With visitors raising their arms in a sign of victory, clapping and lining up eagerly at ticket windows, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art reopened its doors to the public on Saturday in a festive atmosphere -- a sign for many that the largest US metropolis is returning to normality after a nearly six-month closure caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
"I am a huge supporter of all the museums, and I'm so excited to be here," said Michelle Scully, a 39-year-old public relations worker who was near the front of the queue at the imposing edifice on Fifth Avenue, next to Central Park.
"It's a really important moment for the city and everything kind of comes back to life," she told AFP, "...so of course I'm here."
New York, she added, is "the best city in the world, and we're here. We're not going anywhere. It's going to come back better than ever."
Along with the hundreds of others patiently lined up, the Canadian-born Scully cheerfully went along with the museum's new virus protocol: mask-wearing required, temperatures taken, timed ticketing, and one-way foot traffic past museum treasures from the Temple of Dendur and other Egyptian artifacts to Contemporary art, in one of the world's most visited museums.
- ' A first step' -
A sense of joy pervaded the crowd: Chris Martinetti, a 34-year-old who had come from the borough of Queens with his wife, said the museum -- where the two first met five years ago -- was "our favorite place to go."
Tracy-Ann Samuel, who had come from neighboring Connecticut with daughters aged four and nine, said she couldn't wait to again be "surrounded by beautiful art."
"It means that there is some semblance of normalcy," Samuel said. "The Met has been a part of New York history for over 150 years... So this is a big first step."
Met officials had been champing at the bit for weeks, unable to do anything but watch as their European counterparts, like the Louvre, began reopening.
After New York registered more than 23,600 deaths, authorities here became a model of caution in dealing with the pandemic. Only this week have museums been authorized to reopen -- as the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) did on Thursday -- and only while limiting visitors to 25 percent the usual capacity.
Officials at the Met did use the hiatus profitably, studying the lessons, protocols and practices of counterpart museums. They say they are not overly worried about the prospect of a second wave of virus infections.
"We're all learning from each other all the time," Met president Daniel Weiss told AFP. "We're hearing what others' experiences are. And we know that doing this safely is actually not that hard."
- 'More inclusive' -
They have also had the time to adapt to the vast movement against racial injustice and social inequality sweeping the US since the death in May of George Floyd in Minneapolis: one new exhibit is dedicated to African American artist Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000), reflecting a "more inclusive" museum, Weiss said.
For an institution even more dependent than its European counterparts on ticket sales, and which had expected to stage a pomp-filled celebration of its 150th anniversary in April, the financial blow has been huge: an estimated $150 million lost in an 18 month stretch, he said.
Without the usual steady flow of tourists arriving daily, the museum has had to trim expenses and lay off some 20 percent of its pre-pandemic workforce of 2,000.
And the new limit on visitors -- 7,000 to 10,000 were expected this Saturday, down sharply from the 30,000 to 40,000 on a "normal" Saturday -- could last for months.
But the Met will survive because "we are a strong and generally well-funded museum," Weiss said, adding that he is more concerned about the fate of smaller and more vulnerable museums.
And while certain residents see a dark future for New York, saying the exodus of thousands of well-to-do residents or the abandonment by some in the business district are signs the city is "done," Weiss exudes nothing but confidence in New York's ability to bounce back.
From the attacks of September 11, 2001 to the financial crisis of 2008 and the destruction in 2012 of Superstorm Sandy, "it's been through many things," he said.
"I think everyone wants the tourists back. It adds to the vitality of the city," Weiss said.
"So when that happens, we'll be ready for them."