(Bloomberg) -- Editor’s Note: No city is more important to America's economy than New York, and none has been hit harder by the coronavirus. “NYC Reopens” examines life in the capital of capitalism as the city takes its first halting steps toward a new normal.
In late May, Jennifer Miles Lockhart marched across the Brooklyn Bridge with a throng of New Yorkers to demand equality and justice for African Americans like her. Now, with the city finally about to emerge from its pandemic lockdown, she was back in midtown Manhattan, prepping the offices of one of the biggest U.S. banks for its own reopening.
She and her team were helping the bank’s skyscraper protect against the coronavirus with hand-sanitizer stations, spacing in elevators and dots on desks telling workers where they can sit. She felt angry about police violence, excited about businesses restarting, unnerved by the pandemic — yet optimistic despite it all.
“Without hope, what are you going to do?” Lockhart said. “If you don’t have hope, there’s nothing to aspire to.”
The stakes couldn’t be higher. After roughly 80 interminable days of lockdown — Times Square desolate and sirens wailing, and then, the protests and the curfews — the door is cracking open. This heart of global capitalism, the biggest city in the world’s biggest economy, will try to get back to business, whatever that means in these times. There is exuberance on Wall Street: The Nasdaq 100 hit a record on Friday alone. There is also rage about the murder of black Americans, agony over the loss of businesses and jobs, and lingering fear of a virus that’s killed more than 100,000 people. For many, life won’t change much at all, not yet. Hotels, offices and movie theaters remain closed. Zoom rules. Instead of leaping out of bed on June 8, New York is poised to stumble back to life.
A city that has survived mass death on 9/11, explosions of racial tension and widespread economic turmoil after the financial crisis now faces all of those things at the same time. A two-week stretch with few parallels began in Minneapolis with the death of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer. That same day, a white woman was captured on video in Central Park calling the police on a black man she claimed was threatening her. In fact, he was bird-watching and had simply asked her to leash her dog.
Now those two weeks are drawing to a close with a few unexpected signs of normalcy. By Friday, the city's confirmed daily Covid-19 deaths had fallen below double digits for the first time in months. Figures that day also showed the U.S. jobless rate in May fell as a record number of workers were added by employers.
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On Monday, retail shops are set to open for the first time since mid-March, offering curbside pickup to cabin-fevered customers. Nonessential construction and manufacturing will restart, too. If all goes well, workers might begin heading back to the office later in the month. Yet for many New Yorkers, things won’t ever be the same.
Around the same time that Lockhart was taking her break a few blocks away, Tyquan Vargas walked out of JPMorgan Chase’s Madison Avenue skyscraper wearing a baby blue protective suit that covered everything but the respirator mask on his face and his shiny black sneakers. He started a cleaning shift at 7:30 a.m., he said, but that work was elsewhere. He was here during his break to make extra money by dropping off lunch — and make up lost income after his mother succumbed to Covid-19.
“I’m doing delivery on my break,” Vargas said. He had just taken about a month off to grieve for his mother, who died after struggling with homelessness. “She was in the shelter,” he said. “I only got to talk to her over the phone.”
Downtown, Wall Street roared, boosted by trillions of dollars of stimulus from the Federal Reserve and Washington’s enormous rescue packages. In the past week, investors speculating on a rebound pushed the S&P 500 Index to its highest mark in three months.
But with more than 40 million applications for jobless benefits since mid-March in what may be the biggest collapse since the Great Depression, some economists say it could take years for employment to recover. New York is no exception.
Anton Brune, owner of Pardon My French in the East Village, shut his restaurant in mid-March. He kept his kitchen open for dinner deliveries, the restaurant’s last source of income, but the curfew has reduced business. He doesn’t know when he can reopen, how many people he’ll be able to sit for dinner of bone marrow and duck magret and if a second wave of the virus will hit in the fall. He applied for a Paycheck Protection Program loan, but worries it won’t help much and won’t be forgiven.
“It would be so much easier psychologically to know that it’s going to be terrible for two months, then bad for the next two, then OK for the next two, then back to normal,” Brune said on a bench outside his restaurant, shaking his head and waving his arms.
Brune had 22 employees before the virus. He’s now down to five.
“There’s a ‘New York strong’ image, but behind it is a ‘New York weak,’” said Victor Rubenstein, a psychologist in Brooklyn’s Russian-speaking Brighton Beach area. He has offered some free sessions to long-term clients who couldn’t pay right away. “People are stretched. People are exhausted. Now is the time when even superheroes need help.”
For Michael Camacho, it might be too late. The Brooklyn-born owner of Rue-B, a jazz cafe near Pardon My French, has seen more than $100,000 in revenue evaporate since March. He shut his venue and let go all six of his employees.
Then came the looting. On May 31, he stayed in the empty club until 10:30 p.m., fearing something was going to happen. He left, watching the late-night news at his StuyTown apartment. In the morning, he got a text with bad news: The cafe was ransacked. The door was smashed, broken glass littered the floor and the cash register was ripped open — but there was no cash to take.
That night, a customer walked in and left a $50 bill on the counter. Camacho said he’ll shut forever if business doesn’t bounce back soon.
“There are a lot of good people that just want to get through the day in this country, and they can’t because their business isn’t surviving or because they’ve lost their jobs,” he said. “How can the society continue to be living like this and pretend to feel good about life? It’s a land of opportunity. But will you get an opportunity? Is there a chance?”
Hedge fund manager Jon Corzine is looking forward to New York finally getting back on its feet. The former U.S. senator, who ran Goldman Sachs and MF Global, has been walking about 26 blocks from his Upper East Side townhouse to his midtown office every morning at 5:30 as stocks have rallied. His employees, he says, can work from home for as long as they want.
“I think it’s meaningful,” he said of the June 8 restart. Booming markets have “impacted the spirit of Wall Street more than what’s going on out on the sidewalks.”
On Wednesday morning, at the top of the steps of Federal Hall across from the New York Stock Exchange, Naomi Hassebroek was kneeling next to a tub of Peel Away and a yellow can of Zip-Strip. It was here, centuries ago, where the First Congress enacted the Bill of Rights and George Washington was inaugurated. Now, the architectural conservator was figuring out how to scrub off “Black Lives Matter!” from the stone. The work troubled her.
“It’s upsetting whenever somebody defaces a monument,” she said. “I also support the goals of Black Lives Matter.”
About three hours later, Hassebroek was out of sight, but the graffiti was still there. Melissa Cuesta, a 24-year-old paralegal at an immigration law firm, admired the message under a steady drizzle.
“I love it, it gives me chills,” she said. “If this is what it takes for us to finally get our message through, then I’m all for it.”
The graffiti was the only physical reminder in sight of the citywide protests, thanks to the police presence around the exchange.
“It’s just so crazy that Wall Street is perfectly fine, untouched,” Cuesta said. “I feel like Wall Street should feel how we feel.”
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