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Senator Chuck Schumer spoke passionately of the “beating heart of our city, and beating heart of the world” at the Times Square Alliance (TSA) Annual Public Meeting on Thursday. He was talking in praise of the work of TSA outgoing President Tim Tompkins, who steps down next month after 19 years of bringing new life to the crossroads of the world.

An empty Times Square. Photo: Times Square Alliance

In March and April, Times Square changed from that Tompkins describes as “being everything that you love and hate about urban life and New York”, to an empty space populated by TSA sanitation staff and TV crews talking about how eerily quiet New York was. It became an iconic image of the pandemic.

Since then, the city and Times Square have been on a life support machine, and the graphs flashed up in the zoom call shared the vital statistics of this essential organ of the New York economy.

The Times Square team shared the patient’s vital statistics with the family.

The Average Daily Pedestrian Counts show the extent of the trauma, and the steady — but slow — recovery. When COVID-19 hit, the pedestrian count dropped over 90%.

Since then, the daily counts have crept to over 100,000 visitors in September and October (and there was sure to have been a surge in November for the election results) — but there is still concern that a second lockdown will send these figures tumbling again.

Crowds gather after the elections result was called for Joe Biden. Photo: Phil O’Brien.

Next up, the economic signs of life, the lifeblood of New York City. Hotel occupancy is in line with the overall spending decline in Times Square. These numbers have undoubtedly flatlined and show no signs of recovery without a vaccine. The figures are also distorted by them being the percentage of open hotels. With over 50% closed, the occupancy figure is nearer to 14%, reported the Alliance.

TJ Witham, Communications Director of TSA, said: “In the wake of the pandemic, we expect significant vacancies amidst worsening economic conditions. Our challenge is to ensure the maximum amount of businesses survive the pandemic.”

There’s certainly been a dramatic improvement from a low point in April of just 13% of Times Square businesses open. In October, that had increased to 56% — and their initiatives like Taste of Times Square have actively driven people back to these businesses.

Council Member Keith Powers shared the concern of many at the plight of small businesses in the area. “Their entire lives are tied up in these businesses,” he said.

Theaters and Movie Houses closed. Photo: Phil O’Brien.

Entertainment has been hit the hardest, with 90% of venues still shuttered. The figures show 55% of hotels fully closed (with others being used to house the homeless rather than tourists). Although, 61% of offices are open — all reports point to little signs of a return of workers to their desks in the city.

Cuts in the budget of the Department of Sanitation have stretched the staff at Times Square. Although foot traffic has greatly decreased, the trash collection has spiraled. When there are now collections on a Sunday and public holiday the TSA staff can collect over 700 bags of garbage that need to be taken away.

There has also been a rise in graffiti (which 95% of the time is removed within 4 hours of being reported).

The neighborhood has seen a 200% increase in homeless people in the Square late at night. This has started to reduce with the help of homeless outreach coordinated with Breaking Ground.

This year’s New Years Eve Ball Drop will need to be virtual, with the area sealed off except for a few guests in social pods in a made for TV event. It’s the first time in over 100 years that crowds have not gathered at the crossroads of the world to bring in the new year.

The signs of life are getting better, but the city (and Times Square) is undoubtedly a sick patient.

It was good to see the optimism of those at the APM (and this was before the meeting). In a quick poll about business prospects looking out to 24 months, 65% were somewhat or very optimistic.

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