Anxiety and trepidation have replaced full-throated excitement among New York City’s businesses preparing to reopen on Monday.
“There was a sense of relief and anticipation about getting back to business,” said Tom Grech, president and CEO of the Queens Chamber of Commerce. “But the events of the last five-to-seven days have tempered that to anxiety and fear, whether the damage from looting was in Manhattan and the Bronx, or across the country.”
Around 200,000 to 400,000 nonessential employees are expected to return to work next week in New York City for the first time in nearly three months, after weathering the worst Covid-19 outbreak in the country. Construction and manufacturing, whole trade, and retailers that can offer curbside pick up will be allowed to operate as part of the first of four phases of reopening as mandated by the state. But many of these businesses, which were raring to go, are now feeling a more anxious optimism after looters ransacked businesses primarily in the Bronx and Manhattan, taking advantage of peaceful protests over the death of George Floyd.
“Overall, there’s an excitement,” said Lisa Sorin, president of the Bronx Chamber of Commerce, whose team has called several hundred businesses in the borough to help prepare them for reopening on Monday. Still, she said, “there is this level of fear.”
Communities in the Bronx have come together to help clean up in the aftermath of looting, which has largely abated since the beginning of the week. But there were some businesses poised to reopen next week that now can’t because of the looting, including the Bronx Optical Center, where most of the glasses inventory, as well as computers from its office, were stolen, Ms. Sorin said.
That also goes for a number of pharmacies and pawnshops that are still in the process of rebuilding their broken facades.
Many of the city’s largest retailers will also put their reopenings on hold or limit the number of stores participating as they work out how to bring back staff and customers safely. That reportedly includes fashion and makeup brands like Coach, Macy’s
and Ulta Beauty
. The reopening comes just days after many major retailers and department stores in Midtown Manhattan boarded up windows and increased security following widespread looting in the borough’s commercial centers, such as Fifth Avenue.
The city’s business community is nevertheless ready for the economic reopening to begin, including hair and nail salons that still have to wait at least a couple more weeks for Phase 2. Sorin said she’s had to break the news to a handful of salons that had started taking appointments for next week.
“The excitement is so big,” Sorin said.
For those that can reopen, employees and consumers will be returning to a vastly altered experience, where masks are required virtually everywhere, store merchandise spills out on the sidewalks, and where many employees, from bus drivers and sales associates, sit behind sheets of protective plastic.
The city’s Small Business Services division will be distributing hundreds of thousands of masks to small businesses via chambers of commerce and other intermediaries over the weekend, Grech said, adding that hygiene will now be a chief concern for customers.
“When I bring my family into a store in Queens, I’m going to be looking to see if it’s safe and clean from a public-health perspective,” he said, adding that store owners can build trust by strictly enforcing masks and social distancing. “Make sure employees don’t skirt the rules.”
In light of that, the city is looking at ways to help reduce crowding inside retailers, especially restaurants that can host outdoor dining in the second phase of reopening, expected in July, by making more public space available to them outside.
On Thursday, city Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg told the City Council that her agency was “ready to open our streets and sidewalks to help our beloved restaurant industry recover.”
Even the commute will look different for many workers in the city, as businesses stagger work schedules to help relieve congestion on the public transportation system.
Subway stations will now make hand sanitizer available; police officers will hand out masks; and markings on the ground will help direct the flow of riders and space people apart on platforms, Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials said on Friday. Those changes, as well as daily disinfecting and experimental air filtration, will be part of a 13-point plan for getting the system up and running on Monday, when weekday subway service will go back to normal for the first time in more than two months, during which ridership plummeted over 90%.
Ridership on subways is expected to increase to 10% to 15%, and bus ridership to 30% of pre-pandemic levels, MTA Chairman and CEO Patrick Foye said at a briefing on Friday. The MTA has resisted calls from Mayor Bill de Blasio to enforce social distancing on the system, saying that masks and sanitation are sufficient.
“Seoul, Berlin and Tokyo, which represent similar sized transit systems, carrying millions of passengers a day,” Mr. Foye said, have required masks without social distancing, and the cities have seen “no significant spikes in COVID cases.”
New York City is the last region of the state to begin reopening. It took a strict lockdown, aggressive public health campaigns, and some of the highest per-capita testing in the country to wrangle new cases down to a manageable level. On Wednesday, only 4% of people tested were positive for COVID-19, down from 30% or more at the peak of the crisis, de Blasio said on Friday morning. The city confirmed seven deaths that day, down from a daily peak of nearly 600 in early April.
Even over the last several weeks, the city has seen a gradual increase in commercial activity, as more essential businesses, such as eateries, laundromats and small groceries, figured out how to operate in this new normal, said Randy Peers, president and CEO of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce.
Manufacturing has also ramped up gradually ahead of Phase 1, as factories pivoted to make personal protective equipment, Peers said, adding that he expected most manufacturing to reopen on Monday.
Same goes for construction, he said, where a lot of work happens outdoors. De Blasio said on Friday he expects 32,000 construction workers to get back on the job Monday.
Peers described the feeling in Brooklyn’s business community as one of optimism.
“Any reopening is a positive reopening for everybody,” he said. “Even businesses that are not Phase 1 are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.”
The next hurdle will be making sure the city can keep the spread of the disease under control as more activity resumes. City and state officials have called on protesters to get tested and have worried publicly that the mass gatherings could trigger a resurgence of cases. On Thursday, the number of people walking into hospitals with suspected COVID-19 jumped to 84 from 48 the day before.
But if the cases stay relatively low, Phase 2 of the reopening, Peers said, “is really where the rubber hits the road.”
Other New York developments Thursday:
Coronavirus: Deaths and hospitalizations dropped to their lowest level since the pandemic started, said Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Friday, reporting 42 deaths on Thursday.
Police reforms: The governor called for a series of reforms, including a ban on chokeholds and making race-fueled 911 calls a hate crime, in light of the national outrage over Floyd’s death. He also detailed two cases of police violence against protesters on Thursday, including Buffalo officers shoving a 75-year-old man. Those officers have been suspended without pay, he said.