high-wage work was actually expanding.
While laid-off and disproportionately low-income workers clung to unemployment benefits to stay afloat, Americans who had jobs they could do from home largely stayed employed, and the American savings rate soared.
Meanwhile, some 33,000 New Yorkers–and a stunning 600,000 Americans all told–are dead from Covid-19.

The pandemic made clear that New York City is a fragile ecosystem, and that we depend on each other to stay healthy and live well in this dense city. We need the people who stock our grocery store shelves, who care for our young and tend to our ill, who teach our kids, and who create spaces for us to connect and eat and drink and learn and enjoy.

But so many of these same workers we deem essential can’t afford to live in this city they make great during good times, and that they helped to save in one of our worst times.

In other words, a ticker-tape parade for essential workers is great, but well-paying jobs, expanded affordable housing and universal child care, for example, would be more genuine expressions of support.

Note also that while New Yorkers will gather to cheer for our hometown heroes, a nauseating number of Americans simply won’t do the bare minimum to protect them — and to prevent further illness and even greater loss of life. New York State is better than most when it comes to vaccinations, but an embarrassing number of New Yorkers have long been eligible for the vaccine and yet still haven’t gotten it.

In this sense, it’s bizarre to see New York prepare to celebrate Covid heroes while not taking the necessary steps to protect them — and all of us. Indeed, with Covid restrictions lifted, maskless indoor activities are back in full swing, with the city gently requesting — on an honor system, basically — that unvaccinated people continue to mask up, including at the ticker-tape parade

Yes, some unvaccinated people are kids under 12 or those whose other health conditions prevent them from being able to get the vaccine — and that group especially needs healthy adults to vax up so that everyone is protected. But most unvaccinated adults in New York and across the country are, at this point, simply refusers, not people who are unable to access a jab.

“Mask and distance if you aren’t vaccinated” is very obviously not going to work. Why on earth would the leaders of New York City and state imagine they can count on the very people who have made clear they don’t care about the wellbeing of others to take steps that would protect that wellbeing?

Why is the city inviting them to the party?

If we want to honor our essential workers, the number one thing we can do is get vaccinated. And if the city wants to protect those essential workers — and all of us — it needs to take what will be controversial steps to do that:

For starters, don’t make masking a trust-based exercise. New York could enforce mask rules for everyone for essential indoor activities like grocery shopping and subway-riding, while also requiring proof of vaccination in order to engage in unnecessary but pleasurable and unmasked activities like eating inside, going to a concert or attending a sports event (the city could allow exceptions, and require masks, for under-12 kids and people with health issues).

If you are able to get vaccinated and don’t want to, that would still be your choice — but that choice can’t entitle you to go to a Yankees game, eat at Balthazar, see “Hamilton” on Broadway or spend the day at the Met.

A collective salute to our essential workers is well deserved and likely even cathartic, and the New Yorkers who helped us all survive this plague have a whole lot to celebrate. But truly honoring their sacrifice demands much more than a parade on Broadway.

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