Every industry across the city is suffering from the absence of human beings. Broadway. The Met opera. Hotels. Even Central Park’s horse carriages. For a while, at least, Mayor Bill de Blasio will have gotten his wish — no familiar clip-clop of the horses — but it took an event already worse than the Great Depression by some measures to do it.
Restaurants, bars, stores, movies — all in the business of crowds of people. The absence of foot traffic kills street enterprise as well. The vendor who sells newspapers every weekday morning come rain, snow and extreme cold at the entrance to the C/E train in Midtown was out every day last week — but said Friday that he can’t keep it up. No one is taking the train, so no one is walking by his chair.
The people who collect cans out of Central Park’s trash bins to redeem the deposits for a living? You can’t do it when there’s no trash in the trash bin.
Even panhandlers: Many of the people who sit outside Manhattan storefronts hoping passersby will drop money in their boxes have vanished.
The novel coronavirus initially harms city workers who interact with the public — and the impact will be huge. Just look at last year’s employment figures.
Leisure and hospitality jobs: 465,000. Save for a skeleton crew delivering food to homebound people, these jobs have vanished overnight. Retail trade: 353,000 jobs. Until last Friday, retailers could stay open but weren’t, because no one was walking by.
But the effect on backroom jobs is also huge. With no Broadway, seamstresses in the Garment District are out of work. White-collar workers in industries such as p.r., who can “work at home,” are also suffering the loss of income as customers scale back. The financial sector — with its 473,000 jobs — is unlikely to avoid layoffs.
So what’s the good news? Though predictions already abound that the pandemic spells the end of cities — because who wants to risk pandemic every few years? — it really spells the vitality of cities.
Even as office workers turn to Skype or Microsoft Teams to do their work, the coronavirus proves that this doesn’t work well; workers are unproductive, lonely and anxious. Nobody is excited to replace a concert at Radio City with a livestream on a puny screen. People prefer to eat out rather than receive a box at their doorstep.
The Internet has its place, but nobody is saying, “Hey, what a great idea it was to make our entire lives virtual; we should have done this before!”
This is good for cities, because there is no other way to recreate a thriving economy.
New York could come out of this in a couple of months, with massive pent-up demand for life as normal. (It will still have its pre-existing problems.) But only if suffering people and small businesses can get back to business quickly once this crisis recedes.
City and state government can do their part. New York should declare a moratorium on the sales taxes for small businesses through year’s end, at least.
The city should set up a mediation board so that shuttered businesses can apply for immediate, and decisive, cuts in their rent, rather than force them through a long legal process.
But the city and state will be severely constrained in fiscal resources. They can’t take on the burden of replacing workers’ and small businesses’ income.
Only Congress can do that.
And Congress has already dithered for too long, and with bizarre ideas: The Senate’s idea to give millions of middle-income workers only $600, because they don’t pay annual income tax, is dumb.
The longer Congress waits, the worst it will get. The task is clear: make the front-line victims of this crisis financially whole by subsidizing lost income with grants, not loans, and do it fast. Repeat until this is over.
New York — and other metropolitan regions — can bounce back quickly. But only with a lot of help, no strings attached. This isn’t a bailout. It’s a rescue.
Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor of City Journal.