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COVID Has Left New York Down, but It's Still Far From Out

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The spirit is strong: Snowball fight in Times Square, Monday
The spirit is strong: Snowball fight in Times Square, MondayCredit: Wong Maye-E/AP

Living the last eight weeks in New York City has shown me just how much the city has been laid low by the COVID pandemic.

I’ve been living in an apartment whose owner, like many others, fled to the countryside. The few times I’ve eaten out have been at a sidewalk table in the freezing cold. Diners willing to sit in coats and hats for a meal are few. Even during rush hour it's easy to find a seat on the subway. Wall Street is a ghost town. Unlike Israel, stores in the city are open, but customers are so sparse that the signs calling to maintain six feet of distance are all but superfluous.

The BBC recently quoted an expert as saying New York isn’t dead yet, but it is on life support. He’s part of a school of thought that says big urban centers like New York won't come back, and you can understand why they think that way.

Like other cities around the world, New York seems to be in the early phases of a downward spiral. Even though many of its office workers are still holding onto their jobs by working at home, New York’s unemployment rate was 11.4% in December, considerably higher than the nationwide rate. Office workers, the retail clerks, waiters, cab drivers and others who serve those office workers are out of work. Tourism, another lifeline, has evaporated. Hotel occupancy rates were just 40% in October, versus 92% a year earlier, and 200 of the city’s 700 hotels are shuttered, either permanently or temporarily. Close to 220,000 of New York’s 466,000 jobs in leisure and hospitality have disappeared.

The tourists will probably come back one day, but many of the city’s residents who fled to the suburbs or countryside to escape crowds and confinement to tiny apartments may not. Even before the coronavirus, there were signs that the urban renaissance of the early 2000s was waning: More people were opting for suburban life and immigration to the cities was declining. A Manhattan Institute survey taken in July found that 39% of New York residents would opt to leave if their jobs didn’t require them to live in the city.

Video-conferencing, document sharing and other technologies are making it a viable option to work for a big company, and enjoy the commensurate big salary and perks, from wherever you choose. So why commute when you can work from home? One young friend of mine was hired by a major media concern last March and has been heading a team since then without ever once meeting the interviewer or his colleagues in person.

Two of New York’s chief amenities – restaurants and shopping – are similarly threatened by technology. Bricks-and-mortar stores were being undercut by online shopping before COVID. Technology could go a step further by making it easier for stores to be profitable in smaller markets, not just big cities. A Bain & Company study predicts that robotics and other emerging technologies that replace workers could enable the typical apparel shop to be profitable serving 45% fewer households than it does today. Casual-dining restaurants could get by with as much as 35% fewer.

New York: People aren't out and aboutCredit: ANGELA WEISS - AFP

Some see a silver lining: Cities will become more affordable and more livable if enough people leave. The supply-and-demand balance for housing will improve, the streets and subways will be less clogged, and the air will be cleaner.

Theoretically, a shrinking population of people and businesses could send cities like New York into a death spiral. COVID has already cut deeply into New York’s tax revenues; if the trend continues the city could be trapped by a cycle of lower taxes, cutbacks in government services and a lower quality of life that drives more residents away.

But I don’t think any of this is going to happen.

No hugs by Zoom

The ordeal of a family member's hospitalization and sitting shiva during COVID –  the reason I was in New York for such an extended period –  has shown me how just much Zoom and other digital communication are no substitute for authentic human contact.

Mourning for a loved one is a fraught process that occurs only a few times in your lifetime. But human contact is only a little less essential in the everyday activities of business and education. These things usually take place in informal settings like the company kitchen, dormitory lounge and over cups of coffee at a local café, to a degree greater than experts acknowledge. Technology supplies maybe 60% of interpersonal communication needs, certainly not 100%. 

We certainly face a digital reordering of economic life, but I doubt it will be nearly as revolutionary as some are saying. The cities’ restaurants, theaters and nightspots will reopen, and office workers will resume their commutes. There are already signs that many of New York’s COVID refugees are coming home, even though the pandemic is far from over.

In Isaac Asimov’s dystopian novel The Naked Sun, people have for so long interacted with each other only through the medium of 3D television and the like that physical human contact disgusts them. Maybe someday we’ll be there. Today, however, the urge to be with others in the same office, classroom and concert hall remains irresistible. Zoom is still no substitute for New York.  

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