New York City and Washington, DC, two of the most important cities on the United States’s east coast, are moving into the second phase of reopening after months of limitations due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The US capital is allowing indoor dining and gyms, workout studio, public pools and other businesses to reopen in accordance with guidance from authorities. Phase two begins the day after the city hit 10,000 confirmed cases.
Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser addressed concerns about a possible spike in cases at a news conference on Monday, saying the city is “adding a lot of activity right now”, but there is still no metrics for when the capital could enter the third phase. “We have to have confidence that we could be ready for a spike in cases.”
New Yorkers are now 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 and office workers can return to their desks, though many have not yet.
Larry Silverstein, for one, could not wait.
The 89-year-old World Trade Center developer was headed to work at his office on Monday, along with up to a third of Silverstein Properties’ staff. The firm is staggering schedules so employees can keep their distance and they will have to wear masks in the 7 World Trade Center lobby. Footprints mark where to stand in elevators now limited to about a quarter of their usual capacity.
To Silverstein, returning to office life and in-person teamwork brings “joy”. He does not buy into arguments that the pandemic does not 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,” Silverstein told the Associated Press news agency, saying never “bet against” the city.
But some New Yorkers are apprehensive.
Alex Michaels may return soon to a retail job. He agrees it is 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 the 30-year-old, but there could be “a high price to pay”.
Eve Gonzalez, a food industry worker whose job has not yet resumed, feels it is too soon to relax restrictions.
“I’m dying to go out, but people’s health is more important,” said the 27-year-old.
The virus has been blamed for more than 22,000 New York City deaths. The daily death toll has been in single and low double digits in recent days. Infections have plummeted from an early-April peak, 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 that 150,000 to 300,000 additional workers will return to their jobs on Monday, two weeks after the process of reopening began with construction, curbside-pickup retail, wholesaling and manufacturing.
Monday marks just the second of four reopening phases, but Mayor Bill de Blasio called it “the biggest step forward as we fight back from the coronavirus crisis”, particularly for a restaurant industry he called “so much the identity of New York City”.
The Democratic mayor said he planned to dine out on Monday with his wife, Chirlane McCray.
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 industry group, NYC Hospitality Alliance. “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, the famous flagship store, makeup testing is temporarily banned. Clothes left in fitting rooms will not go back on the rack for 24 hours. Workers will undergo temperature checks and 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 on Wednesday, with 100 new hand-sanitiser stations and escalator handrails newly outfitted with ultraviolet-light disinfection, among other changes.
Shuttered offices are also allowed reopen on Monday, with various new rules. But some of the city’s biggest corporate employers are largely sticking with remote work for now.
‘Caution and safety’
Only about 5 percent of Citi’s 13,300 New York City employees are expected back at the bank’s offices on July 1.
JPMorgan Chase has not set a date yet for returning to its New York offices while Wells Fargo’s timeframe is July 31 or later. Pharmaceutical company Pfizer is extending remote working at least until the as-yet-undetermined date for the 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 specialising 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 the 29-year-old. “That’s one blessing.”