September glimmered in the distance. As a hopeful spring gave way to summer, this was to be the month when pandemic restrictions and government aid would fully cease, and when a new season of live gatherings, face-to-face schooling and office work would begin.
But events spilled out in unpredictable ways. New York Times photographers around the United States spent the past six months documenting the coronavirus economy as plotlines shifted, fractured and diverged.
Many of their images echoed the pervasive isolation of the previous year, while the springtime economy also showed that progress was real. More than a half million jobs were created in May, nearly double the previous month. As Covid vaccinations accelerated, maskless crowds jostled at markets and restaurants. Subway cars teemed with activity. People gathered, hugged, kissed.
Then in the summer, a more contagious and insidious variant of the virus emerged, and the recovery teetered. Job creation shrank from more than a million in July to 235,000 in August. Commuter hubs that normally throbbed with activity experienced unchanging bouts of desolation. Disputes over the necessity of masks, restrictions and vaccinations turned uglier.
September arrived, and the finish line still feels elusively out of reach.
The availability of the vaccines in early spring delivered an exhilarating jolt of hope. Distribution, however, was slow and uneven at the start, and precious doses were initially rationed. Nabbing an appointment at times felt akin to finding a golden ticket in a Willy Wonka chocolate bar.
Then eligibility widened and the pace of immunizations picked up. By mid-April, half of all adults had received at least one shot, and the number of new cases reported dropped sharply. The economy was slowly making its way back from the disastrous Covid-19 recession that threw 22 million people out of work last year.
But progress was fitful, and fear of infection still loomed, keeping many from venturing out again.
In many places, restrictions remained — on restaurants, theaters and indoor gatherings. Throughout the country, city centers, train cars, classrooms and day care centers sat empty.
All the while, an army of essential workers — often in low-paying jobs — continued showing up even through the dark days. They delivered groceries and heating oil, repaired fiber optic cables and disinfected public buses, stocked warehouses and cleaned windows.
As caseloads plunged in late spring, people began to emerge from last year’s paralyzing confinement. Finally, here was a chance to indulge the deep, pent-up hunger for in-person contact and unfettered mobility. It was all a little bit heady. It felt like victory.
With summer, a joyful and luxurious sense of freedom burst open. Hundreds of thousands of people returned to work and the economy chugged forward. Roughly three-quarters of the jobs that vanished when the pandemic first hit had returned.
People flocked to restaurants, bars, stores, hotels, museums, markets, theaters and stadiums, clogging sidewalks, parks, ferryboats, tourist attractions and beaches.
Businesses — particularly in the hospitality, tourist and retail sectors — returned to or even sailed ahead of their prepandemic levels. In other corners of the economy, though, the recovery has been halting, tenuous or nonexistent.
Stubborn supply chain issues hampered production, deliveries and sales. Prices of cars and homes surged. Store owners and restaurant managers complained of unanswered help-wanted ads, leaving them to ask waiting customers to be patient or to close early because of staff shortages.
Some of the snags were a natural byproduct of a hibernating economy suddenly waking up and workers reassessing their priorities and prospects. But a more wily and persistent problem lurked.
Assumptions that the pandemic was nearing its end were premature. Deep-rooted suspicions and myths, fueled by worms of misinformation and mistrust of pharmaceutical companies and the government, led many to reject Covid vaccines as well as preventive measures like masks and quarantines.
The virus’s more contagious Delta variant gained a foothold among the unvaccinated populations and spread like wildfire. Now, more than 150,000 new cases are being reported each day, 10 times the tally earlier this year. The daily death toll has risen above 1,500, rivaling March’s figures. Ideological divisions, political maneuvering and varying tolerance of risk cracked hopes of a coordinated government response.
The pullback has rippled through the labor market. Last month, employers grew more cautious about expanding. Workers stayed home often because they lacked child care or feared risking infection.
Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Starbucks, along with a growing number of companies, also postponed reopenings of their offices that had been scheduled for September.
Those decisions, in turn, mean no return of customers for the nearby salad and sandwich shops, boutiques, restaurants, nail salons, shoeshine stands and liquor stores. Some stores that had scraped by for months may no longer survive.
Here again, the impact has been uneven: In Georgia, for instance, the unemployment rate dropped below 3 percent. In other states, particularly those with large metropolises and tourist economies, including California, New York and Illinois, it remained above 7 percent. Across the country, the greatest job losses have been among Black and Latino women, and those at the lower end of the education ladder.
Masks have become common sights again, and there is a growing sense that we should stand just a little farther apart from one another.
Reservations at restaurants, hotels, and airlines have dipped. Fewer people are popping into stores.
Yet there are signs of hope amid the anxiety and a powerful craving for normalcy. After the late-summer surge, caseloads and hospitalizations have started to decline.
People may have to show vaccination cards, but they are still going to museums, sports events, bars and theaters. They are visiting friends and family at home and toasting birthdays and anniversaries.
Fall is finally arriving. It’s just that instead of reassuring predictability, we are returning to a season of disquiet and uncertainty, with little choice but to muddle through.
Produced by Crista Chapman and Rebecca Lieberman. Additional production by Aliza Aufrichtig. Photographs by Philip Cheung in Los Angeles, Ruth Fremson in Seattle, Todd Heisler in New York, Sebastían Hidalgo in Chicago, Alyssa Schukar in Washington, D.C., Lynsey Weatherspoon in Atlanta and Jim Wilson in San Francisco.