New York City during the pandemic: The “new normal” in the Big Apple!

New York City, self-acclaimed “the greatest city in the world”, is nothing like her regular self nowadays. First it was quiet, empty and dark! While New Yorkers are always very proud of all the adjectives used to refer to the Big Apple, undoubtedly none of them has ever thought that their beloved city would be called “epicenter of a global pandemic” one day. This label hurts! But beyond just hurting, it has created an unimaginable reality, a “new normal” that we all found ourselves in and no one knows when this will be over.

And then suddenly those empty and quiet streets filled with thousands of protestors marching against systemic racism and police brutality against African Americans. New Yorkers are on the street showing support and solidarity to the African American community carrying posters that read  “Black Lives Matter” and “I can’t breathe”. This whole experience and energy of those protests deserves a separate write up for sure. Meanwhile, here I share some of my personal and professional observations and thoughts about life in NYC during and after this pandemic.

“…it is very heartbreaking to see this city so different nowadays.”

Remember one thing! NYC, the city that never sleeps, is known for its vibrant and busy streets during every hour in a day. This is why it is very heartbreaking to see this city so different nowadays. There are still some people on the streets, probably those essential workers and some people walking their dogs or running to grocery stores, but compared to a regular NYC day or night, it feels empty. Even with protestors gathering here and there to display their anger and frustration, and the following curfew at night, the city lacks its usual character. Remember that this is the city that prides itself on dining experience that it offers to both locals and tourists coming from all over the world. It is the city where you can try every cuisine in the world by just walking around or taking a short subway ride. But this whole city changed overnight with the “stay-at-home” order by the New York Governor on March 20 and it went into a hibernation! All those restaurants and bars are still closed, with some transitioned to providing delivery or take out only services.

“…many New Yorkers do not socialize at home. They just go out and meet friends at bars and restaurants!”

Those days of having happy hours or bottomless brunch are long gone! Keep in your mind that many residents in NYC, especially those in Manhattan, do not cook at all. Furthermore, many New Yorkers do not socialize at home. They just go out and meet friends at bars and restaurants! Since they are all closed, many New Yorkers are now stuck in their small apartments. So, the trauma of closed restaurants and bars goes deep for NYC residents as going out is not just part of our hedonistic lifestyles, but rather a basic necessity for us!

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Additionally, the world-renowned live entertainment venues like Broadway theaters, MET Opera and NYC Ballet hosting millions of audience members from all around the world with talented dancers, singers and actors are all dark. They will stay closed at least until the Labor Day (September 7, 2020) with a strong possibility of extended closings. Given that many Broadway talents usually have additional jobs in restaurant and bar industry when they are between shows, you can only imagine the overall economic impact of this pandemic on those exceptionally talented artists since all those bars and restaurants are closed. Finally, NYC’s cultural life is also on hold. All those world-famous museums like Metropolitan, Guggenheim, MOMA, Whitney, and less known but equally impressive smaller museums, and art galleries are closed. Now you can visit some of those museums virtually and enjoy their exhibits from wherever you are in the world. But, without the “real” experiences of visiting NYC and its museums, something is missing!

Reawakening and Reopening: Challenges and Opportunities

Now I want to briefly talk about NYC’s reopening and recovery using my professional perspective as a marketing professor. First thing! NYC, like every other city, will bounce back. No doubt about it. I was here on Sep 11, 2001. I literally watched the Twin Towers on fire through the windows of my school then. The whole city suffered and struggled but at the end it came back stronger than before. So, I know that NYC will go back to normal, but it will be a “new” normal. Let me look at my crystal ball and guess what that “new” normal will look like:

“After this pandemic, marketers will need to find new ways to create different type of experiences”

Whenever I teach marketing, I talk about the importance of creating experiences for and engagement with customers. In many cases those experiences require customers’ presence and active participation in the process. After this pandemic, marketers will need to find new ways to create different type of experiences while their customers are present remotely and virtually, not in person. The definition of customer experience  will also need to adopt to this new post-pandemic reality. Similarly, the concept of customer service will need to change as customers will probably be either distant or hesitant to interact with company employees in person. We can say with confidence that the customers and the way they buy and consume products and services will need to change as well.

“I see more and more boxes delivered to my neighbors from the same grocery stores. Many previous online shopping skeptics are frequent online shoppers now!”

Think about the last time you were in a store looking for a new shirt, or you were in a restaurant enjoying your dinner. Just close your eyes and think about those experiences as probably you will not have the same experiences at least for a while, if ever. In post-pandemic world, store design and atmosphere will need to change to make sure that customers can practice social distancing. Speaking of social distancing, even if NYC restaurants are allowed to open soon, they will be required to make arrangements so that customers will have enough space between them. I do not know how that new setup will work as many NYC restaurants are quite small (or “cozy” as they say) and there would not be enough space to ensure enough social distancing. Or, even if they have enough space, it would mean having fewer customers in those restaurants, and given their already high rents and other cost items, they cannot simply operate with half capacity. Also, just think about your pre-pandemic trips to your grocery store. I do not know about other cities, but there are already much fewer customers in NYC grocery stores nowadays, and they spend a few minutes in stores to grab and get some urgently needed items. Meanwhile, I see more and more boxes delivered to my neighbors from the same grocery stores. Many previous online shopping skeptics are frequent online shoppers now!

“what we do, what we think and how and what we buy as customers will change in this post-pandemic new reality.”

Finally, if you can, just think about your next vacation. Where would you go? How would you feel about going to certain countries or cities? More specifically, when would you feel totally safe about coming to NYC for vacation? If you think “in two years” or even “never”, trust me you are not alone! Or just think about your next flight. Where would you sit on an airplane? How would you enjoy food and drinks served on that plane? How would you feel if someone sneezes during the flight? So, in short, what we do, what we think and how and what we buy as customers will change in this post-pandemic new reality. It is just our human nature and survival instincts!

Of course, at the macro level a lot will change too. We are already experiencing early phases of a global economic recession. The political landscape and definition of superpowers as we know will change as well. The governments both at the local and national level will be reclassified as those that handled pandemic successfully and those that failed in their efforts. Probably Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany and Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, will be remembered as success stories in their fight with this pandemic, while many other leaders will be included in history books as examples of failures.

“…human beings are resilient, and they always find a way to survive.”

Overall, all those economic and political problems will eventually be fine, as they always do. Remember that a world war with millions of casualties and economic destruction ended only 75 years ago. Less than a quarter century after that war ended, a man was walking on the moon. So, human beings are resilient, and they always find a way to survive. My concern is the damage at the local and individual level. We all need our family and friends and our cities to feel fine. This is why I talked about the impact of this pandemic on my beloved hometown! I am still optimistic. NYC will come out of its hibernation. It is not a bear anyway! Isn’t bear the symbol of another favorite city of mine, Berlin, that happens to be my birth city as well? Remember that the symbol of NYC is apple, a big apple…That is the fruit that started the whole humanity: it has been here since then and will be here forever. So, there is still hope.

We are all now waiting for reopening, hopefully soon. Then, we will see what kind of “new normal” waiting for us. Meanwhile, New Yorkers are sure about one thing: New York City will recover, heal and go back its crazy times soon…

 Sertan Kabadayi, PhD

Professor of Marketing and Marketing Area Chair

Gabelli School of Business, Fordham University- New York City