The New York Times: The Mayor Promises a Summer to Remember in New York. Can He Deliver?

A pledge from Mayor Bill de Blasio that New York City would fully reopen on July 1 brought hope. But his vision of a city reborn faces significant obstacles.

By Michael Gold and Julia Jacobs

April 29, 2021

 

Mayor Bill de Blasio declared on Thursday that New York City would fully reopen on July 1, conjuring up a tantalizing vision of a summer in which the nation’s largest city would throw open its doors and return to its prepandemic vibrancy.

 

“This is going to be the summer of New York City,” Mr. de Blasio said at a news briefing. “We’re all going to get to enjoy the city again, and people are going to flock here from all over the country to be a part of this amazing moment.”

 

The mayor’s promise brought hope that after more than a year of restrictions, New Yorkers and tourists could once again swarm shops and galleries, baseball fans could watch games at sports bars, and sweaty revelers could dance until the wee hours at nightclubs.

 

Yet restoring the city to its earlier state, before it was stifled by the virus and scarred by profound losses, will pose a significant challenge.

 

Many of the city’s large employers have set their sights on a fall return, which will keep workers away from Manhattan’s business districts until then. The hospitality industry does not expect tourism, a key economic engine of the city, to return to prepandemic levels for years. Transit officials do not believe ridership on the subway, which is still closed for two hours each night, will completely rebound until 2024.

 

The city’s devastated cultural sector has yet to bounce back. Mr. de Blasio hailed the impact a reopening would have on the theater industry, but full-scale productions on Broadway — one of the city’s crown jewels and a key draw for tourists — will not return until September at the earliest, the Broadway League confirmed in a statement.

 

Mr. de Blasio’s authority to lift virus-related restrictions, which were imposed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, is also limited. But should the reopening proceed, its success will still depend on the willingness of wary residents and workers to return to crowded spaces.

 

“Don’t get me wrong, I would love to be fully open again,” said Miguel de Leon, the wine director at Pinch Chinese in SoHo. “But I just want to make sure that these lines that they are drawing don’t feel so arbitrary.”

 

Even as the spring has brought New Yorkers back out of their homes, many shared Mr. de Leon’s cautious view. They were thrilled by the possibility of reopening but unsure whether Mr. de Blasio’s vision could be realized or his timeline met.

 

“Part of me is excited, part of me is overwhelmed,” Max Barrett, a musician, said as he sat on a bench in Union Square. “I feel like a lot of people who aren’t vaccinated will start flocking to the city, and I’m a little bit nervous about entering society.”

 

In some cases, residents worried that the mayor, who has frequently criticized the governor for pushing to reopen too quickly, was himself moving too fast.

 

“It’s a little too soon,” said Bwezani Manda, who was trying to get people to sign up for vaccine appointments in the Corona section of Queens, an early epicenter of the pandemic. “But people need to make a living.”

 

Santi Dady, who works at Please Don’t Tell, a windowless cocktail bar in Manhattan’s East Village, said that she was concerned about serving customers at full capacity but she had no choice.

 

“I am partially vaccinated and extremely broke,” Ms. Dady said.

 

The reopened New York City that Mr. de Blasio envisions will be strikingly different from the one that was shut down last year. More than 32,000 New Yorkers have died. Thousands of businesses have closed, and hundreds of thousands of jobs have vanished and have yet to return.

 

Officials and business leaders have said that tourism would be key to the city’s full recovery, but travel to the city, which ground to a halt at the start of the pandemic, has not yet recovered. New York is heavily reliant on travelers to fill hotels and occupy seats in restaurants, theaters and stadiums.

 

According to Cirium, an aviation data firm, the number of flights scheduled into New York in July is expected to be down about 31 percent from 2019. Nationwide, a decrease of only about 14 percent is expected.

 

Vijay Dandapani, the president of the Hotel Association of New York City, said that hotels were still years away from returning to normal capacity, especially with many major conferences and events still canceled.

 

A July 1 reopening would be “a very positive step,” he said. “But you have just about begun to crawl when there’s a long way walking and running.”

 

The organizers of major sporting events that draw visitors to the city, like the U.S. Open tennis tournament and the New York City Marathon, applauded the mayor’s pledge, while cautioning that they needed more details.

 

Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez of northern Manhattan, who sponsored a bill to help bring youth sports to underserved communities, said he looked forward to their full return.

 

Many of New York’s major cultural institutions will stick to their limited reopenings until tourists return in greater numbers. For museums to fully spring back to life, institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art will need demand to rise.

 

On a busy weekend day in past summers, the Met might have seen 25,000 visitors walking through its doors, which is only about half of its true capacity. But the museum has been averaging about 4,000 visitors a day, climbing to about 9,000 on recent weekend days.

 

Ellen Futter, the president of the American Museum of Natural History, said that while Mr. de Blasio’s announcement was a much-needed signal of optimism, it would not lead to an immediate change on the ground.

 

“What it tells us,” Ms. Futter said, “is we’re going to get as prepared to move as fast as we can.”

 

The city’s financial fortunes are tied to the return of its work force, especially the commuters who once flowed from homes to offices and spent their salaries in a vast ecosystem of businesses along the way.

 

Mr. de Blasio hopes to see offices fully reopen soon, and the city has called on its municipal office employees to begin returning on Monday. But the private sector has set its own timeline for reopening, even as office capacity restrictions have eased.

 

With uncertainty about the virus lingering, many large media and technology companies have delayed reopening until the fall. Several financial organizations — including Citigroup, Bank of America and Neuberger Berman, which collectively account for hundreds of thousands of workers — said they would not change their plans based on the mayor’s comments.

 

“Is July the right date? It caught some of us by surprise,” said Brian Kingston, chief executive officer for the real estate group of Brookfield, one of New York City’s biggest office landlords. “I think most of us were expecting September.”

 

Mr. de Blasio tied his July 1 target to the city’s progress in vaccinating its residents and in curbing the spread of the virus. As of Thursday, 53 percent of adults had received at least one dose of a vaccine, according to the city’s data, and 37 percent had been fully vaccinated.

 

After months of persistently high case numbers during a second virus wave, the city has started turning a corner, particularly as the weather has warmed and drawn residents outside. Public health officials and epidemiologists expect vaccinations to continue to drive down new cases over the next two months.

 

Still, they have acknowledged that the virus will likely remain a threat, at least to some extent. Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr, an epidemiologist at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, said that the city would need to strengthen its efforts to inoculate unvaccinated people in order to lessen the risk of reopening.

 

The mayor set the goal last Friday at a meeting with top officials, where they decided that announcing a date would help New Yorkers feel more certain about the city’s recovery.

 

On Thursday, the mayor was short on specifics about which safety measures might remain in place this summer.

 

Those decisions would likely be subject to the input of Mr. Cuomo, with whom Mr. de Blasio has frequently sparred over pandemic regulations. The mayor said he had not talked to Mr. Cuomo about his reopening plans.

 

At a news conference, Mr. Cuomo scoffed at Mr. de Blasio’s comments, emphasizing that the state was in charge. He said that he was “reluctant to make projections” on a reopening date, saying that doing so would be “irresponsible.”

 

Even so, the governor, who has moved recently to roll back restrictions, said that he too was hopeful that a wider reopening was within sight, possibly sooner than Mr. de Blasio’s goal.

 

“I think that if we do what we have to do, we can be reopened earlier,” Mr. Cuomo said.

 

The uncertain timeline — and the question of who would ultimately decide to follow it — left some greeting the news with cautious optimism.

 

“It’s excellent and very welcome news for New York City, but we need all the details of what fully reopen means,” said Andrew Rigie, the executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, an industry group for restaurants and bars.

 

Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which represents workers at Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s and Zara in New York, cautioned that in the exuberance to revitalize the city, store employees must not let down their guards.

 

“It is not up to elected officials to choose arbitrary dates,” Mr. Appelbaum said. “We would all like to say that the pandemic is behind us. But we have to wait for the scientists to tell us that.”