New York's offices, Broadway shows, restaurants close down as Covid-19 sweeps in

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New York's offices, Broadway shows, restaurants close down as Covid-19 sweeps in

New York City appears to be no match for the convergence of the delta and omicron variants, despite some of the toughest Covid-19 restrictions and highest vaccination rates in the US.

Just as the city was getting more crowded and office vacancies were starting to shrink, an about-face has people again on edge. New cases of the virus are at the highest since January. Businesses are asking workers to stay home, schoolrooms are shutting and testing sites have long lines snaking around city blocks. And Broadway shows and restaurants are closing down as staff shortages and pockets of Covid outbreaks sprout up around the city at the busiest time of the year for tourism.

“We’ve never seen this before in NYC,” Jay Varma, public health adviser to Mayor Bill de Blasio, said Thursday on Twitter. “Test positivity doubling in three days.”

Indeed, 7.8% of the city’s cases were positive on Dec. 12, up from 3.9% on Dec. 9, according to city data. Many of those cases are mild and hospitalizations and deaths are nowhere near the level seen in the early days of the pandemic. But city data show hospitalizations are also rising at a fast clip and have more than doubled since the US Thanksgiving holiday.

Just weeks ago, delta made up nearly all of the sequenced cases in the New York area. But omicron, which appears to be far more transmissible than earlier variants, has quickly grown to make up 13% of the region’s cases, according to modeling from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The state and city don’t appear to sequence enough cases to be able to immediately confirm the variant’s spread.

De Blasio, who already required vaccinations for entry to restaurants and tourist attractions and mandated them for city workers, now is expanding the order to private companies as of Dec. 27. Governor Kathy Hochul this week began requiring masks in all indoor public places that don’t require proof of Covid-19 inoculations and ordered another million tests to send to communities in need.

“This is a health care crisis and people are going to die,” Hochul said Thursday when asked about resistance to her mandate. “That is not hyperbole, these are the facts right now.”

School Closures

The impact has already hit the city’s public schools, the largest U.S. system with roughly a million students.

Between the start of school and the end of November, there were three full school shutdowns and roughly 2,500 classroom closings, according to city Department of Education data. The city has now closed six entire schools and 4,200 classrooms.

“Thinking we were all out of this delta variant, and then having this new variant coming is all very scary,” said Amy Tsai, a parent of five in the Bronx.

Last school year, three of Tsai’s children took remote classes, and when two of her kids went back to school in March, they contracted Covid-19 and infected their siblings. Now, as cases rise and there are active cases in all three schools her children attend, Tsai said “I’m not sure that school is 100% safe.”

Back to WFH

Businesses in the city are already taking steps to protect their employees and customers.

Jefferies Financial Group Inc., Citigroup Inc. and Bank of Montreal have told staffers to work from home. JPMorgan Chase & Co. began requiring vaccines to enter its Manhattan headquarters and moved its January annual health-care conference online.

“The pace of the past week in terms of the increase in the number of cases and hospitalizations has shaken everybody,” said Kathryn Wylde, president and chief executive officer of the Partnership for New York City, a business group. “It’s something that we had hoped we were beyond.”

An October survey by the partnership showed 50% of office workers were expected back in workplaces by the end of January, but that number is now “questionable,” Wylde said, noting that companies are pushing back return dates and canceling gatherings.

Broadway, which was shut down for 18 months and only reopened in September, has canceled several shows this week because of Covid-19 cases, including “Hamilton” and “Tina.”

Contento, a Peruvian restaurant in East Harlem, closed Tuesday after a fully vaccinated staffer got Covid. Contento closed in March 2020 and had reopened in June 2021.

Yannick Benjamin, co-owner of Contento, said he aims to reopen next week but is prepared to miss the lucrative holiday season if Covid cases get worse. “We’ll figure it out and we’ll get ourselves back,” he said.

‘At That Point Again’

The spike in cases is making many New Yorkers rethink concerts, shows and holiday gatherings -- especially with testing centers again being hard to access and at-home kits disappearing from store shelves.

Crystal Hudson, an incoming Brooklyn City Council member, tried to get a PCR test on Wednesday after getting exposed to Covid but couldn’t find any appointments near her and had to go to Manhattan. She then also tried to get a rapid test on Thursday at a van near her, but the line stretched down the block. “Testing shouldn’t be this difficult,” she said. “We’re still in the middle of a pandemic.”

The city said Thursday it would open five new testing sites next week and distribute half a million at-home rapid tests and a million masks to fend off omicron.

Amanda Reimer, 22, a New Jersey college student taking a train into Manhattan, said she’s vaccinated but worried about the uptick. She and her family decided to restrict their holiday meal to immediate family, celebrating with others on Zoom.

Waning Immunity

The latest Covid surge is happening across the nation, but the North eastern US is the latest hot spot as more people gather indoors because of cold weather and the holiday season. While most of the new cases are among the unvaccinated, there are more infections among those who have had two doses of the vaccine and are experiencing waning immunity.

In New York state, there were 17.6 breakthrough cases per 100,000 vaccinated people in the week starting Nov. 22, compared to just 1.3 per 100,000 vaccinated people in July, according to state data. However, breakthrough hospitalizations remain low: There were 0.91 hospitalizations per 100,000 vaccinated people in the week starting Nov. 22, compared to 9.9 per 100,000 unvaccinated people during the same period.

In New Jersey, hospitalizations have more than doubled in a month to 1,756 on Dec. 15. Still, they were more than 3,600 a year ago, and at its worst point were more than 6,000.

Statewide, about 20% of New Jersey’s hospital patients were breakthrough cases in December, compared to 1% in the last week of October, officials said. At the University Hospital in Newark, about half of new Covid-19 admissions in recent days were people who were fully vaccinated, according to Shereef Elnahal, CEO of the hospital and former New Jersey health commissioner.

Booster doses are no longer a bonus but a necessity, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said at a briefing this week. But even with a booster, catching the virus is still possible.

Marc Rosenberg, 33, attended an LCD Soundsystem concert on Saturday with a group of about 15 friends who are fully vaccinated. As of Thursday morning, eight tested positive for Covid, including himself, who got a booster before Thanksgiving.

Rosenberg, who works at a tech startup, stayed home from work and cancelled plans to visit his family in Massachusetts next week. The experience has “definitely made me reconsider if I should do indoor dining or go to a bar,” he said.

“It feels like we’re at that point again,” he said.

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