New York City enters its broadest reopening yet: Offices
By Michael Gold and Troy Closso
More than 100 days ago, buildings across New York City shut their doors and companies sent their workers home. As the coronavirus pandemic swept across the city, lockdown orders left offices dormant, stores shuttered and streets and sidewalks all but abandoned.
On Monday, two weeks after it began easing res- trictions, New York City marked another major milestone when it entered a much larger reopening phase, allowing thousands of offices to welcome back employees for the first time since March.
“It’s exciting,” said Mike Chapman, 54, a technology consultant at a bank who was hustling to his workplace in midtown Manhattan for the first time in three months. This step toward pre-pandemic normalcy, the city’s broadest yet, will pose a major test for continued efforts to keep the coronavirus at bay with hundreds of thousands people projected to return to jobs that keep them in enclosed spaces for hours at a time.
“Phase 2 is the single biggest of all the phases,” Ma- yor Bill de Blasio said Thursday, when he first announced that the city would further loosen prohibitions as it seeks to recover from an outbreak that has killed over 21,000 New Yorkers and devastated its economy.
While the positive test rate in the city hovers around 1%, down significantly from about 60% in early April, many companies have decided to not bring workers back for months, if not longer.
On Monday morning, a time when midtown Man- hattan would typically be crammed with workers, the sidewalks remained largely vacant and the subway cars still felt relatively empty.
“What Monday is going to look like at this point is going to be anyone’s guess,” said Ken Fisher, a partner at Fisher Brothers, which owns more than 5 million square feet in five office towers in midtown Manhattan.
De Blasio estimated that as many as 300,000 workers would return to their jobs this week — a far cry from the numbers that usually jostle elbows on crowded subways and cram into high-rise elevators.
Beside offices, the reopening plan also permits outdoor dining, some in-store shopping and also allows hair salons, barbershops and real estate firms to restart their work.
In a survey conducted this month by the Partnership for New York City, an influential business group, respondents from 60 companies with Manhattan offices predicted that only 10% of their employees would return by Aug. 15.
Several major media and technology companies with Manhattan offices had already extended their work- from-home policies through the summer. Others have said employees can work remotely through the end of the year. JPMorgan Chase, one of the city’s largest commercial tenants, said it would not send employees back to their offices this week and has not set a return date. Other financial services firms, like Goldman Sachs, anticipate a small number of employees returning to their offices but have said that most workers will not come back until well into next year.
Those returning will find significantly different work- places awaiting them.
“It’s not going to feel normal to be in the office,” said Ciara Lakhani, the chief people officer of Dashlane, a software company with about 100 employees in New York. “You can’t socialize the same way, you can’t really attend meetings in person, so people need to understand that we’re not getting back to any sense of normalcy.”
Worried about a surge of virus cases in states that moved more quickly to reopen, New York officials are requiring that strict social distancing guidelines remain in place. Offices and businesses must limit their maximum capacity, put physical distance between workers and re- quire masks for employees and visitors.
More than 100 cases per day of the virus are still being reported in New York, according to city data. A contact tracing program that is supposed to help track the spread of the virus as the city reopens has gotten off to a slow start.
Several landlords of commercial buildings said they had been preparing for months to reopen by implementing new safety and cleaning protocols.
Husein Sonara, chief operating officer at the Sapir Organization, which manages two properties in midtown Manhattan, said his company had put markers on sidewalks outside its buildings, in the hallways inside and in elevators so workers can maintain social distancing.
Fisher said his buildings would use thermal scan- ners to check the temperatures of everyone who entered. Hand sanitizer stations would be placed in all public areas, and only four people at a time would be allowed in the elevators.
To minimize contact on high touch surfaces, the company implemented a Bluetooth-based system that will allow people to enter buildings without touching doors or keypads.
As more businesses call employees back to work, Fisher’s company expected to recalibrate its procedures. “We’re calling Monday kind of a soft opening,” he said, “because we don’t anticipate every tenant, obviously, coming back all at once.”
Despite the public health concerns and all the ne- cessary precautions, several business owners and workers said they were eager to return to their desks.
“Some people though have told us, ‘Just to be able to see the plants in the office or to feel like I commute, that’s going to help me personally and mentally,’” Lakhani said of her employees. “And we get that.”