The City That Never Sleeps Is Brought to Standstill by Virus

Olivia Rockeman, Katya Kazakina and Henry Goldman
The City That Never Sleeps Is Brought to Standstill by Virus

(Bloomberg) --

New York, the financial and cultural capital of the U.S., folded in on itself Thursday amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Mayor Bill de Blasio declared an emergency in the nation’s largest city. Offices and trading floors were half-empty, those workers still present surrounded by vacant desks and the smell of hand sanitizer. Broadway theaters went dark and streets and train stations were sparsely populated. Museums announced that paintings would go unseen and sports leagues ceased play or postponed seasons. For the foreseeable future, the Met, the Met and the Mets are all off limits for lovers of opera, art and baseball respectively.

In the afternoon, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo banned gatherings of more than 500 people. Smaller gatherings must be cut in half starting at 5 p.m. Friday, including crowds at restaurants and the bars where last call rings out 11 hours later. An aide to the governor said businesses that don’t comply could be fined or shut down.

During a ride on the F subway line Thursday, a woman wearing a mask and holding a CVS shopping bag read the label on a container of disinfecting wipes. At an organic supermarket in Brooklyn, a sign informed customers that they could receive a free mask with every purchase. Ibrahim Emam’s grill was immaculate for the first time in five years of selling hot dogs on the busiest corner of Fifth Avenue, across from Central Park.

“There’s nobody to cook for,” said Emam, who’s been losing money every day this week. “What do I do all day? Count the number of people on Fifth Avenue. At any given point in time I can count them on the fingers of my hand. It’s getting from bad to worse to ridiculous.”

The damping of New York’s spirits followed the lead of cities including Seattle and San Francisco, which have limited public gatherings and encouraged people to keep a safe distance from one another. Late Wednesday, California banned gatherings of more than 250, spurring Walt Disney Co. to shut down its theme parks in the state. Even places just beginning to see the effects of the outbreak took action: In Ohio, where there are five confirmed cases, Governor Mike DeWine banned gatherings of 100 people or more.

But New York’s status as a center of money and art made the ebbing of its constant human tide a strikingly visible measure of America’s surrender to the disease. The cascade of closures, loss of tax revenue and hits to tourism threaten immeasurable impact to the city’s economy.

De Blasio said the city would work with the state to enforce its decree against public gatherings and that there would be fines for noncompliance.

“I suspect it will be a number of months,” he said at a news conference.

“We now have 95 confirmed cases, 42 new since yesterday,” de Blasio said. Those numbers don’t include scores in the suburbs or account for thousands of people in voluntary quarantine after possible exposure.

“This is going to be worse before it gets better,” the mayor said. “We will lose some New Yorkers by the end.”

Manda Guth, 30, who sells vintage watches and clocks at a store on 56th Street and Second Avenue, said she was infuriated by official advice on protecting herself in a city where the subways are jammed and many apartments have roommates living cheek by jowl.

“A lot of the precautions I’m told to take are impossible,” she said, surrounded by intricate, tick-tick-ticking grandfather clocks. “I live in a shoe box with three women. Isolate myself?”

“Most of us live paycheck to paycheck, how the hell am I supposed to stock up on supplies? And worst of all, I don’t have health insurance. So how am I supposed to go to a doctor? I don’t have a doctor. It’s frustrating. The very things I’m told to do by authorities, I can’t.”

Wall Street money propels the economy, low end and high, for more than 8.4 million residents. That fiscal heartbeat became fitful as stock indexes plunged. Investment banks thinned out their offices to reduce the chance of transmitting disease.

JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. told employees to work from home in staggered shifts. JPMorgan will split New York staffers into two groups, with one working from home while the other is in the office. The groups will rotate after a week. Goldman is trying something similar, with its two teams dubbed blue and white in a nod to the colors of the firm’s logo. Citigroup Inc. split up its thousands of New York-based employees, with half sent to work from home or other sites.

But business is just one business in New York. The city’s cultural and arts institutions employed about 293,000 in 2017, with total economic activity exceeding $100 billion, according to New York Comptroller Scott Stringer. Included in that mix were museums and libraries, accounting for about 16,500 jobs and more than $1 billion in wages. Performing arts, such as theater and concerts, employ more than 12,000 and provide about $806 million in salaries, the comptroller reported.

Cuomo said Broadway’s iconic theaters would close “for the foreseeable future.”

At the TKTS booth in Times Square, which sells same-day tickets for Broadway productions, 11 windows were closed. The 12th remained open only to inform disappointed theatergoers that the shows would not go on.

Olga Hixon, a tourist from Ohio, had tickets to see “Phantom of the Opera” and left her hotel to get dinner beforehand when she found out. Her attempts at getting a refund had been unsuccessful.

“We’re only in New York for one night,” she said. “I’ve tried three phone calls already and it’s just not going through at all.”

Outside of the theater playing “Hamilton,” a young girl wiped away tears as she and her family of four were turned away.

At the Broadway League, which promotes the theater industry, President Charlotte St. Martin declined requests for an interview and instead emailed a message saying she looks forward the day when the theaters are no longer dark. “Once our stages are lit again, we will welcome fans back with open arms,” she wrote.

Cuomo’s restrictions cover a wide variety of New York’s cultural life, museums and concert halls, even television shows with live studio audiences. NBC said Thursday that it will suspend production next week of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and Late Night With Seth Meyers, both of which film in the city.

Fans of hockey’s Rangers, baseball’s Yankees and Mets, and even the bedraggled Knicks of the National Basketball Association, will be similarly bereft.

New York City has nine teams in the major U.S. leagues that would normally be playing regular-season games in March, and none are currently expecting to do so. March Madness, the biggest annual event on the sports calendar, was supposed to play one of its four regionals in New York City. The NCAA canceled the event on Thursday afternoon. Major League Baseball delayed Opening Day for two weeks.

More rarefied pleasures also will stop. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Frick Collection and the Jewish Museum were among cultural institutions that announced closings.

Linda Su and Patrick Ghe, both in medical masks, argued about who would have to touch the door handle of the Metropolitan Museum to enter the building. As Su was about to do it, Ghe noticed that one of the two entrance doors swung wide open.

“Use that door, no, don’t touch the other one!” Ghe yelled. “Where’s my sanitizer?” Su answered.

The Metropolitan Opera and Carnegie Hall canceled all performances starting Friday until March 31.“If anything can communicate the seriousness of this disease, it’s stuff like that,” said art writer Linda Yablonsky. “Going to a museum can make you feel better, but not if it threatens your health.”

Yablonsky lived in New York through the AIDS crisis, 9/11 and Superstorm Sandy. Coronavirus marks another blow for the ages.

“It’s a disaster on every level,” she said. “And there’s no end in sight.”

For some, the disaster was less epochal. At the City Fresh grocery in Astoria, Queens, a man was buying four rolls of toilet paper. He explained it wasn’t panic buying -- just the cycle of life. Marvella Beres, 60, pulled aside a mask as she lifted milk, canned soup, bananas and chicken onto the express checkout counter.

“We have the impression we’re going to be stuck,” she said.

(Updates with shutdown of late-night shows in 24th paragraph)

--With assistance from Emma Court, Eben Novy-Williams, Elena Popina, Hailey Waller, David R. Baker, Lucas Shaw and Riley Griffin.

To contact the reporters on this story: Olivia Rockeman in New York at orockeman1@bloomberg.net;Katya Kazakina in New York at kkazakina@bloomberg.net;Henry Goldman in New York at hgoldman@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Flynn McRoberts at fmcroberts1@bloomberg.net, Stephen Merelman, Kara Wetzel

For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com

Subscribe now to stay ahead with the most trusted business news source.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.