How long will it take for NYC to get back to its version of normal?

This article breaks my heart.

Credit…Juan Arredondo for The New York Times

The features that made the city’s economy distinctive — Broadway, restaurants and museums — were hard hit and will take the longest to come back.

J. David Goodman

By J. David Goodman

  • April 20, 2020

It took just a matter of days to shut down New York City, once the coronavirus took hold. Restarting it will take much, much longer.

The economic impact in the city from the global pandemic has been striking: Hundreds of thousands are already out of work; at least $7.4 billion in tax revenue is projected to be lost by the middle of next year.

And the changes will be felt long after New York begins to reopen its economy.

How New York City, the epicenter of the country’s outbreak, begins to recapture its vibrancy is a question consuming political, business and cultural leaders.

The very features that make New York attractive to businesses, workers and tourists — Broadway, the subway system, world-class restaurants and innumerable cultural institutions — were among the hardest-hit in the pandemic. And they will take the longest to come back.

Half of the hotels in the city are not operating, and with no reliable forecast for when tourists might return, many may stay shut. Nearly the same portion of the city’s smallest businesses — some 186,000 shops employing fewer than 10 people — could fail, city officials fear. Replacing them could take years.

The city’s real estate and construction industries, major drivers of the local economy, have all but stopped. Millions of renters are struggling to make monthly payments, fueling concern over a cascading crisis in the housing market if rent goes unpaid.

White-collar business and financial services companies, whose workers were mostly spared immediate layoffs in the shutdown, are forecast to see declining profits next year, and even losses. Some law firms have already pared down pay.

And with social distancing guidelines likely to be necessary for the foreseeable future, all facets of New York’s work life will take on new rules, routines and costs.

“I don’t think the New York that we left will be back for some years,” said Gregg Bishop, the commissioner of the city’s small businesses agency. “I don’t know if we’ll ever get it back.”

New York is not the only metropolis in the world struggling with how to safely reopen businesses and cultural centers in a dense urban settings, but no city has been more devastated by the pandemic.

The virus has claimed more than 13,000 lives in New York City, a figure that includes roughly 4,400 victims who had never tested positive for the virus but were presumed to have died of it.

President Trump has sought swift reopenings across the United States. But interviews with more than two dozen business executives, city and state officials and industry groups hinted at the depths of the difficulties in doing so, especiallywhen the coronavirus is still filling hospitals and hundreds are still dying each day.

The city’s Independent Budget Office forecast that 475,000 people would lose their jobs over the next year; other economists have put the job loss far higher: 1.2 million by the end of April, mostly in low-wage jobs in restaurants, retail or transportation.

And whole industries, gone overnight, do not as quickly return.

In the late 1970s, “It took four or five years for a lot of the city to empty out,” said Kathryn Wylde, the president of the Partnership for New York City, a nonprofit business group. “It took three or four decades to bring them back.”

New York City has been the center of calamity before — the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the 2008 banking crisis, the 1970s fiscal crisis — and each time, economic life bounced back, stronger but also scarred.

“The obituary of New York City has been written more than once,” said James Whelan, the head of the Real Estate Board of New York, an industry group. “And it’s always been proven incorrect.”

But no other crisis saw the city shut down as profoundly, or for as long. Nothing before has caused public life to simply halt, everywhere, at once, nor called into question the very thing that distinguishes New York City: its concentration of people and its street life.

Large and midsize companies are beginning to plan for a return to the workplace, in phases. Some are thinking about how to use their existing office space when workers cannot be packed together as tightly, and questioning how much they should be expected to pay for it.

“Because of the need for social distancing, that space is far less valuable,” said Neil Blumenthal, one of the co-chief executives at Warby Parker, the glasses company headquartered in SoHo. “We’re all going to need more space, or use it less.”

City officials and business leaders privately expressed concern that, with executives seeing just how well their companies could operate remotely, some might decide to downsize, or move out of New York City altogether.

Others worried that workers from around the country and the world would think twice about relocating to the city — for at least for a few years — and that those already here might move out.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that once the state allows people to gather in places like the subway or retail stores, “you’re going to see more infections.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that once the state allows people to gather in places like the subway or retail stores, “you’re going to see more infections.”Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

“Nobody wants to get the economy going more than me,” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said on Saturday.

“The tension is when you start to open business, you start to have gatherings, you put people on a bus, you put people on the subway, you put people in a retail store,” he said. “Then you’re going to see more infections. You see that infection rate rise and then you’re going to be back to where we were.”

The economic pressure on the city’s finances is stark: Last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio released a gloomy $89.3 billion executive budget that slashed $2 billion in municipal services; the Independent Budget Office suggested that the loss in tax revenue may be even worse than the city was predicting.

Because the city’s economy is densely interwoven, reviving it is likely to be a halting process.

Swiftly shutting down the city’s more than 25,000 restaurants and bars was one thing. But getting customers back may not be a matter of simply allowing them to reopen, even with servers in masks and gloves and diners ordering from an app on their phones.

“When are companies going to start hosting events at restaurants and bars again?” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, a nonprofit association for the restaurant and nightlife industry. “When are the tourists going to start coming back?”

That is a question that has been haunting Broadway and the rest of the city’s entertainment sector as well.

As recently as February, New York City’s tourism promotion arm, NYC & Company, had been predicting a record number of annual visitors in 2020. That forecast has since been scrapped, and no new projections offered.

“How are we going to come back? There’s no playbook,” said Vijay Dandapani, the president of the Hotel Association of New York City, an industry group.

Tourists account for nearly 300,000 direct jobs in New York City, according to the Center for an Urban Future, eclipsing the number of jobs in finance and nearly twice as many as in the city’s tech sector.

But tourists are not likely to come back to a closed city, and the sorts of activities that draw crowd and visitors — parades, performing arts, museums, sports, festivals — are likely to be among the last parts of the local economy to reopen.

The Metropolitan Opera is weighing whether it can restart its programing in September. Broadway is bracing for a similar delay.

And a reopened Broadway could be a changed experience, said Charlotte St. Martin, the president of the Broadway League, a trade organization. “We could see masks. We could see certificates of Covid-19-free status,” Ms. St. Martin said. “We could see fewer shows.”

There is broad agreement that the return of economic activity would rely heavily on expanded public health measures, including a huge increase in testing and a robust system for tracking down and isolating those who might be infected.

Commercial office tenants are already discussing how to implement temperature checks at building entrances. Companies are looking at staggered schedules and having fewer employees per square foot of office space.

The trouble is, business leaders and executives say, once those measures are in place, office workers in industries like financial services and technology may not feel the pressure to return quickly.

“We have the luxury; people are working well from home,” said Mary Good, the chief people officer at Squarespace, a technology company headquartered in the West Village. “What we’re looking at are things like air flow, pathways around the office, conference rooms. Even things like elevators.”

Another major factor in the city’s ability to return is the city’s subways and buses — and so far the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has not articulated a safe service plan.

Riders and transit workers have recently been required to wear a face mask on a crowded subway car or bus. But the system is operating with less than 10 percent of its ridership: On Thursday, the city’s subway system had 470,000 passengers. The same day last year, it had 5.9 million.

Cities across Asia and Europe have added floor markings to encourage social distancing and provided hand sanitizer. In China, officials have limited capacity on buses to 50 percent, and riders have their temperature taken at checkpoints in train stations.

“It’s premature to make decisions, but we are looking at what the best practices are around the world in areas with transit agencies that have been affected by the pandemic,” said Patrick J. Foye, chairman of the M.T.A.

In the construction industry, union officials and builders are discussing how to maintain health and safety standards when the city’s roughly 35,000 dormant construction sites reopen.

State officials believe construction could be among the early sectors to return to work, along with manufacturing, because steps can be taken to keep factories and job sites safe and because working from home is not possible.

But just lifting restrictions does not guarantee a return to the way things were. “We believe that there is a way for them to mitigate any risk of transmission in their workplace,” said Robert Mujica, the state budget director. “But you need to have demand.”

On the real estate side, brokers have yet to figure out how to navigate a new challenge to their work: Buildings are not allowing potential buyers to tour homes for sale, depressing interest and sales.

“The market is nonexistent,” said Richard J. Steinberg, a real estate broker at Douglas Elliman.

More immediately, hundreds of thousands are now struggling to pay bills and meet the rent; some activists have called for a rent strike next month.

Local Democratic politicians, including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and state lawmakers in Albany, have sought more governmental assistance for renters.

Industry executives and budget watchers fear the effects massive nonpayment of rent would have on the ability of some landlords to make routine payments, increasing the risk of delinquency and possibly foreclosure.

“Rent is part of the life blood of the economy,” said Andrew Rein of the nonprofit Citizens Budget Commission.

At Warby Parker, the reopening is going to come in at least three phases, said Mr. Blumenthal. The company — part technology firm, part retailer, part manufacturer — provides a kind of blueprint for how to return.

The first phase has already begun at its factory for cutting and fitting lenses just outside the city, considered essential business under state rules. “We’ve even rearranged our production lines to ensure social distancing,” Mr. Blumenthal said. There are staggered lunch hours, and mandatory hand-washing every hour.

The next phase would involve reopening stores, of which the company has 10 in New York.

The last people to return to work, Mr. Blumenthal said, would be the company’s roughly 300 corporate office workers, based in its SoHo headquarters.

Even then, life will be different.

“We’re not going to be able to have 100 percent of our team show up to work every day at the same time,” he said.

The Line Friends store in Times Square features a uniquely themed “we’re closed” message.
The Line Friends store in Times Square features a uniquely themed “we’re closed” message.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Reporting was contributed by Christina Goldbaum, Matthew Haag, Patrick McGeehan, Jesse McKinley and Michael Paulson.

J. David Goodman covers lobbying, fund-raising and the influence of money in politics. A former reporter in City Hall and at police headquarters in New York, he has written about government, politics and criminal justice for The Times since 2012. @jdavidgoodman

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