The same Manhattan venue where self-proclaimed geeks gathered for the Big Apple’s largest costume party was once one of the busiest hospitals in the city, battling a deadly disease at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
Spider-Man, Black Widow and Captain America roamed the corridors of the Javits Center, where the popular New York Comic Con made a comeback this weekend after last year’s virtual event.
But the real superheroes, organizers said, are the doctors and nurses who worked frontline shifts last year when the Javits Center was a makeshift hospital, paving the way for a long-awaited recovery that is helping to get the city back on its feet.
From January to July 2021, the Javits Center also served as the largest COVID-19 vaccination center in the U.S., distributing more than 646,000 vaccines in less than six months.
“We see ourselves as more than just a convention center,” said Alan Steel, president and CEO of the New York Convention Center Operating Corp., which operates the Javits Center on the West Side. “We need to be an active part of the community.”
Event organizers said the resumption of conventions and conferences have breathed much-needed life into the city.
Hotels and venues like Brooklyn Bowl, which hosts shows, meetings and special events in a space that includes 16 bowling lanes, are cashing in on the comeback after going dark for more than a year.
Venue operators said their recovery has required patience, persistence and full participation in the city’s pandemic protocols, from social distancing and mask wearing to vaccine mandates.
“Everybody is vaccinated,” said Garrett Ronan, chief operating officer of etc.venues, which hosts large and small events in the U.K. and New York. “Before they come, there are no surprises. No one’s getting turned away. They provide us with proof of that.”
Ronan said he is excited now about the city’s prospects, but he admits his company’s timing could have been better.
The British company launched its first New York City venue at 360 Madison Ave. — just three weeks before the shutdown. When restrictions eased, etc.venues hosted a few hybrid events in compliance with the 50-person capacity limits, but it wasn’t what company executives had planned for.
“Every business in the hospitality world had to look at furloughing some staff,” Ronan explained. “We furloughed some staff. But they came back and rejoined us. We negotiated support from landlords.”
Not only did the company survive, but it opened another venue over the summer at 601 Lexington Ave. Ronan takes Metro-North into the city from his home in Connecticut, and makes the 12-minute walk between venues most days. He said he can’t help but feel the buzz.
“The trains are busier, the pace is stronger,” Ronan said. “I see more professionally dressed people going to work. There’s an energy back on the street.”
Steel sees it, too. In August, the Javits Center reopened for events — and before Comic Con, the center had more than 30 events booked until the end of the year including the New York City Marathon Expo and the International Contemporary Furniture Fair.
Proof of vaccination is required for access to all events, and with international travel restrictions expected to be lifted soon, more activity is anticipated.
“We got a lot of exposure,” Steel said. “People saw that it was safe to come to a trade show.”
Steel said he is proud of how the Javits staff steered the center’s recovery. He is equally proud of how the convention center did its part during the pandemic.
“It was remarkable,” Steel said. “I’m very proud of the response we gave. I hope we don’t have to repeat it again.”