The reality of such emptiness, however, has been far less inspiring.
Since coronavirus measures began in mid-March, the nation’s top tourism destination has been shuttered, an unprecedented shock not just to the city’s economy but to its identity as America’s cultural capital.
“We were on pace for another record year,” said Fred Dixon, president and CEO of NYC & Co., the city’s destination marketing agency, explaining how 2019 had the most tourists in history — nearly 67 million — after 10 consecutive years of growth. “This year is a complete washout. . . . We have not seen anything like this in terms of the toll that it’s taking on the business community, particularly on those that are tourism-facing.”
Among its many identities, New York is also a tourist town driven by a tangle of industries — transportation, hotels, restaurants, museums, retail, landmarks, theaters, tours, parades, concert halls and convention centers — that together generate at least $70 billion annually. In a normal year, tourists dwarf New York City’s 8.4 million locals. Last year, the city saw 53.1 million domestic visitors and 13.4 million international ones — including 1 million from China, who were the biggest spenders. That’s an 8-to-1 tourist-to-resident ratio, and nearly twice the population of Canada.
On Friday, New York state slowly began its reemergence, a soft reopening akin to the friends-and-family debut of a restaurant. It applies only to five regions upstate that have met a stringent set of public health requirements, including a 14-day decline in coronavirus hospitalizations and deaths.
And even then, the reopening is phased: first, construction and retail with curbside pickup; next, real estate, in-store retail and “professional services” such as hair salons; then, restaurants; finally, schools and arts venues — including museums and Broadway.
New York City remains the state’s hardest-hit region and the furthest from reaching “phase one.” Nothing has changed here — city officials say the first half of June is probably the earliest restrictions could start to lift, depending on health indicators — and an exact timeline is unknowable.
As municipal and state leaders contemplate what measures must be put in place before the economy can relaunch and tourism can safely resume, they face the bleak reality that no major city has successfully reopened. Those that have tried — notably Berlin, Seoul and Singapore — saw a resurgence of the virus. Clear answers remain elusive.
Tim Zagat, creator of the dining guide that bears his name, put it plainly: “9/11 caused us to realize we were all in the same boat. That’s true now, although the problem is in many ways graver and deeper and different in scope.”
The numbers are stark. Five to six percent growth in January and February — usually a down time of year — and then a 63 percent drop in March. NYC & Co stopped releasing numbers after that. The Port Authority, the interstate agency that oversees the city’s five airports and their 140.5 million annual passengers, said traffic is down 97 percent.
Last week, the American Museum of Natural History axed 20 percent of its staff and projected a budget deficit between $80 million and $120 million over the next year. Similarly, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 150th anniversary on April 13 came and went without fanfare; instead, the museum has also cut staff and is in the longest closure of its existence. (It closed for just two days after 9/11.) Meanwhile, executives at the Empire State Building, the top non-museum tourist spot in the city, are preparing to have their standard 4 million annual global visitors reduced only to city residents.
“We think we’ll be at 20 percent our typical volume,” said Tony Malkin, CEO and president of Empire State and Realty Trust, which manages the iconic skyscraper. “We don’t foresee getting back up to full normal operation until 2022.” The observatory’s $165 million renovation, which opened to the public in October, now means visitors have 70,000 square feet to roam over four floors of exhibitions, with six elevators to go up or down. He’s envisioning no more than four or five people per elevator ride, and no more than 500 people in the observatory at a time, with social distancing markers on the floor and staff in masks and gloves monitoring known “pinch points” where crowding can occur.
In the meantime, its nightly lights have been lit red and pulsing like a heartbeat in honor of first responders for months.
The despair over tourists may seem callous in a city that has counted, as of Friday, nearly 188,000 confirmed coronavirus infections and close to 20,500 deaths among residents. But the city depends on visitors. For example, 118 hotels were being built citywide when the pandemic hit — among the top development pipelines in the nation — affecting construction workers, electricians, plumbers, and other blue-collar trades. Of the 900,000 jobs projected to be lost citywide, 400,000 are related to tourism.
Hotel revenue citywide is down 80 percent since March, and occupancy of most hotels is at 7 percent, according to Vijay Dandapani, president and CEO of the Hotel Association of New York City. Today, many hotels are being used as makeshift dorms for health care workers, military barracks and homeless shelters. “I was here during 9/11, and a return to status quo took roughly three years,” he said. “It finally came back in 2018 after the 2008 recession, and we see this as a much longer haul.”
Through conversations with his counterparts in Italy and Spain — hard-hit countries that have begun to reopen — Dandapani foresees hotels installing hand sanitizer dispensers, limiting occupancy in elevators and cleaning them hourly, using electrostatic cleaners in bathrooms, doing check-in by smartphone, leaving rooms unoccupied for days before turning them over, and requiring everyone to wear masks in public areas.
The development pipeline won’t pick up again for at least a year, Dandapani suggested, although hotels already in construction will be completed — and perhaps become something else in the process. “I’ve already spoken to a couple of hotel owners,” he said. “It’s possible that some of them get to use tax incentives to convert to affordable housing rather than being a hotel.”
Recovery is not just a matter of restoration and revival. There is also an epidemiological price to consider for luring back tourists. A genetic analysis of the novel coronavirus by researchers at Yale University revealed that, of the nation’s 1.4 million infections and 86,000 deaths, 60 to 65 percent can be traced to New York — including at least 80 percent of cases in Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio and Utah, as well as 100 percent of cases in Iowa and Louisiana.
Meanwhile, local leadership is offering up best guesses at recovery (“a few months away at minimum,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio on May 1) — and sometimes not even that (“Nobody knows what happens next,” said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on May 4).
“You can’t run a lean, mean machine on short fuses,” said Jeffrey Bank, president emeritus of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, which he co-founded, a statement emblematic of those who’ve said the most challenging part of reopening has been what they consider shortsighted, improvisational responses from city leaders that make it impossible to do long-term planning.
De Blasio (D) on Friday praised the city’s “can-do attitude” while conceding the new normal may depend on locals rather than tourists for a long time. “But you know what’s also going to happen?” he added. “More and more New Yorkers are going to discover what’s right under our noses. And a lot of things that maybe we haven’t focused on enough or enjoyed or experienced enough, we’re going to come back to.”
As the city broaches a staggered reopening this month, Cuomo (D) assembled a task force to help orchestrate it. The group was composed of more than 100 leaders, but nobody represented Broadway — shocking to some, given that Broadway sells 25 percent more tickets per year than the city’s 10 leading professional sports teams combined. “Men’s jaws always drop when I tell them that,” said Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League, a trade organization.
Many of Broadway’s theaters date back to the 19th century, with audiences packed shoulder-to-shoulder and cast and crew running around backstage where “they couldn’t be any closer unless they were making love,” said St. Martin. “They don’t call the orchestra pit a pit for nothing.”
She has 21 task forces gaming out different reopening and recovery scenarios — taking temperatures at the door, wearing masks, having audience members show documentation that they’ve already gotten the coronavirus — but they all come down to the same thing: “There is no possible way we can do social distancing,” she said. “And we anticipate losing money for several years.”
Already two major plays and Disney’s Frozen musical have been canceled. Box offices are exchanging or refunding tickets through Labor Day, although industry officials think reopening will come well after that.
For her part, Amy Roth, the chief operations officer of the Whitney Museum, has organized a reopening task force with more than 20 citywide museums. She wants museums to be leaders in a reopened city. “We know how to control capacity, how to effect safe distancing — whether from an artwork, an exhibit, or other people,” she said, citing how museums already use guards for crowd control. “A museum visit is a visit in a controlled environment.”
There is also a divide of Davids and Goliaths. Eleven Madison Park, a foodie mecca backed by billionaires, can consider deep-pocketed options (a renovation, for example) unavailable to divey pizza parlors or hole-in-the-wall sushi joints. Similarly, smaller theaters and museums face a far more perilous future than their flagship brethren. “Everything we are enduring, we realize that most smaller cultural institutions, hundreds of which are in the five boroughs, are in an even more difficult situation,” said Ken Weine, a spokesperson for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“I’m not expecting a full bus for a long time,” said Georgette Blau, president of On Location Tours, which runs 10 bus tours and two walking tours of filming hot spots, ranging from classic movies to “Sex and the City.” The company will require masks and is installing plexiglass between rows, which will allow buses to run at their typical load of 54, whereas with social distancing they can have only 12 people on at a time. “Our thought is that if a group doesn’t fill up the row, then we just won’t sell the other seats,” she said. And if that doesn’t work, they’ll put everyone outside on a double-decker bus.
Shopping is the top activity for tourists, according to NYC & Co, and retail stores would rather have some customers than none. Matt Brauer, president of the Madison Avenue Business Improvement District, a stretch that includes stores for Giorgio Armani and Ralph Lauren, said he expects stores to go to an appointment-only model, and even then to set items aside after they’ve been tried on so no other shopper touches them — “which presents inventory issues.” Some stores have created paper silhouettes of garments to test the fit before customers touch merchandise.
In this center of creativity, creative solutions are in order. Perhaps nowhere more poignant than at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, which finds itself in the unique position of both commemorating a big crisis in New York City and being impacted by this one. In mid-March, it closed not just its museum but also cordoned off its acre-sized memorial pools set in the footprints of the North and South towers. The waterfalls — the largest artificial ones on Earth — turned off, their symbolic flow of tears halting.
But people are already walking by the footprints, staring at them even as they’re roped off. “With covid, it isn’t that our mission changes,” said Alice M. Greenwald, president and CEO of the museum. “It’s that we become a place where you can come to commemorate profound loss of life.”
The museum has a “survivor tree,” a Callery pear that was found amid the rubble with burned bark and broken branches before being nursed back to health by recovery workers. Amid the solemnity of a shutdown city, it simply carried on and burst into bloom.