New York is springing back to life after year of lockdown

Biden’s vaccine programme and stimulus packages are helping city return to normal

New York: Indoor dining is open, and the city has extended outdoor dining, making some parts of Manhattan look more European with outdoor cafes dotting the streets.  Photograph:  Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty

New York: Indoor dining is open, and the city has extended outdoor dining, making some parts of Manhattan look more European with outdoor cafes dotting the streets. Photograph: Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty

 

Scrolling through my social media accounts the other day, I came across a photograph of New York’s Park Avenue that I posted in April last year. It was Easter Week, when the city is normally buzzing, but Park Avenue was completely empty as the pandemic lockdown had begun.

There were no people, no yellow taxis, and the only sound I could hear were some church bells ringing in the distance.

The only other time when New York was that quiet was just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The events of 9/11 were truly terrible but their impact was more focused on New York.

In contrast, the Covid-19 virus has had a complete global impact, more far-reaching and much longer-lasting. We are at a point, though, where you can see the tide beginning to turn.

While walking to work this week on Park Avenue, I saw other people heading into work, and yellow taxis on the street again. We still have a long way to go, but there is some light at the end of this long tunnel.

Just about one year ago, everything shut down very quickly – it was stunning. Traffic into New York suddenly stopped. At the time, we all thought it would last for just a few weeks or a month, but here we are, a full year later.

With almost nobody coming into the city, the New York hotel industry was devastated, with about 40 per cent of the city’s hotels closing, some permanently. Unemployment levels within the hospitality industry went as high as 82 per cent.

Towards the end of March 2020, we made the strategic decision to temporarily consolidate all of our operations into one hotel. We temporarily closed Fitzpatrick Manhattan, and continued to operate Fitzpatrick Grand Central, largely because we house the Aer Lingus crews there and didn’t want to move them.

Hardship and flexibility

My hotels typically run nightly occupancies close to 90 per cent, but occupancies dropped closer to just 18 per cent and stayed there. With this huge dip in business, most members of my team had to be laid off or furloughed.

Many of these people have been with me a long time – some since I opened here in New York 30 years ago – so this was particularly painful for me, and even harder for them.

My team has been tremendous throughout this whole chapter despite many hardships. We couldn’t have kept things going without their efforts and flexibility, and I am so grateful to them.

Aside from Aer Lingus, most of the guests we’ve had until recently were frontline healthcare workers or government employees. They were all working such long hours, and I’m glad we were able to take care of them. We became very creative in trying to find business, and offered rooms as remote office spaces, long-term housing and college dormitories.

We were even very close to leasing half of the Manhattan Hotel to a hospital as a temporary maternity wing.

Earlier, I mentioned seeing some light at the end of the tunnel. The two biggest keys to this have been the vaccines, and the actions taken by President Joe Biden and his new administration.

In the US, 183 million doses of vaccine have already been administered. Momentum has really picked up, with more than 21 million doses being administered in the past week.

In New York City alone, almost 70,000 doses of the vaccine are being administered per day, and everyone over the age of 30 can get the vaccine. At the beginning of April, vaccine eligibility was extended to everyone over the age of 16.

Outdoor dining

Most of my team has already been vaccinated, and I received my second dose in late March. Biden and his administration have made the distribution of vaccines and pandemic relief top priorities.

Biden has also restored a sense of calm to the country, while lessening the general sense of anxiety that had been present.

The Irish Government has done a tremendous amount to support businesses and individuals throughout the pandemic, while in the US we received very little support from the government last year.

However, with the passing of recent stimulus packages, we can now bring some of our furloughed team members back to work. We are also working to reopen the Fitzpatrick Manhattan at the end of April.

Looking ahead, things will only improve as more people are vaccinated. You can already feel the city slowly coming back to life. Horse and buggy rides have resumed at Central Park. Shops and stores are all open. Indoor dining is open, and the city has extended outdoor dining, making some parts of Manhattan look more European with outdoor cafes dotting the streets.

We sold all of our available rooms on the Saturday of St Valentine’s weekend, the busiest day we’ve had in a year. We did $10,000 in food and beverage business on St Patrick’s Day. That’s not as much as past St Patrick’s Days, but it was much better than the $200 in revenue a year ago. Most importantly, Broadway is scheduled to reopen in September.

There is still a long road ahead of us but, hopefully, we’ll all be able to travel about more freely in the coming months. We really miss hearing Irish voices around the hotel, and look forward to them returning, hopefully by late summer.

Seeing how quickly things have changed here in the US in just a few weeks makes me believe that the same can happen in Ireland once the vaccines are more widely distributed. I am confident that we will all get there soon.

John Fitzpatrick is president and chief executive of Fitzpatrick Hotel Group, North America

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