But it won’t be easy. Neighborhoods remain pockmarked by vacant commercial real estate, and the city’s unemployment rate remains almost twice the national average.
While there are signs that the city is coming back to life, the path forward is anything but clear
As the national economy recovers from the pandemic and begins to take off, New York City is lagging, with changing patterns of work and travel threatening the engines that have long powered its jobs and prosperity.
New York has suffered deeper job losses as a share of its work force than any other big American city. And while the country has regained two-thirds of the positions it lost after the coronavirus arrived, New York has recouped fewer than half, leaving a deficit of more than 500,000 jobs.
Restaurants and bars are filling up again with New Yorkers eager for a return to normal, but scars are everywhere. Boarded-up storefronts and for-lease signs dot many neighborhoods. Empty sidewalks in Midtown Manhattan make it feel like a weekend in midweek. Subway ridership on weekdays is less than half the level of two years ago.
The city’s economic plight stems largely from its heavy reliance on office workers, business travelers, tourists and the service businesses catering to all of them. All eyes are on September, when many companies aim to bring their workers back to the office and Broadway fully reopens, attracting more visitors and their dollars. But even then, the rebound will be only partial.
The shift toward remote work endangers thousands of businesses that serve commuters who are likely to come into the office less frequently than before the pandemic, if at all. By the end of September, the Partnership for New York City, a business advocacy group, predicts that only 62 percent of office workers will return, mostly three days a week.
Restoring the city to economic health will be an imposing challenge for its next mayor, who is likely to emerge from the Democratic primary on Tuesday. The candidates have offered differing visions of how to help struggling small businesses and create jobs.
“We are bouncing back, but we are nowhere near where we were in 2019,” said Barbara Byrne Denham, senior economist at Oxford Economics. “We suffered more than everyone else, so it will take a little longer to recover.”
At 10.9 percent in May, the city’s unemployment rate was nearly twice the national average of 5.8 percent. In the Bronx, the city’s poorest borough, the rate is 15 percent. Workers in face-to-face sectors like restaurants and hospitality, many of whom are people of color, are still struggling.
“While the recovery has probably exceeded expectations, unemployment remains staggeringly high for Black and brown individuals and historically marginalized communities,” said Jose Ortiz Jr., chief executive of the New York City Employment and Training Coalition, a work force development group.
At the same time, hundreds of small businesses, which before the pandemic employed about half of the city’s work force, didn’t survive. And many that did are saddled with debt they took on to survive the downturn and owe tens of thousands of dollars in back rent.
“I have a huge amount of debt to pay back because I had to borrow all over the place to stay alive,” said Robert Schwartz, the third-generation owner of Eneslow Shoes & Orthotics. He closed two of his four stores, but kept open branches on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and in Little Neck, Queens. “We’ll survive, but it’s going to be a long, slow recovery.”
One crucial factor in the city’s economic trajectory, civic and business leaders say, is addressing safety concerns. Violent crime has risen since the pandemic hit — including a high-profile Times Square shooting in May that wounded two women and a 4-year-old girl — and the police have recently increased Midtown foot patrols.