New York City is starting to feel normal again.
Restaurant reservations are getting harder to come by. Offices are filling up. Theatre-goers are returning to shows ahead of the Tony awards season. And on Wednesday, New York Governor Kathy Hochul announced the state would drop its mask mandate for most businesses starting on Thursday, providing what restaurateurs, property owners and small businesses called a clear sign that a post-omicron revival is on the horizon.
“Here we are back from our pandemic sabbatical,” said Deborah Borda, chief executive officer of the New York Philharmonic, which hosted a Lunar New Year gala this week.
During a performance at Alice Tully Hall in Manhattan, ushers patrolled mask-wearing with a few reminders to patrons to slide the face coverings back up their noses. But masks were off, tuxedos and gowns on glittering display afterward at a gala supper for 175 guests.
“It was quite a night, and the moment I walked in the hall, what a remarkable sense of good energy,” Borda said.
That sense of energy was zapped out of the city during the dreary months of December and January, when the omicron variant whipsawed across the city, leading to school closings and vacant offices. Cancelled Broadway shows and empty restaurants stoked depressing flashbacks of the pandemic’s onset in March 2020, while Covid-inflicted labour shortages led to service suspensions on the subway and airlines in the middle of the busy holiday travel season.
A dearth of Covid tests prompted long lines across the city, as New Yorkers grappled with the reality that omicron could overtake a metropolis with some of the highest vaccination rates and most stringent rules on vaccine requirements and mask-wearing.
“We got through the first year, barely hanging on, and then we were crushed with omicron,” said Danny Abrams, owner of the Mermaid Inn oyster bar in Chelsea, Greenwich Village and the upper West Side. Now, the lifting of the mask mandate creates “a psychological signal that things are changing,” he said. “We might be seeing the other side of this thing, finally.”
Omicron’s ebb — and getting vaccinated — helped give confidence to Lorraine Green to travel to New York City from England this week. Green and her husband, Simon, who were basking in the sun on a Central Park bench on Wednesday, had delayed their first-ever trip to the city for her 60th birthday due to a surge in cases. When cases fell, they decided it was finally time to see the Statue of Liberty and take in the “vibe” of the city.
Indeed, the seven-day average for daily cases was 1,906 on Sunday, a dramatic drop from the omicron high of 43,604 on Jan. 4, according to city data. Daily hospitalizations dropped to 104 from around 1,000 during the same time period. While masks will stay on for schoolchildren, hospital workers and nursing home residents, Hochul said an end in March is a “strong possibility.”
Ivy Mix, co-owner of Leyenda in Brooklyn, called the move to drop the mask mandate “a sign of the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Leyenda, a pan-Latin cocktail bar that would previously stay open until 3 a.m. on the weekends, has had to cut back on hours due to Covid-related staffing shortages and now closes at 1 a.m. Due to Covid exposure and lack of staff, Leyenda had to close before Christmas, its busiest week of the year. But on Tuesday, service was the most packed it’s seen in six weeks.
“People miss one another,” said Mix, who is starting to see people who initially met on dating apps go out together in real life. “People are camping out on bar seats again, they’re comfortable to hang and happy to see their friends and get away from Zoom.”
Back to Work
It looks like fundraising events and Broadway shows will have a comeback even before the spring, with the virus on the wane. All 350 tickets were already claimed for a Feb. 25 luncheon supporting playgrounds in Central Park. Sutton Foster, who’s starring in ‘The Music Man’ when it opens on Broadway on Feb. 10, will speak as guests dine on chicken cobb salad and petit fours at the Mandarin Oriental. Plaza Suite, starring Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker will open for previews on Feb. 25. Broadway theaters will keep its mask and vaccine mandate in place at all theaters until April 30, according to the Broadway League.
Power lunches and after-work cocktails also have resumed, prompting bankers and lawyers to fish out their blazers and shine their shoes for the occasion.
“The Knicks and Rangers, concerts at the Beacon, have all been attended very well with confidence,” said Tony Malkin, CEO of Empire State Realty Trust, which owns the Empire State building. “All these things provide some level of normalcy to help bring people back.”
Conferences like the New York International Auto Show and the Magic New York apparel showcase are slated to return to the Javits Center, while highly-caffeinated employees of tech giant Salesforce Inc. fanned across the Marriott Marquis in Times Square, the Westin Grand Central and five other hotels this week for a “company kickoff” with 5,000 workers.
“We’re seeing big increases in terms of occupancy, and this will also significantly encourage people to come back,” said Bill Rudin, CEO of Rudin Management Co., a major New York landlord.
Kathy Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, a business group comprised of New York City’s largest companies, including JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Goldman Sachs Group, called Hochul’s decision to drop the workplace mask mandate “the right call,” saying it would encourage employees to return to offices and accelerating the city’s recovery.
About a quarter of workers are now inside offices in the New York metro area, up from around 10% at the end of December, according to data from security company Kastle Systems as of Feb. 2. Kastle’s Back to Work Barometer had reached a post-pandemic high for the New York metro area on Dec. 1, with 37% of employees in offices.
At 8.8%, the unemployment rate in New York City remains more than double the US average. The city has only regained about 55% of the 922,000 private sector jobs lost early in the pandemic, many of which were concentrated in the entertainment and tourism industry, according to a Feb. 7 New York City Comptroller report.
“Finally it’s starting to feel like an endemic more than a pandemic,” said restaurateur Roni Mazumdar, a co-founder of Unapologetic Foods, who said dropping masks is a big morale boost for the whole restaurant and tourism industry. “I spoke to my staff last night, they can’t wait to feel like real life is coming back.”
This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text. Only the headline has been changed.