From Shops to Dining Out, NYC Reopening Hits “Biggest Piece”

NEW YORK — From Macy's "Miracle on 34th Street" store to the World Trade Center's office towers, New York City hits a key point Monday in trying to rebound from the nation's deadliest coronavirus outbreak.

For the first time in three months, New Yorkers will be able to dine out, though only at outdoor tables. Shoppers can once again browse in the city's destination stores. Shaggy heads can get haircuts. Cooped-up kids can finally climb playground monkey bars instead of apartment walls. Office workers can return to their desks, though many won't yet.

Larry Silverstein, for one, can't wait.

The 89-year-old World Trade Center developer is going to work at his office there Monday, along with up to a third of Silverstein Properties' staff. The firm is staggering schedules so employees can keep their distance and they'll have to wear masks in the 7 World Trade Center lobby. Footprints mark where to stand in elevators now limited to about a quarter their usual capacity.

To Silverstein, returning to office life and in-person teamwork brings "a joy, a fulfillment, such a sense of being able to function." He doesn't buy into arguments that the pandemic doesn't bode well for office work or New York City.

"I went through 9/11. I remember people telling me we were never going to be able to get people to come back to lower Manhattan," said Silverstein, who leased the twin towers six weeks before the 2001 terror attacks destroyed them. "Never bet against New York, because New York always comes back, bigger and better than ever before."

But some New Yorkers are apprehensive.

Alex Michaels may return soon to a retail job. He agrees it's important to revive the economy, but he worries about potential coronavirus exposure from working with the public, even with new safety measures.

"Something's got to give. I get that," said Michaels, 30, but there could be "a high price to pay."

Eve Gonzalez, a food industry worker whose job hasn't yet resumed, feels it's too soon to relax restrictions.

"I'm dying to go out, but people's health is more important," said Gonzalez, 27.

The virus has been blamed for over 22,000 New York City deaths. The death toll has been in single digits in recent days. Infections are down, but between 200 and 400 people have still been testing positive for the virus each day over the past two weeks, according to city data.

The city estimates 150,000 to 300,000 additional workers will return to their jobs Monday, two weeks after reopening began with construction, curbside-pickup retail, wholesaling and manufacturing.

Monday marks just the second of four reopening phases, but Mayor Bill de Blasio sees it as "the single biggest piece of our economy," particularly for a restaurant industry he called "quintessential to New York City."

After three months of struggling to get by on takeout and delivery, Melba Wilson is exuberant about introducing appropriately spaced sidewalk tables outside Melba's, her Harlem restaurant.

"This is definitely the infusion that we so greatly needed. … It's been very grim," and not just financially, said Wilson, president of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, an industry group. "We talk about being physically distant, which is important, but being socially active is important, as well."

Retailers also hope for a boost once customers can wander aisles and try on clothes, with new virus-safety measures.

At Macy's famous flagship store, makeup testing is temporarily banned. Clothes left in fitting rooms won't go back on the rack for 24 hours. Workers will undergo temperature checks. Mask-wearing shoppers will find plastic dividers at cash registers.

"We want both customers and colleagues to be comfortable and to feel that their safety and health is our top priority," said division Vice President Kathy Hilt.

Saks Fifth Avenue plans to reopen Wednesday, with 100 new hand-sanitizer stations and escalator handrails newly outfitted with ultraviolet-light disinfection, among other changes.

Shuttered offices also can reopen Monday, with various new rules. But some of the city's biggest corporate employers are sticking with largely remote work for now.

Only about 5% of Citi's 13,300 New York City employees are expected back at the bank's offices on July 1. JPMorgan Chase hasn't set a date yet for returning to its New York offices; Wells Fargo's time frame is July 31 or later. Pharmaceutical company Pfizer is extending remote working at least until the as-yet-undetermined date for city's next reopening phase.

With work-from-home arrangements now established and employees concerned about offices, public-transit commutes and child care, many white-collar companies are "moving with caution and safety," says Bhushan Sethi, a PwC partner specializing in workplace strategies. The consulting and accounting firm plans to reopen its own New York offices in September.

As New York reopens, retail worker William Rodgers is figuring out his next steps.

The last three months have not been easy, but "a lot of us have gotten time to reflect on our own lives," said Rodgers, 29. "That's one blessing."


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