(NEW YORK) — This week marked a major milestone for New York City during its 14-month struggle with COVID-19.
Subway service returned to 24 hours, capacity limits on indoor restaurants, workplaces and recreational spaces were lifted — albeit with distancing requirements — and the more than 3.2 million fully vaccinated residents were allowed to go maskless.
While local leaders and businesses cheered the moves as a signal that the Big Apple will soon be back to its pre-pandemic heyday, urban planning experts tell ABC News there is still a long way to go.
The pandemic forced the city’s workforce to conduct all of their business from home instead of offices, leaving whole real estate spaces in the city’s skyscrapers vacant, and a recent survey of employers found that a little more than half of their employees are expected to return.
Getting those vacancies filled will take time, according to Jonathan Peters, a professor of finance in the business department at the College of Staten Island.
“The real question is: When you shock a system like this, does it return to the original position? We’re all seeing what happens,” he told ABC News.
Still, Peters and other experts predict that, given time, New York will be back to its bustling self because of its strong foundation built on arts, commerce and — most importantly — its history in adapting to crises.
The state of the city
Starting May 19, New York City capacity limits were lifted for several indoor sectors. However, businesses are still required to have 6 feet distance between people.
The state-mandated indoor social gathering limit increased from 100 to 250 people. Entertainment venues and sports arenas are allowed to have crowds of 500 people outdoors or 250 people indoors if the attendees showed proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test, according to the rules.
Fully vaccinated people can go maskless, except in the subways, hospitals and a few other locations.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo credited the city’s falling COVID-19 cases and spring jump in vaccinations as the main factor behind the rollbacks.
As of May 19, the seven-day average of new coronavirus cases reported was 629, a 1,700 drop from April 19, and over 7.6 million vaccine doses had been administered, a 1.8 million jump from April 19, according to the city’s Health Department.
While other states such as Texas and Florida reopened at the end of March, Peters said New York’s timing was right. It would have been more costly if the city relaxed its health guidance when transmission rates were high and vaccine rates were low during the late winter and early spring, he said.
‘You need to keep bringing the heat up slowly,” he said.
Office return delayed
Based on recent data from New York’s business community, a return to normal will certainly be slow.
New York business and real estate experts predict that the bustling office environment of the pre-pandemic days won’t be coming back until fall at the earliest.
Survey results released in March by the Partnership for New York City, a nonprofit organization that consists of hundreds of the city’s CEOs, found that 22% of employers would require their teams to return to the office full time, and almost half of office workers are expected to return by September.
Some major companies are moving ahead with the return to their cubicles.
Earlier in May, Goldman Sachs sent a message to its employees to make plans for a return to their offices in June, the New York Times reported. Google, which purchased more office space in Manhattan last year, is slated to begin bringing back its employees in September.
Melva Miller, CEO of the Association for a Better New York, a nonprofit business advocacy group, said the real challenge will be for small and mid-level companies to return to their spaces.
She acknowledged that remote work options were already changing the city’s office structure before COVID-19 hit and said the pandemic will make it hard for the genie to go back into the bottle.
However, Miller noted that New York has previously adapted to changes from crises, such as 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy.
Miller said after both of those events, there were concerns that downtown Manhattan wouldn’t be seen as a viable location for future businesses and development, but the area boomed with business in the years that followed.
“Each of those crises were different, and we had to approach it differently,” Miller told ABC News.
She noted that real estate managers were already coming up with ideas on how to maximize the unused office space. Some buildings are offering tenants open floor plans that emphasize shared spaces and multiple startups on one floor, Miller said.
Mixed-use developments such as Chelsea Market have already shown success renting out floors for store space while also leasing offices, she said. She predicted that the city will see more of these ideas going forward, even as work-from-home options stay popular.
‘What I think needs to happen is that businesses allow for that office traffic,” Miller told ABC News. “We need them to be open to opening up more stores and restaurants on the ground level that gets people on the streets and want to get back into the city even if they have the option to work from home.”
Signs of rebound underground
Experts said initial mobility trends are showing that New Yorkers are starting to get out of their homes.
Robert E. Paaswell, a professor of civil engineering at the City College of New York, has been studying New York’s mass transit trends and told ABC News they are a key indicator of the city’s viability.
Data from the New York City Transit Authority shows that the seven-day average of subway ridership has been steadily increasing since February and reached an annual peak of nearly 2.7 million riders on May 14. Although this number represents a 60% drop from the pre-pandemic equivalent of the same day, it is a far cry from the six-figure spring 2020 ridership numbers.
At the same time, Citi Bike, New York’s bike share program, recorded 631,314 rides during the week of May 9 to May 15, the highest number in its eight years of operation, according to officials.
“This to me shows New Yorkers want to be where things are happening,” Paaswell told ABC News. “They don’t want to be at home.”
Paaswell, who used to run Chicago’s transit system, predicted that subway ridership will continue to increase as New Yorkers feel safer.
He added that the urge to go out will also be strong whenever offices allow their employees to come back.
“They want to be back in their offices. It’ll be slow at first, but generally people don’t want to be at home working all day, especially if they have children and [in-person] school resumes,” he said.
Paaswell and other experts said the key trigger for getting people out of their homes and boosting the economy is the rebound of its arts and culture scene.
The warmer weather and early reopenings have spurred people to re-explore the arts, restaurants and other attractions that the city has to offer.
“It’s like putting your toe in the water,” Paaswell said.
In September, Broadway shows are scheduled to reopen at full capacity. Smaller concert halls and theaters are predicted to open earlier.
Large-scale events are also scheduled to return later in the fall, including the New York City Marathon in November.
Paaswell said the return of such events is important for New York’s tourism industry, which pre-pandemic covered over 291,000 direct jobs and more than $47 billion in economic spending, according to the Office of the New York State Comptroller.
“We’re already starting to see hotels get booked up and people in Times Square and other tourist spots again,” he said.
Miller said these reopenings will do more than just restart the critical parts of the city’s economy. Having the lights on in Broadway and other hotspots sends a message to the world that New York City is past its worst days of the pandemic, when hospitals were filled to the brim and the daily death count was in the hundreds, according to Miller.
This in turn could help bring back the estimated 70,000 people who left the city in 2020, she said.
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