This week, Mick Magsino fired up his commuting playlist with Arcade Fire and U2 as he resumed his 40-minute subway ride to work. For the first time since the pandemic started, Mr. Magsino decided that he was going to return twice a week to his office near Times Square.
His company was not mandating a return, and Mr. Magsino described the Times Square area that is once again swarming with tourists as “horrific.” But after two-and-a-half years of working from home in Brooklyn, he said he missed the lunchtime halal carts and the camaraderie of talking sports with colleagues.
“I want a change of atmosphere,” said Mr. Magsino, who works in media sales. “As a New Yorker, I think it’s important to go back, to support local businesses and the delis and the cart guys,” he added.
In New York, where white-collar workers have been slower to go back to their desks than in other cities around the country, this month has offered tentative signs that employees are finally returning in earnest.
Offices in the New York City area were nearly half full this week, leaping from about 38 percent during the prior week, the biggest increase since Labor Day of any major metropolitan region, according to Kastle Systems, an office security firm.
On Wednesday, subway ridership surpassed 3.7 million riders for the first time since March 2020. And weekday ridership on the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North Railroad, which carry suburban commuters into the city, also reached pandemic-era highs in the last two weeks.
The momentum shift has coincided with the start of New York City schools after Labor Day, freeing up parents during the workday. City officials and employers have also been pleading with workers to return, as the city has seen a steady decline in Covid-19 cases since July and the recent lifting of mask mandates in subway cars, taxi cabs and ride-share vehicles.
“We have a long way to go, but we’re already proving many of the more catastrophic predictions wrong,” said Mark Levine, the Manhattan borough president.
The coming months will be crucial to gauge the shape of the new workweek in the nation’s most populous city, whose central business districts have long depended on millions of commuters pouring in five days a week.
The sustainability of the return is far from certain, with unpredictable virus variants thwarting prior efforts to call workers back. Few companies have clarified exactly how they will enforce their return policies, and many tech, financial and legal firms have been forced to accept the emerging norms of the hybrid workplace. While more workers were recently returning to the office, just 9 percent were back to the once standard five-days-a-week schedule, according to a survey released this week by the Partnership for New York City, a business advocacy group.
For months, Mayor Eric Adams has publicly scolded office workers, famously criticizing them for staying “home in your pajamas all day.” Some lawmakers say the lack of a hybrid option for city government workers has contributed to an exodus of employees, resulting in difficulties delivering basic services.
At a news conference this week, Mr. Adams said the persistence of remote work was worsening the city’s income divide. He has often described returning to the office as an equity issue, arguing that many lower-income jobs depend on white-collar workers showing up at their offices.
“Time to come back. I’m really happy to hear corporate leaders starting to say that,” Mr. Adams said.
Many Wall Street banks, among the city’s largest private sector employers, have been pushing for a return to the office since last year. The calls have intensified in recent weeks, with some loosening their Covid-19 restrictions.
Goldman Sachs, which has about 10,000 New York City employees, and requires them to come into the office five days a week, announced that as of this month, employees no longer needed to mask or participate in testing to enter its offices. The company has also scaled back certain perks, like free lunch, that were used to lure workers back last year.
JPMorgan Chase — which is in the middle of building its new $3 billion headquarters on Park Avenue — has required many of its 17,000 New York City workers to come back to the office at least some days each week since the summer of 2021. At Google, which has about 12,000 New York employees, many spend about three days a week in the office.
Office districts around the city, from Midtown West to Lower Manhattan, have all seen an uptick in foot traffic since Labor Day, according to neighborhood pedestrian and office occupancy data.
The return of corporate expense accounts has helped small businesses like Pomodoro, an Italian takeout restaurant in Midtown Manhattan. Yuanlin Liu, a co-owner who works as a cashier there, noticed an increase in pasta delivery orders at dinner time to banking offices, starting last month. He is feeling cautiously optimistic but says the uptick is not enough to make up for pandemic losses.
“Your core customers aren’t here anymore,” he said. “You kind of can’t replace that.”
Between February and August, there was a 65 percent increase in transaction volume from quick-service restaurants in New York City, according to the payments company Square.
Despite the steady increases, subway ridership on weekdays is still only around 60 percent of prepandemic levels. The sluggish return has triggered a major financial crisis for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which expects ridership to return to only 79 percent of prepandemic levels by 2026.
At the same time, more New Yorkers are biking to work. Last week, the number of people using Citi Bike on the weekdays after Labor Day was 35 percent higher than during the same period in 2019, Citi Bike data showed.
Car ownership has also risen, with about 53,000 more vehicles registered in New York City since the pandemic started, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Michelle Pham, 28, who works in tech, was required to start going into the office at least two days a week this summer and said she has found it a relief to have more organic interactions with colleagues. Her subway commute is short, only 15 minutes from the Flatiron neighborhood in Manhattan to Bryant Park, but she sometimes hires a ride-share service for the trip home at night, partly because she is concerned about hate crimes against Asian Americans.
“I don’t feel as safe on the subway anymore,” Ms. Pham said. “Altercations happen and it makes me uncomfortable.”
In March, a Partnership for New York City survey found that concerns about public safety, especially on the transit system, were the single biggest obstacle to more people returning to the office. But its newest survey this week showed that the most commonly cited objection now was that employees felt more productive at home.
Plenty of workers, like Donna Somboonlakana, are dragging their feet about returning to the office for other reasons.
Earlier this year, the agency where Ms. Somboonlakana works as an environmental engineer asked employees to return at least one day a week. Ms. Somboonlakana, 60, chose Mondays because it would line up with long holiday weekends when she wouldn’t have to go in anyway.
She is still anxious about possible exposure to Covid-19, especially because she lost many friends during the pandemic and her young grandson is not yet vaccinated. She is frustrated by the nearly two hours she has to spend in her round-trip commute from her home in New Rochelle, N.Y., to Lower Manhattan, something she has done for decades.
“Time is so valuable, and we’re very short on it,” she said.
The New York metropolitan area had the longest average commutes in the country, with 23 percent of workers commuting for at least one hour, according to 2019 census data.
The transit rebound has been much larger on holidays and weekends, thanks to tourists and day-trippers. On Labor Day, foot traffic at the entrance of Grand Central Terminal was actually 38 percent higher than on the same holiday in 2019, according to the Grand Central Partnership. But the following Wednesday, it was 31 percent lower than the comparable day in 2019.
After Labor Day, Bruce Caulfield, the owner of Tracks Raw Bar & Grill, noticed regulars from nearby office buildings who had not returned in a long time. But business at Tracks is still only two-thirds of what it was before the pandemic, when commuters would flock to the bar after work before catching their trains home from Pennsylvania Station.
The bar has survived by slashing costs. On Fridays, which are now significantly emptier, Mr. Caulfield has fewer kitchen staff, making do with one dishwasher instead of two. To cut inventory, he is offering a smaller selection of oysters and clams.
Mr. Caulfield has accepted that many of his former customers may never return to their offices — or to his bar. “I’m prepared to do this for the long haul,” he said.