New York City begins its climb out of lockdown this week much the way it entered, with its leaders contradicting each other, its business community fragmented and its people eager to do the right thing if they could only be clear what that is.
The first phase of bringing the economy back on line felt a little like the last reel of an old British war movie in which the commander and his aide step into the sun after days in the basement of the admiralty unsure whether it was time for dinner or breakfast.
Officially, of course, dinner or any other meal out is still restricted to pick up or delivery. The first 400,000 workers permitted back are in construction, manufacturing and in wholesale and retail trades that are able to offer curbside pickup of purchased items.
This may seem like a lot of workers. But in the economy of New York City, it is less than 9% of the 4.6 million people employed here at this time last year. What began this week was the test of whether a city wounded by the pandemic, propelled by protests and jarred by looting, can build its way back. A look at some key challenges:
Who can go back to work was reasonably clear, less so how they should get there.
One of the first businesses to reopen was the New York Stock Exchange, which began allowing brokers back on the trading floor on the condition that they not use mass transit to get there. The Centers for Disease Control, based in Atlanta, a city with a rail system a tenth the size of New York’s, embraced that approach a few days later when it urged employers to help workers avoid mass transit. (The NYSE incentive appeared limited to allowing brokers to have their jobs on the trading floor.)
Mayor Bill de Blasio dismissed the CDC recommendation as unworkable for New York City. He then began feuding with the MTA, a state agency, over how to make riders safe. The mayor insisted that every other seat on subways and buses should be roped off for social distancing.
The interim president of the Transit Authority, Sarah Feinberg, said she took the mayor’s suggestions very seriously. “But to suggest that the New York City Subway system, as ridership grows, can allow for social distancing, I think suggests an unfamiliarity with the system or a lack of sincerity,” she said.
The MTA chair, Pat Foye, said major transit systems in Europe and Asia had restarted without triggering new waves of infection. The MTA is aggressively cleaning all its equipment and facilities and riders will be told they must wear masks, he said. To reduce peak crowding the MTA appealed to employers to stagger work hours and asked riders to avoid peak rush hours, which have moved earlier as the system is mainly used by frontline workers.
Governor Andrew Cuomo has said reopening will be in four phases, each separated by two weeks to track the virus, although the mayor has said phase two may not begin until July. What is not in dispute is that there is an enormous task ahead.
The State Labor department reports that 823,000 private sector jobs in New York City evaporated in a month between March and April - 500,000 of those were in restaurants, hotels, entertainment and hospitality.
The business ripples are just beginning: Businesses that can’t pay their rents to landlords who can’t meet their mortgages or pay their taxes. The mayor has raised the threat of government layoffs unless the federal government helps to close a huge gap in the city’s budget. The mayor also asked the state for permission to borrow to pay operating costs like police officers, which was promptly denounced by those with long memories of how the city got in fiscal trouble in the 1970s.
A big unknown is the future of the coronavirus. New cases are plummeting in the city. The capacity to test for the virus and trace the source of infections, nonexistent when the virus arrived in New York, is substantial now, around 30,000 a day, although only about 20,000 to 25,000 New Yorkers are seeking tests each day, according to the chair of the City Council Health Committee, Mark D. Levine. Both need to rise, he said, to effectively screen for new cases before the virus spreads out of control again. “I think it should be 100,000 a day,” Levine said.
The concern is that the protests and confinements by police in enclosed jails, combined with the resumption of some business activity, might spur a second wave. Tom Frieden, former NYC health commissioner and former head of the CDC, says the concerns are misplaced. For one thing, the protests are in the open air, which dilutes the virus and thus the danger.
Moreover, public health fears should never be used to discourage the exercise of basic rights, Frieden said. The most important factor in suppressing the pandemic, he said, is trust. If New Yorkers don’t trust each other and their government, they won’t cooperate with measures like contact tracing that have proven effective in controlling outbreaks.
New Deal Redux?
The current political conversation could intersect with the success of recovery. New York has long been a laboratory for the nation’s social challenges. The key measures of what became the New Deal were road tested in New York by Governors Alfred E. Smith and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Might that happen again? Mayor de Blasio announced last week the creation of three community clinics to improve inadequate health services in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens. Multiplied to scale, aggressive efforts to alleviate chronic health conditions would do more than almost anything – certainly between now and a vaccine – to reduce the terror of COVID-19, which has disproportionately killed people of color and lower incomes.
The link was made explicit by two JP Morgan bankers in a note to their clients Friday. “Recent events are shining a bright light on the systemic inequities that Black and other minority groups in the United States have been facing for decades,” wrote Elyse Ausenbaugh and Jeff Greenberg. “Talking about anything else almost feels trivial right now ... Psychological scar tissue could keep people out of restaurants, crowded stores, and travel hubs for a while. Temporary layoffs could convert into permanent ones, and certain types of jobs may be forever eliminated. Second waves of infections still pose a threat. Racial injustice and associated protests could deepen political divisions and exacerbate economic devastation.”
Ultimately the deaths of both George Floyd and the 21,782 New Yorkers lost to Covid-19 can be traced to one precondition: Inequity. Alleviating that would help answer whether the city is just building back, or building back better.
“To suggest that the New York City Subway system, as ridership grows, can allow for social distancing, I think suggests an unfamiliarity with the system or a lack of sincerity.” Sarah Feinberg, interim president of the Transit Authority