New York City Is Roaring Back to Life, One Year After Its Nadir


When the pandemic emptied NYC’s streets last year, some declared it dead. But after a terrible, painful year, it’s now defying those declarations.

Rush hour traffic is back. Noise complaints are picking up. And it’s once again difficult to score a reservation at your favorite brunch spot.

When the pandemic emptied New York City’s streets last year, some declared it dead. But after a terrible, painful year, the city is now defying those declarations — and getting its mojo back.

More than half of adult New Yorkers have had at least one vaccine shot, and Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations are dropping sharply. Museums are back to 50% capacity, and movie theaters are at 33%. You can finally sit at the bar for a drink starting Monday, and subways will return to 24-hour service on May 17, Governor Andrew Cuomo said. “Shakespeare in the Park” is coming back, albeit with an abridged schedule.

Parks and outdoor areas — safer places, of course, to congregate during an airborne pandemic — have been jammed. People are starting to take their masks off outside, following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control. Central Park, Prospect Park and Washington Square Park have all surpassed their pre-pandemic crowd levels, according to Orbital Insight, a data company that tracks the movement of goods and people.

Even rents appear to be stabilizing, and tourists are booking their trips. Mayor Bill de Blasio expects 80,000 city workers back in the office Monday and aims to have the city fully reopen by July 1.

“We see the comeback in full swing,” de Blasio said on Monday at a briefing. “It’s a great feeling.”

While thousands of New Yorkers are still suffering from the long-term health and economic effects of the pandemic, and offices are still mostly empty, in many little ways, things are returning to normal. That’s making people optimistic about the future of the city that took one of the hardest, and earliest, hits in the U.S. from the novel coronavirus.

More than 40% of all New Yorkers — and that includes children who aren’t eligible — have already gotten at least one shot, according to Bloomberg’s vaccine tracker. After a few months when vaccination appointments were scarce and difficult to schedule, people can now just walk in to any city- or state-run site to get a shot.

So far, it’s the fun stuff that’s coming back the fastest and strongest.

In recent months, Christina Hansen, 40, a New York City carriage driver, has picked up visitors from California, Texas, Florida and North Carolina in a white-and-burgundy carriage pulled by her 22-year-old horse, King.

“There’s still less business than there was before, but we are doing alright,” said Hansen, who has been a carriage driver for nine years. “New York is not dead. New York will never be dead.”

Tickets are nearly sold out for next week’s Frieze New York art fair, which will bring in collectors from around the country.

At neighborhood bar and restaurant Reservoir in Greenwich Village, locals will wait about 30 minutes on a weeknight to get a table. The bar and restaurant reopened in February after closing its doors for nearly a year.

“To have that place that you love come back, especially after being cooped up at the house all the time for a year straight, it has that warmth that made you love New York to begin with,” owner Joe Arongino said. 

Reservoir returned with some changes. Arongino renegotiated his rent, updated the cocktail and food menu, and raised prices. Before building his new outdoor patio space, he walked around the city to get inspiration.

His new outdoor patio, with TVs and heaters, is the biggest silver lining to come out of the pandemic, Arongino said. “It has a very European feel,” he said. “I hope they never take it away, because it brings a lot more to the city which we never had before.”

Another crucial element to New York’s return will be tourism. The city expects domestic tourism to rebound by 2023 and total tourists to surpass the pre-pandemic level of 66.6 million visitors a year by 2024.

Devin Cooper, 25, of Los Angeles, booked his first-ever trip to New York as soon as his company’s guidelines allowed him to travel without quarantining. Fully vaccinated, he plans on arriving in mid May.

Even though he may not be able to enjoy some of the activities the city would traditionally offer — Broadway producers are hoping to open in September — there’s still plenty to see and do, Cooper said. He plans to go to Central Park, shop on Fifth Avenue and see the Empire State Building — then play it by ear. “New York doesn’t seem dead at all,” he said. “I won’t be able to see a Broadway show this time, and I might eat outside at restaurants, but that’s a small price to pay for safety during a pandemic.”

Yet even as most of the arts, dining and entertainment life that set New York apart from other cities have resumed, the future of work-culture and the fate of millions of square feet of office space remain uncertain. The subways are far from packed, though they will resume 24-hour service on May 17, NBC New York reported. De Blasio said that the return of city employees would be an “important indicator” to the private sector that it should follow suit.

Office workers will be crucial to New York City’s long-term comeback. Some are slowly making their way back to their desks. An analysis of 68 Manhattan office buildings spanning a range of sectors by Orbital Insight — which developed a way to gauge activity levels through satellites and cell phone data — showed that foot traffic by the end of March was at 34% of pre-pandemic activity.

New York will allow offices to increase capacity to 75% on May 15, up from the 50% currently allowed. Unlike at restaurants and movie theaters, people aren’t begging to return. JPMorgan Chase & Co. on Tuesday said all workers would be expected back in by July, but only on a rotational basis.

Mohammad Naveed, 47, operates a coffee cart positioned between Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s headquarters and the Bank of New York Mellon Corp. offices near Wall Street. The cart has held the permit on the corner of Murray Street and Greenwich Street for about 20 years. In other words, he can’t just move the cart somewhere else.

It used to be a prime location, and he’d sell about 500 coffees a day. Now on a good day, he sells 30. “The place is empty,” Naveed said. “There’s no people at all.”

Once in a while, Naveed says, he will see some of his regular customers stop by for coffee when they happen to come into the office. Sometimes it’s every two weeks. Other times it’s once a month.

During the pandemic, storefront after storefront seemed to empty out, with retail shops closing. The sector is rebounding — faster than many others — but it’s still far behind where it once was. But between May and February, 67% of retail jobs have returned to New York state, according to the New York State comptroller’s office.

The retail figures include restaurants. With the pandemic raging in April 2020, restauranteur Keith McNally became hospitalized in London because of Covid-19. He permanently closed two of his restaurants, but re-opened Balthazar in late March.

“To me, and I believe for a number of New Yorkers, the re-opening of Balthazar symbolized the re-emergence of New York City,” McNally said in an email to Bloomberg.

Erin McDonnell had been a regular at Balthazar during the 10 years living in the city. It was her place of choice for special occasions and the perfect New York institution to bring out-of-town visitors. She booked a reservation as soon as she heard it was re-opening.

“There was a real fear that these kinds of places would disappear — and possibly forever,” McDonnell said after her lunch at Balthazar, getting teary eyed. “So when it’s brought back, of course it’s emotional.”

When she arrived for lunch, she took a seat in the wooden outdoor dining structure that takes up most of Spring Street in Soho.

“It feels normal again,” she said. She ordered the house-made pappardelle as she waited for a friend to arrive and then the pan roasted chicken breast — a second entree. “I thought you know what? We’re here, we’re celebrating, we’re going to eat, drink and be merry.”

McNally said he doesn’t expect business to return to pre-pandemic levels until restaurants and bars are allowed to operate at 75% capacity — which will happen on Friday.

A look at the Manhattan rental market suggests the early stages of a recovery. The number of new active listings has declined, the number of monthly signed leases is rising, and prices appear to have bottomed out, according to data from UrbanDigs. There are still twice as many apartments available for rent in New York City compared with before the pandemic, keeping prices low, data from StreetEasy shows.

“The rise in remote work has shifted the perspective of a lot of renters,” StreetEasy economist Nancy Wu said. “Instead of strictly searching for an apartment in Manhattan with a short commute to the office, they can afford to explore a ton of other neighborhoods in boroughs they may not have considered before because of the long subway rides.”

Renters can count on finding great deals for at least the next several months, Wu said.

Donovan Davis, 24, of Staten Island, had been waiting in line at the Supreme store on Bowery for about 15 minutes on Friday to check out the brand’s new spring collection and snag himself a backpack. Davis, a counselor at Wagner College, is newly vaccinated. Being cooped up at home for the past year, he says he hadn’t really felt the urge to go shopping. Until now.

“The weather is warming up,” Davis said. “I’m starting to finally get outside and do my shopping.”

New Yorkers used to take for granted how crowded the city was. Not anymore. Davis says the subway isn’t as busy as it used to be. But otherwise, the city is alive and feels normal again, he says.

“Every time I go out, it’s mad how many people are there,” Davis said.

By Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou

By Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou