New York City from the Staten Island Ferry [Photo Credit: S. Ciotti]
NEW YORK – Long lines at New York City testing sites and crowded hospital emergency rooms are painting a grim picture eerily reminiscent of spring 2020, when COVID-19 first crippled the nation’s largest metropolitan region. The area’s Pagan community is similarly feeling the impact of the surging Omicron wave. The variant is highly contagious and spreading rapidly, affecting businesses, covens, and solitary practitioners alike.
At BronxWitch HQ, an office space in the South Bronx that offers a variety of spiritual services to local residents, foot traffic has staggered. “BronxWitch HQ is a new business and it’s definitely gotten off to a slow start, partially due to a location offering tarot, Reiki, and meditation services being uncommon to this area, but also because people aren’t going out as much with the spike in Covid and the new variant,” said owner and practitioner Aly Kravetz.
Thankfully, she hasn’t had to cancel any readings because “Tarot services have always been offered virtually,” and Kravetz plans to expand her online presence further to include workshops and classes. With the Omicron variant raging at breakneck speed, she has also recognized a shift in the needs of her clients.
“I’ve definitely noticed how the pandemic has affected my clients emotionally and physically,” she explained. “In addition to the spiritual services I offer, I also make herbal teas and other medicines. And there has been a sharp increase in demand for medicines that help with anxiety, stress, and the nervous system. I’ve also noticed an increase in the amount of tarot clients who are pulling tarot for themselves and expressing a greater interest in divination and spirituality.”
Laurie Bizzarro (Lady Thalestris), founder and high priestess of the NYC-based Temple of Hecate and acting high priestess of the New York Coven of Witches, has also witnessed the psychological repercussions of the pandemic in the Pagan community.
“Humans are resilient and adapt very well innately to adversity. That being said, it’s a very sad and challenging time for people,” Bizzarro said. “Typically, when people encounter tragedy and adversity, they rely on their fellow humans for comfort, gathering and exchanging physical comfort (i.e. hugs) and simply spending time together. With the pandemic, that time together is abrogated and prohibited! While I have seen people adapt, I have also seen mental health deteriorate and the toll this pandemic has taken on people.”
At the start of the pandemic, Bizzarro moved the Temple of Hecate’s meetings and rituals to Zoom and, like so many clergy members and group leaders, had no idea if the online platform would fulfill their needs. But what she discovered is sobering.
“While sadly, the pandemic grew and changed, one positive side effect is that we were able to expand our dedicant class significantly, as we now have the Internet as our only boundary,” Bizzarro explained. “Also, our magick has expanded and become deeper and richer. It’s much like doing Reiki from a distance. The energy seems to have a much wider “grid” and seems to be more powerful.”
Since the start of the pandemic, many Witches have reported a surge in requests for services like tarot readings and spells. That uptick isn’t surprising—beliefs and practices once labeled “esoteric” tend to flourish during periods of uncertainty, instability, and fear.
On January 10, Manhattan Borough President Mark D. Levine released sobering statistics via Twitter. In New York City alone, that day saw 32,236 reported cases of COVID, with the positivity rate at 18.2% “(trending downward slightly).” These statistics do not include the positive results of at-home rapid tests.
But not all businesses can use the Internet to meet the demands of their customers.
The Cauldron NYC, a pub with a distinctly witchy vibe, regularly hosts magic-themed events for its patrons. At Wizard Afternoon Tea, guests can brew “interactive teas” and feast on “sand-witches” and other sweet treats. The Potions Experience is an immersive class “where you step into the imagined worlds of your childhood through molecular mixology, science, and technology.”
The pub also offers family-friendly events and those catering to the LGBTQIA+ community. But in recent weeks, the impact of the surge has become evident.
Leah Santiago, Assistant General Manager, noted a change as the Christmas 2021 weekend approached.
“The business was impacted due to having less manpower (given that all restaurant workers are literally subject to exposure) and a lot of our staff got exposed to the new variant and were not expected to work for almost two weeks,” she said. Santiago cited a weekend in mid-December that was particularly difficult. “We had to close and cancel multiple reservations, as we believed it was the smartest thing to do to protect everybody from getting more exposed but in consequence of refunding tons of pre-paid reservations.”
In addition to enforcing state-issued mandates that require patrons to show proof of vaccination for indoor seating, The Cauldron NYC has taken other steps to keep their patrons as safe as possible. “We are also requesting that all customers use the hand sanitizers provided on the tables and to keep their masks on if not seated, while the staff is advised to wear masks at all times,” she explained. “We also provide test kits to staff who don’t have easy access to COVID tests facilities and all staff were also requested to get rapid and PCR tests at least once a week.”
As the New Year approached, Santiago noted a further decline in reservations. “As bookings were usually made and pre-paid in advance, we received a lot of cancellations and refund requests and a drastic drop in reservation inquiries,” she said. “Large group bookings were controlled, if not avoided. Basically, new reservations were not as promising as in the past.”
Now, more than a week into the New Year, Santiago has noticed a slight shift toward better days. “Business is still quiet but slowly picking up,” she said.
Despite these trends, there are those in the magical community who see stabilization and room for spiritual development. A magical approach to leveraging knowledge about it is the focus of many practitioners, including Sasha Graham, a teacher, lecturer, and author of The Magic of Tarot: Your Guide to Intuitive Readings, Rituals and Spells and other titles. Graham is also the creator of several decks, including Tarot of the Haunted House, Dark Wood Tarot, and the forthcoming Tarot of the Witch’s Garden.
“Folk magic, supernatural power, is something that can be cultivated in the darkest of times, under repressive regimes, during pandemics, tumult, etc,” she said. “People turn within when they are not getting what they need without. Ultimately, this is a wonderful thing. It will lead to more evolution.”
For Graham, this means focusing on growth and individual transformation, reflecting wider trends in society. Religious groups have reported swelling numbers of participants in their online offerings and seekers accessing a wide variety of spiritual resources during the pandemic.
“We just need to keep a keen eye on ourselves and be sure what we are evolving stems from a place of love and inclusivity rather than from anger or fear. Because we have nothing to fear but ourselves and our own internal monsters,” she said, noting that tarot is a good place to start to find meaning in the chaos. “It is essential to stay connected to the Tower card, actually, which is about releasing all expectations and attachments. All of the Omicron, COVID disruption is teaching us to let go and stay in the moment, be ready to pivot our plans and adjust when need be.”
And what comes with this new perspective? Graham sees a path to healing and the eventual post-pandemic reality.
“It is asking us to look at how we take care of one another and ourselves. You know, the gift of tarot is that we can look at our cards and our life from a bird’s eye view. We need to keep the longer view in mind,” she said. “The pandemic, Omicron waves won’t last forever. Let’s use it all to our advantage so when life gets back to “normal” we have made the most of it. Otherwise, what was the point?”