Good morning. It’s Wednesday. It’s been almost a week since the end of the coronavirus health emergency. We’ll look at what that has meant for New York City.
There are still mask wearers on the subway and in places like theaters, and some privately run pop-up tents continue to offer Covid-19 tests on sidewalks. But the city’s mobile test-to-treat vans have disappeared from the streets. The at-home vaccination program is also history.
Still, Covid-19 is not completely gone. When the Covid-19 federal public health emergency ended on May 11, New York City was averaging 254 cases a day, and 13 people were being hospitalized for Covid-19. One person died each day, on average, Department of Health data showed.
“We are not in a crisis phase,” said Mark Levine, the Manhattan borough president, who as a City Council member until last year was chairman of the Council’s health committee, “but people still need to be aware.” He said the short-term challenge for officials will be making sure that people know where they can get tests and, if they are sick, treatment.
The city will continue to distribute free home tests at libraries and other locations until its supply from the federal government is used up. My colleague Sharon Otterman writes that the city’s public hospitals and clinics will continue to provide low-cost or free care for uninsured people, as they do for other illnesses.
But access to at-home tests is changing, because insurers are no longer required to cover eight free tests a month, and the federal program to send at-home test kits through the mail will end.
“Covid-related health care is going to start looking a lot more like all the other health care we receive, which involves health insurance for people who have it, and turning to our safety-net health care system for people who don’t,” Rima Oken, director of policy for the New York City Health Department’s disease control division, said at a recent panel discussion organized by the Pandemic Response Institute.
For now, the city says that Medicaid will continue to cover tests through at least September of next year. And the city will continue its Covid-19 hotline (212-COVID19), with an immediate connection to a clinician who can prescribe antiviral medication for someone who has contracted Covid-19.
Knowing how the virus is circulating — or how much virus is around — will be more difficult. New York State said it would take three Covid-19 data dashboards offline this week and is assessing changes to Covid-19 data collection and reporting. The city will continue to track Covid-19 cases, along with vaccinations and, perhaps more significantly, variants. But the data may be reported less often and may be less detailed.
Shortages of medical supplies were a chronic problem early in the pandemic. New York State says its strategic stockpile now has 8.64 million N95 masks and 7,851 ventilators — it had only 1,749 ventilators on hand in February 2020. The state stockpile now also contains 76.7 million disposable gloves.
The economic fallout
Will the end of the public health emergency mean more people will return to their offices?
The answer will not be clear for some time. For now, more New York City workers are going back, but the city still lags on return-to-office statistics. Eptura, a work technology company that provides workplace software, reported this week that a measure it tracks — “desk bookings” — was up 168 percent in New York City in the first quarter of 2023, compared with the same three months of 2022. It counts a desk booking as a day when an employee uses hardware or software in his or her office, as opposed to remotely.
From New York’s perspective, the problem is that desk bookings jumped more nationally — 194 percent from January through March, compared with the first quarter of last year.
In New York, a record amount of empty office space remains — more than in all of Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth combined, according to my colleague Matthew Haag.
The real estate firm Colliers put the vacancy rate at 17.4 percent in April, the same as in February 2022 and the highest since Colliers started keeping records 23 years ago. Some 24 percent of the space in the Financial District in Lower Manhattan was unoccupied, as was close to 20 percent in and around Times Square, according to the firm JLL.
High vacancy rates are troubling because office buildings and the money they generated were a big element of the city’s economy before the pandemic. Kathryn Wylde, the president of the Partnership for New York City, an influential business group, said she did not believe people had continued to work remotely because of the health emergency.
“I don’t think it’s been about health for a year or more,” she said. “They’ve developed a habit that they like.” She added that “some employers are getting less patient with the large number of employees who are not showing up, but it’s still a very sensitive issue to be too demanding.”
Retailing was also hit hard. But those looking for hopeful signs were encouraged on Tuesday when Century 21, the discount chain that sold designer goods at bargain prices, reopened a slimmed-down version of its flagship store in Lower Manhattan. The reopening was “a real indication that New York City’s not coming back, it’s back,” Mayor Eric Adams told WINS radio. Century 21 closed after filing for bankruptcy in September 2020 when its insurance carriers refused to pay about $175 million on policies that Century 21 said had been “put in place to protect against losses stemming from business interruption” like the pandemic shutdown.
Enjoy a mostly sunny day with temperatures reaching the mid-60s. The evening is mostly clear, with temps in the high 40s.
In effect today. Suspended tomorrow (Solemnity of the Ascension).
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Monroe Street in Brooklyn. The early 1950s. One or two hours of daylight left on a hot summer evening.
Dinner was over, and a bunch of us kids were hanging around near the corner of Ralph Avenue, mostly doing nothing.
Coming our way from Patchen Avenue was a kid on a bike. Nothing special; no one we recognized.
Suddenly, from a stash in his handlebar basket he began pelting us with seriously overripe tomatoes.
None of us escaped the onslaught. And none of us could react before he sped off across the trolley tracks on Ralph Avenue and disappeared.
We never saw him again. But as I stood there covered in rancid tomato slime, I had to admit: “The guy was good.”
— Theodore O’Neill
Illustrated by Agnes Lee. Send submissions here and read more Metropolitan Diary here.
Glad we could get together here. See you tomorrow. — J.B.
P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword and Spelling Bee. You can find all our puzzles here.