Its streets now empty, New York City faces uncertain post-coronavirus future

By Mario Villar

New York, Aug 20 (efe-epa).- Much of New York City now looks more like a ghost town than the United States’ premier metropolis.

Devoid of tourists, with most offices closed and the affluent having taken refuge from the pandemic in their second residences, people in Manhattan and the other four boroughs are left to ponder whether the Big Apple’s current rut is a passing phase or if the pandemic will change the city forever.

Five months after the Covid-19 crisis erupted there and despite a gradual return to normality in recent months, life is still nothing like what it had been in the city that never sleeps.

Neighborhoods and streets that had been jam-packed at all hours like Times Square, SoHo and Fifth Avenue are now oddly tranquil even though the city – the global coronavirus epicenter in the spring – has officially reopened its economy.

With the growth in confirmed cases now under control, the debate has now shifted to a longer-term question: Has the pandemic ruined that metropolis’s appeal forever or will it able to rise once again?

“New York City is not dead, but it’s on life support,” said Michael Hendrix, state and local policy expert at the Manhattan Institute, which describes itself as a free-market think tank.

Even so, he added that it is not so much a matter of if the Big Apple will recover but whether it will do so fairly rapidly or if the process will take years.

The city has always rebounded from previous crises, but the question now is whether the present challenge is most comparable to the slump that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, to the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis or to the deep tailspin of the 1970s.

Local political leaders say New York City has already battled past the worst of the coronavirus and that once there is a vaccine and the pandemic has been halted the city will recover quickly – tourists will come back, skyscraper offices will reopen and prosperity will return.

Others, however, see the end of an era for big cities and for the so-called “capital of the world” in particular.

“New York City is dead forever … Here’s why” was the provocative headline of an article this week by author, comedy-club owner and former hedge-fund manager James Altucher that was published by several news outlets.

In the essay, which has sparked heated debate on social media, Altucher argued that during the pandemic increasing bandwidth speeds are making it possible for people to work remotely much more effectively and avoid high state and city taxes and “all the other headaches” of New York City.

“Businesses are remote, and they aren’t returning to the office. And it’s a death spiral: The longer offices remain empty, the longer they will remain empty,” he wrote.

He provided the examples of one friend who is a managing director at a major investment bank and has relocated to Phoenix, Arizona, and another who is a book editor and has been out of the city since March.

In the article, he quoted the latter as saying, “we’ve been all working fine. I’m not sure why we would need to go back to the office.”

Altucher himself had lived for decades in New York City and says he loves everything about the Big Apple and wants “2019 back,” but he wrote that he is “temporarily, although maybe permanently” in South Florida.

The most affluent New Yorkers have been the first to relocate, exacerbating a plunge in tax revenues that was triggered by the pandemic and has led to budget cuts.

According to a study based on cellphone tower data, more than 400,000 New Yorkers – or around 5 percent of the population – left the city when it was being battered by the pandemic between March 1 and May 1.

Most of them were residents of Manhattan’s wealthiest neighborhoods, with districts such as the Upper East Side, West Village and SoHo losing around 40 percent of their residents over that two-month period, according to figures published by the New York Times.

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