A largely maskless crowd at the Elmont-UBS Arena Long Island...

A largely maskless crowd at the Elmont-UBS Arena Long Island Rail Road station after the New York Islanders game on Friday. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Night after night last month, in a small cabaret-style theater in Manhattan's East Village, the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded on stage, piece by piece.

The hand-washing. The social distancing. The isolation. The mask-wearing. The vaccine. 

It was all there, moment by agonizing moment, in "Plays for the Plague Year," a production written by and starring Suzan-Lori Parks, who wrote a play a day for the first 13 months of the pandemic and turned her mini-stories into a three-hour tribute to what she — and we — endured.

It was devastating, but also somehow joyful, to relive that year, to remember what we went through, realize how far we've come, assess where we are now, and consider how we've begun to heal. It was telling that across the crowded Joe's Pub, only a handful of audience members were wearing masks.

Gov. Kathy Hochul still sends out a report detailing the impact COVID-19 continues to have — but those reports recently became weekly, rather than daily. The analysis looks very different from the horrific picture painted by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo during his daily press briefings at the height of the pandemic. But the numbers are still there. The seven-day average patient hospitalization: 684. The seven-day average patients in intensive care: 82. The new deaths reported by health care facilities over the last seven days: 54.

More than one million Americans have died from COVID-19. They're still dying — every day. And importantly, for some, especially those who are immunocompromised, or still suffering from long COVID, the pandemic remains a daily threat.

Yet, for many of the rest of us, life has shifted to something very different, something much closer to normal, a life that doesn't include mask-wearing indoors or testing before every family gathering.

It's in this moment that the Biden administration announced Monday its plans to lift the vaccine requirement for federal employees and contractors and international air travelers on May 11, the day the COVID-19 public heath emergency officially ends. It's a decision rooted in science and that makes sense for its time, even as the vaccine's importance remains unchanged.

COVID may always be with us, part of a future that could include annual COVID boosters akin to the flu vaccine. For many New Yorkers, it even may remain a key part of day-to-day activity and decision-making.

But for others, it took a background role, rather than a starring one, long ago. Mask-wearing, for instance, has become far less ubiquitous, even in medical offices and hospitals, than it was six months ago.

And yet, I always keep a mask in my pocket.

That's partly in case I need one — for a crowded theater, a train or airplane, or a doctor's office, especially when it might protect those who are more at risk. That makes sense for me — scientifically, medically and personally — even as someone else might make a different calculation.

But that mask in my pocket also serves as a reminder of everything that happened these last three years. It might be easier to forget, to put aside that "plague year" as just a blip on our very long radars. But we'd be wiser to remember, to let our own individual stories continue to be our own personal guides and, if we desire, to keep a mask in our pockets.

Columnist Randi F. Marshall's opinions are her own.

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