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“New York City Is Back,” proclaims City Hall and even the doom-peddling New York Times. A renaissance may appear to be afoot, thanks to the vaccines’ blessed success in clobbering COVID-19.
But the Big Apple won’t truly be back until employees return to their offices in significant numbers. So far, that isn’t remotely close to happening, especially not in still-ghostly Midtown. Meanwhile, employers and elected officials mostly stand by and hope for the best.
According to the widely followed Kastle Systems Back-to-Work Barometer, New York City metro-area office occupancy ticked up last week to a feeble 21.7 percent, from 20.7 percent the week before (Kastle doesn’t break out data specifically for Manhattan). The figure is 49 percent in Dallas, 48 percent in Houston and 29 percent in Philadelphia.
Why is Gotham lagging so badly? Work-from-home has become habitual for many people who experienced or witnessed the city’s terrible viral carnage of spring 2020 — regardless of the loss of creativity and decline in productivity for the companies that pay their salaries. Some won’t give up wheel-spinning Zoom meetings until and unless government and employers pry them off their laptops.
But short of a mass return to offices, the city faces a catastrophic loss of tax revenue and permanent closures of stores, restaurants, hotels and service businesses in Midtown, Midtown South and Downtown.
Mostly empty buildings haven’t yet translated into major losses for landlords, only because companies have long-term leases on which they continue to pay rent. But those tenants are keeping close eyes on future workplace trends. If they were to eventually shrink their square footage by even 25 percent, it would have a devastating impact on landlords — and on property taxes and other real-estate-related taxes, which contribute more to the city treasury than Wall Street does.
Yet the mayoral candidates barely mentioned the crisis in their campaigns. This, despite the magnitude of the threat: While street mayhem will certainly damage the city’s economic future, permanently empty towers will completely destroy it.
Some big companies, including Morgan Stanley, have ordered people back to their desks on pain of salary cuts. JPMorgan Chase, Facebook, Apple and Bank of America, among others, said they “expect” staff back after Labor Day.
But it remains to be seen what teeth the “expectations” will have.
The state lifted no-longer-needed capacity and spacing rules for commercial properties this month, a welcome step that eliminated companies’ last excuses for keeping floors empty. But with daily reports of street slashings and subway shovings, it might take more than “Please come back” to coax employees, especially older ones, back to offices from Greenwich, Conn., and the Hamptons.
Sure, the Partnership for New York City forecasts that 62 percent of workers will be back at their desks this fall. It would be a big step forward even if most show up only three days a week.
But no one, optimist or pessimist, really knows how full offices will be this fall and winter. Landlords have zero clout in inducing employees back. It’s up to tenants and City Hall, which will soon be adrift between mayors, to show some spine.
Except in cases of demonstrable hardship, companies should require their staffs to come back — period. Too many have forgotten that it’s their right to do so. Long-term work-from-home isn’t viable for most businesses, and any boss worth his or her salary wants face-to-face interaction with team members.
It’s also companies’ right to require vaccinations, which would instill much greater employee confidence in returning to bricks-and-mortar workplaces. Such a rule has been upheld in several courts and was reaffirmed by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
More than cheap cheerleading, the state and city must facilitate a return that’s safe from street and transit crime as well from the virus. That means improving street and transit conditions with much more determination than officials have shown so far. The sight of a half-dozen uniformed police idling on subway mezzanines is less reassuring than would be a single instance of a cop on the train platform interrupting a shove or a slashing in progress.
And our leaders must show stay-at-homers, some of whom have rarely ventured into town since March 2020, how much has changed. Don’t just say “We’re back” — show them actual theaters, restaurants and stores that are alive again. Only when office workers rediscover the sheer thrill of the city will the Big Apple truly be back.
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