A police officer walks with others covered in dust during...

A police officer walks with others covered in dust during the collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001. Credit: AFP via Getty Images/STAN HONDA

My memories of Sept. 11 remain as vivid today as they were the day of the attacks.

That morning, on a routine conference call in an office building in lower Manhattan, I saw two planes fly into the Twin Towers. Stunned, I joined thousands of shocked New Yorkers evacuating amid a cacophony of screaming fire trucks and frantic cries. Two women, strangers I assume, hugged a young woman standing in the middle of Fifth Avenue and crying, "Daddy, daddy!" It was a day when ordinary people acted with extraordinary kindness, compassion, and selflessness, even as we witnessed the worst of humanity.

While we will never forget those we lost, the full story of 9/11 cannot be told without also talking about what happened on 9/12. It was on Sept. 12, still reeling from crippling shock and grief, that we came together as a community and pledged to move forward against a terrorist threat determined to undermine our American way of life.

We gradually put into place an infrastructure that allowed us to coexist with this existential threat. Our federal government created a new national security apparatus. State and local governments, Fortune 500 companies and small businesses, civic groups and individuals, changed how they operated. We all accepted taking off our shoes and undergoing enhanced screening at airports. We internalized the mantra, "If you see something, say something." And through a collective sense of responsibility and duty, we not only reclaimed our freedom, but just as important, we vowed to never surrender to this new threat.

Today, we face a new existential threat no less lethal but far more prevalent. COVID-19 has been devastating, especially here in New York. But through the darkness and suffering, we have seen again the indomitable spirit of our region. Our first responders, medical personnel, and essential workers — working themselves to exhaustion to keep us safe — have been inspiring. But this battle cannot be won on their backs alone. Nor can it be defeated by simply waiting for the "COVID storm" to pass.

Similar to the terrorist threat 20 years ago, today’s public health threat is likely here to stay. Fortunately, we have a playbook from 9/11 to guide us in confronting this new reality. It requires us to create new infrastructure — mask-wearing when necessary; widespread and accurate testing; medical certifications; and, the strongest defense of all, safe and effective vaccines. It also requires another ingredient we saw in abundance after 9/11 — a collective resolve not to surrender to the threat.

We need our business and civic leaders to step forward. It is time to start bringing our workers back to our central business districts, putting commuters back on our public transit systems and money back in the hands of the thousands of small businesses that rely on them. And it is time to require vaccination for employment, as my company, one of the largest real estate and infrastructure firms in the tristate region, has done; we expect full vaccination soon at our offices and construction sites (versus 45% before our mandate). Taking these steps is our ticket to reclaiming our freedom from COVID-19.

Scott Rechler, CEO of RXR Realty, at his Uniondale office.

Scott Rechler, CEO of RXR Realty, at his Uniondale office. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Twenty years ago, when anxiety and fear were running high, prudent and reasonable security protocols allowed us to bravely return to our daily lives. We demonstrated that we could coexist with existential threats and move forward. We can do it again with COVID-19.

This guest essay reflects the views of Scott Rechler, chief executive of RXR Realty in Uniondale.

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