Why New Yorkers aren't going back to their offices

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Americans all over the country are going back to their offices, but New Yorkers aren't.

Why it matters: Office workers are super-drivers of New York City's economy and essential to its post-pandemic recovery. Scores of businesses in the city are suffocating as they delay their return to work or, worse, decide to work from home forever.

"Manhattan has really gone downhill since the pandemic began," says Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban planning at NYU. "There are no tourists, no shoppers and, of course, no workers."

By the numbers: Nationally, around 25% of workers have returned to offices, the Wall Street Journal reports. In Los Angeles, 32% have gone back, and in Dallas, 40%.

  • But only 12% of New Yorkers have returned, according to the latest numbers from commercial real estate firm CBRE, which manages 20 million square feet of office space in the city.

What's happening: "All of the reasons why New York is suffering disproportionately right now are related to its competitive advantages," says Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance.

  • The city has a robust public transit system, which is how most people get to work. Driving-first cities have seen higher rates of return than New York, where many workers are still nervous about virus transmission on buses and trains.
  • The restaurants, shops, museums and theaters that give the city its charm are closed or running at limited capacity, and so many have fled to the Hamptons or elsewhere, and commuters who travel in from Long Island, Connecticut or New Jersey are staying away.
  • The city's density is also working against it. In fact, in the city's suburbs, return-to-work rates are around 33%, per CBRE.

On top of that, New Yorkers have been spooked by the early, aggressive coronavirus caseloads in the city.

  • "Now that we’re in that mindset, I think it's very hard to shift gears and come out of it," says Nicole LaRusso of CBRE. "There was such an emphasis on, 'We need to stay home to stay safe.' I think that that message sunk in."
  • Look for New York's return to work to remain slow as cases are rising again.

The bottom line: "It’s unnerving for everyone to have this relative stillness in New York City," Tompkins says. "But people who have been through a few cycles of New York’s capacity for reincarnation are more comfortable."

My thought bubble: I just moved here in February, and I'm still feeling pretty bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about all of it. So can we please stop saying "New York is over"?

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