More than 100 days ago, buildings across New York 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 restrictions, New York City marks another major milestone when it enters a much larger reopening phase, allowing thousands of offices to welcome back employees for the first time since March.
“Phase 2 is the single biggest of all the phases,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said on 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.
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.
While the positive test rate in the city now hovers around 1 percent, down significantly from about 60 percent in early April, many companies have decided to not bring workers back for months, if not longer.
“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 five million square feet in five office towers in Midtown Manhattan.
Mr. 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 percent 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 workplaces 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 require 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, the 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.
Mr. Fisher said his buildings would use thermal scanners 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, Mr. 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 necessary 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,’” Ms. Lakhani said of her employees. “And we get that.”
Charles de Montebello, who runs a small audio-recording studio in Hell’s Kitchen, said that only two of his five recording rooms will be operating this week. That way, he said, he could ensure that nobody at his business ever needed to come in close contact with each other.
Both studios were booked for full-day sessions on Monday.
“It’s been hard to be away and hard to shut my doors and have literally 90 percent of my income evaporate,” Mr. de Montebello said.
In addition to offices, retail outlets — which had been limited to curbside or in-store pickup — can also allow customers back into stores, though at a reduced capacity.
“It feels like it’s the light at the end of a very long tunnel,” said Nancy Bass Wyden, the owner of the well-known Strand Bookstore in Manhattan. “Almost like we’re Rip van Winkle.”
Restaurants can also begin serving meals outdoors, real-estate brokers can show listings and salons and barbershops can attend to customers who have been without grooming services for months.
“Our phone has been ringing off the hook,” said Shannon King, the owner of the Hair & Co BKLYN, a hair salon in Brooklyn. “We have literally hundreds of clients to call back.”
The second stage of reopening will also be another major test of how effectively the city’s transportation system, which before the pandemic packed people into enclosed spaces, can safely carry riders on their daily commutes.
More riders have already returned to public transportation during the first phase of reopening than officials at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the city’s subway systems and buses, had anticipated.
In May, transit officials predicted that daily ridership on buses would reach 40 percent of pre-pandemic levels — 880,000 people — during the first phase. But bus ridership has already reached 56 percent of the usual passenger load.
On the subway, daily ridership has climbed to 17 percent of pre-pandemic levels — two percentage points higher than the M.T.A.’s initial projections. The transit agency expects that number to double, reaching as many as 2 million people, during the second phase. Before the pandemic ridership exceeded five million.
Riders are already required to wear face masks under an executive order from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, but transit officials have also urged those returning to the system to use hand sanitizer, avoid traveling during rush hour and seek out less crowded train cars when possible.
The subway remains closed from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. to allow for extensive cleaning, and officials have taken steps, including placing markers in stations, to encourage social distancing.
Christina Goldbaum and Matt Stevens contributed reporting.
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