Where we are now: New York City after a year in the grip of pandemicMarch 27, 2021
By the end of March last year, New York City had been transformed from a teeming metropolis with a booming economy, to a city gripped by pandemic and in economic free fall.
On March 22, 2020, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s order shuttering all non-essential businesses and encouraging residents to avoid leaving their homes took effect after a month of misleading and progressively dire warnings from city and state leaders. Hospitals were overrun, bodies piled up in makeshift morgues and residents abandoned the city in droves.
One year later, more than 30,000 New Yorkers have died, close to 800,000 have been infected and much of the city’s economy remains in peril. Restaurants and theaters are on the brink of insolvency. Hotels are largely empty of the tourists that poured money into the city’s economy. Hospital and health care workers are still reeling from the onslaught of Covid victims. Most students are still not in classrooms. And the city’s commercial real estate and retail sectors are facing foundational changes with the forced adoption of remote working that may alter the city’s landscape forever.
With federal relief and more vaccines on the way, New Yorkers have begun to crawl out of the darkness of the past year, but a POLITICO review of the hardest-hit sectors of the city shows that much of New York is still waiting to recover and bracing for what could be permanent changes to the biggest city in America.
Valerie Burgos-Kneeland feels a surge of anxiety when she puts her face mask on.
An ICU nurse at Mount Sinai, she’s spent the past year treating Covid-19 patients almost exclusively while also experiencing post-traumatic stress from the first wave.
“I still haven’t worked out my PTSD from last year,” she said. “I’m still feeling anxiety when I come into work.”
She’s not alone: Dozens of health care workers who spoke to POLITICO over the past year said they often felt they were unable to provide a standard of care or comfort to their patients, compounding mental health stressors that still haven’t been addressed from the height of the pandemic.
For some, that meant being the only witness to their patients’ dying under hospitals’ strict visitation policy — or deciding which patients had the best chance of survival and would get access to a coveted ventilator.
“It’s an enormous burden of grief and loss,” said American Group Psychotherapy Association President Dr. Molyn Leszcz of the decisions health care workers faced during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Employee burnout, along with opportunities to work for greater pay as a traveling health care worker, has made it harder for hospital systems to attract talent. And because Covid-19 is still raging in areas like California and Texas, nurses who came to New York’s rescue during the first surge in spring 2020 are not available to help.
“The hospitals are still at [a] historically high census, because unlike the first surge, patients continue to come for other conditions. But it’s meant that we haven’t been able to have decreases to compensate for the increase in Covid cases,” Mitch Katz, head of NYC Health + Hospitals said this month. “We’ve had limited success in getting additional nurses … because there’s been such a high demand.”
Staffing concerns are the latest issue in a string of shortages affecting hospitals since March 2020, which included ventilators, dialysis fluid and personal protective equipment. Some hospitals have had ongoing payroll issues due to the massive financial hit the systems took when they shut down most non-Covid-19 operations, and were required to furlough staff.
While the health systems have received a variety of grants and advanced payments from the federal government to offset cash flow issues related to the pandemic, hospitals have also faced budget cuts from the Cuomo administration.
Nearly a year since the beginning of the pandemic, neighborhoods once filled with office workers and tourists remain emptied out, devastating restaurants and other businesses that survived on day time foot traffic.
Restaurants in residential neighborhoods have fared somewhat better, but still face significant occupancy restrictions and were only recently permitted to resume indoor dining, months into a cold winter.
“There just isn’t the foot traffic to support it,” said Susan Povich, the owner of the Red Hook Lobster Pound, who closed her Manhattan locations last year and doesn’t have plans to reopen them. Business at her Red Hook location has been better, but sales early this month were still off 50 percent from where they were before the lockdown last year.
A recent survey from the NYC Hospitality Alliance, an industry group, reported more than 90 percent of restaurants, bars and nightlife spots couldn’t pay their full rent in December, and the group estimates 140,000 jobs have been lost since last March.
Andrew Rigie, executive director of the alliance, notes countless restaurants are being kept open artificially by an ongoing moratorium on commercial evictions and other temporary measures, while businesses grow desperate for financial relief that has not yet materialized. Lifting protections without adequate assistance, Rigie warns, will “compound the crisis in a way you can’t even fathom.”
The nightlife that once defined “the city that never sleeps” has been in hibernation for more than a year. Broadway shows are canceled through May. Carnegie Hall recently canceled its season running from April 6 to the end of July. Gov. Andrew Cuomo permitted arts and entertainment venues to reopen at 33 percent capacity beginning April 2, but the new rules aren’t much relief to the many operators who say reduced capacity simply doesn’t work from a financial perspective.
For Le Poisson Rouge, a concert venue in Greenwich Village, the pandemic has meant a year of no real revenue, and the space likely won’t resume shows until mid-fall at the earliest. “We still have a long stretch ahead of us,” said Ruben Perez, the venue’s director of operations, who added the space has almost shuttered multiple times over the past year.
Businesses that rely on crowds — nightclubs, concert venues, theaters — are far from resuming normal operations, taking away a major attraction for visitors that fuel the city’s multi-billion-dollar tourism industry. A report from NYC & Company estimated tourism won’t return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024. The hotel sector, meanwhile, has been devastated by the crisis and nearly 200 of the city’s roughly 700 hotels have shuttered already. Occupancy levels were at just 15 percent as of early March, according to Hotel Association President Vijay Dandapani, and this rate is expected to hit around 40 percent by the end of 2021.
The office sector is staring down an existential crisis as remote work has become the new normal and major business districts in Manhattan have turned into ghost towns. The availability rate for Manhattan office space hit another record high of 15.5 percent in February, according to a Colliers report. About 900,000 square feet of space were leased over the month, down 57 percent from February 2020. Meanwhile, the vast majority of companies have not brought their employees back to the office. James Whelan, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, said the trade group is hearing anecdotally that occupancy levels are at around 10 to 15 percent. Office landlords have been projecting optimism, but several major companies, such as JPMorgan, are already looking to scale back their New York City real estate footprint.
“Companies don’t make location decisions quickly, but the process is always underway, so will this result in downsizing Manhattan office space? Probably,” said Kathy Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City. She anticipates workers will start to return in real numbers after Labor Day, but also predicts Manhattan’s central business district may be forever changed. “Will offices crop up in other parts of the city and the region? Maybe places where people can walk or bike to work? Yes.”
The pandemic has upended retail, bringing new challenges to a sector that was struggling long before the coronavirus hit. Small businesses have been devastated over the past year, while chain stores have also shuttered in large numbers. Many major retailers have stopped paying rent, prompting prolonged legal battles with their landlords. An annual report from the Center for an Urban Future found one out of every seven chain retailers operating at the end of 2019 closed in 2020. Many mom-and-pop shops that have struggled for years with pricey commercial rents and the rise of e-commerce are on their last legs, and business leaders say the full toll of the pandemic on small businesses isn’t yet clear.
“There’s a lot of pain, this is a crisis that we’ve never seen before that disproportionately impacts the small business community,” said Randy Peers, president of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce. A recent survey of small businesses from his group found a third owe some amount of back rent. Still, Peers said it was reassuring that a growing share of landlords — perhaps fearing long-term retail vacancies — are offering rent concessions to tenants. “I think it’s the realization on the landlords’ part that, ‘These are my tenants, and you know what, they’re struggling, and I’m not sure if I evict them, I’m going to have someone to replace them,’” Peers said.
New York’s subways and trains are the central circulatory system of the city and are only just beginning to crawl out of the devastating effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. As New Yorkers sheltered in place and grew accustomed to working remotely, the once-packed subway and train platforms quickly became ghost towns. Ridership dropped 90 percent across subway and commuter rail systems at the height of the pandemic, throwing the system into a financial tailspin. One retailer in Grand Central said it was so empty you could “roll a bowling ball without hitting anyone.” As the economy has slowly rebounded, so has the state’s transit system. Roughly one-third of riders have returned to the subways and 25 percent have turned to commuter rail. The bus system — which never witnessed as significant of a ridership drop — record half its ridership has returned. But transit officials still warn it could take years for ridership to hit pre-pandemic levels — and that service cuts seem necessary to reflect how few people are using the system. “To be clear, this is a four-alarm fire,” MTA Chair and CEO Pat Foye said at a recent board meeting. “We are facing the most acute financial crisis in the history of the MTA.”
After bottoming out at the height of the pandemic in the spring, violent crime began to surge over New York City’s Covid summer. Shootings spiked on the streets of neighborhoods around the city, and New York ended the year with a 97 percent increase in shootings and a 44 percent jump in murders compared to 2019. The 462 killings reported in 2020 was the highest number in nearly a decade. Theories have abounded to explain the increase in violence, which has echoed spikes around the country. Mayor Bill de Blasio blames a “perfect storm” of pandemic suffering, unemployment and economic pain, and a court system barely functioning during citywide shutdowns. So far this year, shootings have continued to surge, though the increase in murders has abated: murders are down 15 percent compared to the same time last year, but shooting incidents are up 25 percent.
The city was forced to close schools last spring after initially hesitating, citing concerns for low-income students and students of color. Remote learning exacerbated existing inequities as 300,000 families were without sufficient technology.
One year later, only 30 percent of the city’s middle and elementary school students are back in class with high school students expected back this month. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten has touted the city’s school reopening approach as a national model, but most families remain fully remote, and there have been frequent school closures since September due to positive cases.
Having lost much in-person instruction this year, students who were already behind will face an even more daunting challenge to catch up.
Even with the option to return, many families have been wary of sending their children back — specifically families in low-income communities of color who have voiced mistrust with the city’s ability to keep their kids’ safe.
“I know the fear is there and I know that this has directly impacted us because we have trauma,” said Naomi Peña, president of Community Education Council 1 on the Lower East Side who has four children, including two with Individualized Education Programs, enrolled in city schools. “We’re not gonna send our kids back. Even though teaching them at home is incredibly hard, incredibly difficult, we would rather deal with the trouble than to have someone potentially die.”