Museums and other indoor activities across New York are being allowed to reopen as coronavirus restrictions are cautiously eased. New York City is encouraging New Yorkers and people from the tri-state area to ‘staycation’ and help the city recover. (Aug. 24.)
In June, an entire family could walk arm-in-arm through Times Square. In July, the Brooklyn Bridge was empty aside from passing bikers and joggers traveling between boroughs. In August, Bryant Park is quiet.
Thanks to the coronavirus and New York’s role as an early epicenter in the pandemic during the spring, the city’s hallmark tourist locations have lost the hustle and bustle for which the city is known. But earlier this summer as cases, hospitalizations and deaths trended downward, New York began to reopen earlier this summer. Tourists are even returning – albeit slowly.
But nearly six months after it all began, “open for business” is still a relative term. Over the summer, the city postponed the planned July reopening of indoor dining indefinitely, and Broadway extended its shutdown until 2021.
“It is going to be a long road ahead in terms of recovery,” Fred Dixon, president and CEO of NYC & Company, the leading tourism authority on New York City, told USA TODAY in July.
“None of our efforts are aimed at getting people from a long distance to travel to New York,” he said, noting that they are looking at creating a kind of “bubble” by encouraging visitors from neighboring areas including the rest of New York state, New Jersey and Connecticut, which have the same quarantine rules.
The atmosphere of New York City for tourists is quite different in 2020 than it has been in past years because of the pandemic.
Last year was the 10th consecutive year of growth for tourism in the city, Chris Heywood, executive vice president of global communications for NYC & Company, told USA TODAY.
In 2019, there were 66.6 million international and domestic visitors to the city. Those tourists brought in $72 billion in economic activity, provided 403,000 jobs and brought in $7 billion in local tax revenue, Heywood said.
“If ever there was a time you wanted to see New York and not experience crowds, this would be the time to do so,” Heywood said, noting that NYC & Company is encouraging New Yorkers to play tourist in their own home through their “All in NYC” program. “The recovery is gradual but certain.”
A summer of irregular tourism
Even though the tourism industry isn’t prioritizing out-of-area visitors, some are still coming – and they don’t think it’s a bad time to visit.
Lyric Aquino of Lorain, Ohio, visited the city with her mother and siblings in early June, a couple of weeks before the city entered its second phase of reopening.
On a spontaneous trip to Niagara Falls with her mother and siblings, Aquino, 22, persuaded her family to take a detour to New York.
“My sister and I – in the car – kept saying, ‘Mom, we’re so close let’s just drive,’ ” Aquino said. Their mother relented after the two promised to do all the driving.
They drove to the city for a day trip. Aquino even stopped to pick up a new outfit at Old Navy along the way.
“I wanted my first time in NYC to be memorable and not look like I just rolled out of bed,” she said.
Even without the city’s normal frenetic activity, Aquino’s visit was special, partially because it fell during Pride Month.
“I was really excited,” she said. “I am pansexual, so to visit New York during Pride Month and to see the Stonewall Monument,” Aquino said, referencing the monument that memorializes the 1969 uprising at the Greenwich Village gay bar that birthed the modern LGBTQ movement. “It was really this amazing experience when I went to the monument. I was overwhelmed.”
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And in spite of the conditions, Aquino said she felt safe.
“What was really interesting was that there were a lot of people in Lorain who haven’t been wearing masks in general area,” she said. “It really was comforting to see so many people in masks in NYC.”
Acquino said that seeing an empty New York was a unique experience. She and her family even linked arms to walk across Times Square, which would have been inconceivable before the pandemic.
“New York is New York, and it isn’t ever going to be like this again,” she said.
Paramedic Anthony Smith of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, had been in the city for nearly two months helping fight COVID-19 when he visited the 9/11 Memorial on July 14. He’d already used his days off to visit other tourist attractions such as Grand Central, the Chrysler Building and Central Park.
He said he felt safe walking around the memorial, which is in the Financial District. “All the hand sanitizer everywhere – that’s the most reassuring thing to me,” he said.
That same day, Brooklyn resident Jamila Dobson walked across a sparsely populated Brooklyn Bridge. While she isn’t a tourist, it was her first time crossing the famous span. “I knew it was going to be pretty light, but I didn’t expect it to be this light,” she told USA TODAY.
USA TODAY met Michael Hesse while he was visiting New York City with his wife, Anja Hesse, and their two children. The family came from Simsbury, Connecticut, where they moved from Munich last year.
“Usually (New York is) crowded,” Michael said. Normally, he said, “I love the city, but not for a 5- or 8-year-old.”
But the family’s August visit was different: It was cleaner and everyone had masks on. “It’s a bit strange, but still it’s good, especially for families.”
The pandemic even brought about some pleasant changes: “We love all the outside dining,” Anja added, “Coming from Europe, this is something we always missed here, and I love it.”
How are attractions making sure visitors are safe?
Across the city, open-air attractions that have been categorized as “low-risk,” such as botanical gardens and zoos have reopened over the past couple of months in accordance with state and city guidelines.
In late August, some museums and cultural institutions, such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art, were allowed to open. NYC & Company is keeping a running list of what is open for visitors on its website.
There’s a “joint commitment between business owners and the public to maintain set standards of safety and hygiene,” Dixon said, emphasizing that mask wearing and social distancing can help “keep this curve flattened.”
The Empire State Building, which reopened to the public on July 20, is taking serious steps to ensure the safety of visitors, including limiting capacity to less than 20% of its normal volume and requiring advance reservations, masks and temperature checks.
The attraction had to “rethink how we do business, soup to nuts,” Jean-Yves Ghazi, the observatory’s president, told USA TODAY.
The majority of the interactive experience at the has been made contact-free.
Masks must stay on throughout each visit, and staff are enforcing the policy, though Ghazi said it’s acceptable if a visitor briefly pulls his or her face covering down for a selfie in a socially distanced designated photo area.
“Policing is an important aspect to ensure compliance throughout the experience,” he said. He said that apart from reminding a few people to put their masks back on, they have not had any problems. “Everybody understands this is the new norm.”
How does COVID-19 fit into the tourist experience?
The pandemic isn’t over. But the New York Historical Society has already launched an open-air exhibit called “Hope Wanted” which examines the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the city.
The exhibit is contactless and interactive. The exhibit puts the photographs and reporting efforts of Kay Hickman (the first Black female photographer to have her work featured in a solo exhibit at the historical society there, according to spokesperson Marybeth Ihle) and writer Kevin Powell on display for all to see and pairs their visuals and written word with audio clips that can be found on visitors’ smartphones. Visitors also have the option to call in and share their own coronavirus stories to be recorded as a part of history.
Hickman and Powell spent two days assessing the effect of COVID-19 on New Yorkers across the city’s boroughs. Powell told USA TODAY that the period reminded him of that which followed the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.
“This exhibit is a reminder of what our city looks like when there’s no one out there and how profound it is,” he continued.
The exhibit can serve as a healing space for New Yorkers, according to Hickman. But it’s good for tourists, too – especially for those who did not experience the pandemic the same way New Yorkers did.
“Is it a traditional tourist kind of thing, this exhibit? No,” Powell acknowledges, but it has a purpose.
“It shows people this really did happen and that this affected people’s lives,” he added.
People flock to the 9/11 Memorial & Museum to remember. Powell imagines this exhibit will have a similar effect.
“The difference between this and 9/11 is that 9/11 was just our city – this is our whole country, this is the whole world,” he said.
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