Phase 2 of reopenings started on Monday and Mayor Bill de Blasio said at his morning news conference that Phase 2 is an important part of getting the NYC economy back on track. Credit: NY Mayor's Office

Thousands of New York workers returned to their offices Monday as the city — once the epicenter of the global coronavirus pandemic — graduated to Phase 2, the next step in rebuilding a battered economy abruptly shut down more than three months ago.

City officials said they expected 150,000 to 300,000 workers, many from Long Island, to return to offices in Manhattan and other boroughs Monday. Restaurants and bars began offering outdoor dining Monday, two weeks after the city took its first tentative steps toward easing COVID-19 restrictions imposed in mid-March, while barber shops and salons began providing haircuts to patrons who had become shaggy while sheltering in place this spring. 

“I know a lot of us are excited about seeing the stores in our neighborhoods we love reopening, barber shops and hair salons reopening, restaurants of course, so much going on that really, really will help us come out of this crisis and move forward, get people back their livelihood,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday during his daily briefing. “Look, Phase 1 was a big deal. Phase 2 is really a giant step for this city. This is where most of our economy is.”

New York City enters Phase 2 while a dozen states, mostly in the South and West, reported record spikes in new coronavirus cases just weeks after they reopened. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said he doesn’t believe New York state will suffer a similar surge because officials have relied on science and data to guide them through the crisis. 

“We were enslaved to the science,” Cuomo said Monday on CNN. “I look at the numbers every day and we react by the numbers. We did 57,000 tests just yesterday, highest number of tests in the United States, and we had less than a 1% transmission rate. We went from the highest transmission rate in the United States to the lowest transmission rate.” 

Still, De Blasio acknowledged Monday New York streets and subways will remain far less crowded than they did before the pandemic because many companies are taking a wait-and-see approach and encouraging employees to continue to work from home. The mayor said the real rush back to offices will probably not begin until the fall. 

“There will be some hesitation at first,” de Blasio said. “There will be some watchful waiting. People will want to make sure it really works, people want to make sure they are comfortable with it. The economy will start to come back and the more people see it is working, the more people will want to come back.”

De Blasio said he was encouraged by a recent surge in mass transit ridership and traffic. He said subway ridership was up 29% Thursday compared to June 4. Bus ridership increased 22%. Traffic into Manhattan over East River bridges jumped 24%, while traffic over Harlem River bridges was up 10%. 

Long Island Rail Road weekday ridership has risen to 15% of normal levels, up from a low of 3% at the height of the pandemic, MTA officials said Monday. 

Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman Patrick Foye, speaking at a Manhattan news conference, called the figures “a significant milestone” and “a sign that New York’s careful, thoughtful, reopening is gaining steam.”

Even while celebrating the rebounding ridership, MTA officials continued to ask commuters to avoid using the system during its busiest times — 5-7 a.m., and 3:30-5 p.m.

Speaking to LI News Radio, LIRR President Phillip Eng suggested there is already evidence of changing commuting patterns. Weekend ridership has grown faster than weekday ridership, and is up to 20% of pre-COVID-19 levels, Eng said, The railroad has seen an increasing number of commuters opting for “Ten-Trip” tickets, rather than unlimited-ride monthly passes.

“We see a lot of daily trips because not everyone's going in five days a week or seven days a week anymore,” Eng said. “And until the businesses that are restarting have figured out how they're going to restart all their work, we're going to continue to monitor ridership, and we're going to continue to ensure that we have sufficient service throughout the day.”

New York City is the last region in the state to enter Phase 2. Long Island has been in Phase 2 since June 10, while other parts of the state are already in Phase 3. 

Long Island is scheduled to start Phase 3 Wednesday, which means restaurants can offer indoor dining and personal care businesses such as nail salons can reopen. Phase 3 also permits larger gatherings of people. 

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