The Hottest Commodity in Pandemic New York? Fresh Air

By late summer, New Yorkers are usually feeling grateful for the air-conditioned offices, gyms, restaurants, community centers, theaters and museums that abound in this vertical city.

Things are a little different this year.

The more we know about the coronavirus — that it’s airborne, that it can float for hours in enclosed, poorly ventilated spaces — the more New Yorkers have embraced the outdoors, any way possible. There is also the simple fact that after the claustrophobic quarantine this past spring — and with the possibility of a second wave shutting the city down again — New York’s fresh air has become a hot commodity.

The parks are lively, the bike paths teeming. Streets newly blocked off to traffic are filled with people seemingly having just discovered the pleasure of the stroll.

True, certain open-air rituals — baseball games at Citi Field and Yankee Stadium, Shakespeare in the Park — are gone, at least for now. Instead, we have socially distant porch concerts and outdoor comedy.

Many businesses have proved themselves to be endlessly creative. Companies have set up shop on rooftops, hair stylists are seeing clients in parks and under bridges, museums are curating shows in their courtyards, and an indoor cycling studio has relocated to an empty lot.

Restaurants started the movement earlier this summer, building elaborate al fresco dining areas in the streets when officials determined that indoor service would not be permitted. “This is a true surviving game,” said Roberto Paciullo, owner of three Zero Otto Nove restaurants. So far, about 10,000 restaurants and bars have shifted to outdoor dining, according to the NYC Hospitality Alliance.

Just last week, Chelsea Market, the renowned (and always crowded) indoor food and retail space in Manhattan that spans over a million square feet, took over no-standing zones on 15th and 16th Streets between Ninth and Tenth Avenues. Now wood-clad enclosures house 115 socially distanced tables, and customers can order from 19 food vendors. Five restaurants are also offering table service.

So far, with coronavirus levels remaining low, the city’s fresh-air efforts seem to be working.

But Nicole Gelinas, an urban economist who is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, said that the city needs to be doing more to make the outdoors work for New Yorkers, and not just during the pandemic.

“We need to be thinking of the parks as essential services as we head into layoffs,” Ms. Gelinas said. “We should be more aggressive in closing off streets to traffic,” she continued. “We need to rethink how much of this valuable resource we give over to cars and trucks and instead give it to people if we want the city to be livable in the long term.”

More can always be done, of course, but this summer is a start. Here are a few of the ways New Yorkers have turned their city inside out.

When the city first shut down, fitness studios moved classes online. Now many are moving them outside. The Cobble Hill studio of Club Pilates is holding mat classes in Cadman Plaza Park in Brooklyn. The downtown branch of Fred Astaire Dance Studios has organized group classes — free, with a tip for the instructor — at Rockefeller Park in Manhattan’s Battery Park City. And Pure Barre’s studios have headed to parks in multiple boroughs.

Indoor cycling classes, however, require gear that cannot easily be carried to and fro. So Amy Glosser, the owner of Byklyn in Park Slope, opened a “studio” in an empty lot near the Barclays Center. Cyclists listen to pumping beats while wearing wireless headphones, so as not to disturb the neighbors.

The exertion up on the roof of Pier 17 in the South Street Seaport doesn’t go beyond bocce, cornhole, giant Jenga — and ordering pricey refreshments from the on-site restaurant. The developer, the Howard Hughes Corporation, has converted its concert venue overlooking the East River into a checkerboard of micro socially distanced “lawns,” presided over by a big LED screen showing sports and movies.

Murals that sprang up in the wake of this summer’s protests for racial justice turned neighborhoods from SoHo to Gowanus into outdoor galleries. And now as museums reopen, they, too, are embracing outdoor installations.

At the Museum of the City of New York, on Fifth Avenue bordering East Harlem, “New York Responds” features photographs of the pandemic and the protests. Printed on black mesh, the powerful images have been hung from the building’s balustrades and tucked into the loggias that flank the museum entrance. Across Central Park, the New-York Historical Society’s “Hope Wanted: New York City under Quarantine” has filled the museum’s courtyard with photographs of New Yorkers that were taken over two days in April, at the height of the pandemic.

Earlier this month, the Queens County Farm Museum invited New Yorkers to walk down socially distant, parallel paths that had been mowed through a field of sweet pea, buckwheat and rye in the half-acre installation “Cover Crop,” by the Brooklyn artist Aaron Asis. The plants will be tilled back into the soil to enrich it, and a nearby field is currently being transformed into a three-acre corn maze, which will open on Sept. 13.

When popular outdoor movie programs at Bryant Park and on Randalls Island were canceled this year because of crowding concerns, drive-in movies made a comeback. The Bel Aire Diner in Astoria, Queens, turned its parking lot into a drive in, with orders delivered to cars. A drive-in movie festival is taking place on the grounds of the New York Hall of Science in Flushing Meadows Corona Park through Sept. 30. And in Brooklyn, there’s Skyline Drive-in in Greenpoint, right on the East River, doubling viewing pleasure.

Between March 1 and July 10, close to 1,200 restaurants permanently closed, according to a new report. Those struggling to stay in business have set up outdoor tables, some with plants, twinkly lights and even chandeliers under tents.

Now entire outdoor-dining districts have sprung up, like Restaurant Row, on West 46th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, and Koreatown, on 32nd Street between Broadway and Madison Avenue, both in Manhattan. There is also the new “Piazza di Belmont,” along Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. Thursday through Sunday evenings, the two-block stretch between East 188th Street and Crescent Avenue is closed to traffic but open for outdoor dining.

With the nearby Bronx Zoo and New York Botanical Garden open and once again drawing visitors to the area, families are beginning to stroll the streets again, according to Peter Madonia, the chairman of the Belmont Business Improvement District, who helped conceive of the “piazza” plan. “The vibe is back,” he said.

Now that office buildings have reopened, some workers are trickling back, especially if their spaces have outdoor options. In Dumbo, Brooklyn, the rooftop at 20 Jay Street has become a new favorite meeting spot. It was designed by James Corner Field Operations, the firm behind outdoor feats like the High Line in Manhattan and Freshkills Park in Staten Island.

“In the past, it was a nice thing to have,” said Marco Perry, a partner at Pensa, a product design firm that rents space at 20 Jay Street. “Now I view it as an extra room with more air and less walls.”

Rooftop space has also been a magnet at Spring Place, an exclusive co-working and social club in TriBeCa. When the business saw many of its year-round members fleeing the city in March, it pivoted to offering a seasonal roof membership to those still in the city, at a discount.

Jessica Wolf, an executive director at Forbes, joined so she could escape her studio apartment for a spot on the club’s expansive rooftop, which has shaded tables, a well-regarded restaurant and killer views of the Hudson River. “It’s the ultimate office,” she said.

Sidewalks, too, are being repurposed, in this case as lobbies or waiting areas, of sorts. Pet salons and animal hospitals, for example, have been using them for curbside check-ins. At the Brooklyn Veterinary Group in Bensonhurst, a licensed technician usually goes outside to collect pets while, inside, Dr. Tony Miele, the founder, as well as his colleagues, see the animals and then confer with the owner by phone. Chairs have been placed outside under an awning for pet owners while they wait.

For decades, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights neighborhood, has offered a traditional day camp in partnership with Columbia University, with many of the activities held inside. This year, small-group classes have been taking place on and around the pulpit lawn, and new activities have been added, such as “safe” archery — the arrows have rubber tips — and mini-golf.

On Manhattan’s Lower East Side and in Brooklyn, Grand St. Settlement, which offers day camps for children who live in New York City Housing Authority buildings, substituted field trips to destinations like Rye Playland, in Westchester County, with activities within walking distance. For example, the program director at the Bushwick/Hylan Community Center in East Williamsburg takes campers to a nearby ball field to do yoga. “Basically, any game you can think of that doesn’t require contact,” said Thanh Bui, Grand Street’s managing director of youth and community development.

And while there has been an ongoing discussion, but not much progress, of taking at least some aspects of school outdoors this year, one institution has already done something about it. The Brooklyn Lab Charter School, in Downtown Brooklyn, has set up an airy reception area outside of its building.

Instead of jostling in at the school’s main entrance, the middle- and high-schoolers will take their places on blue circles spray-painted on the sidewalk six feet apart and under white-painted scaffolding, then proceed to stations where they will wipe down their phones, use hand sanitizer and have their temperatures taken.

The school, which serves predominantly students from low-income families, is scheduled to open Aug. 31 — nearly two weeks before other public schools citywide — so it’s been ahead of the curve in its preparations. Aaron Daly, the chief operating officer, worked with a facilities management company, along with architecture firms and the scaffolding supplier, Urban Umbrella, to design the check-in area and choreograph the entry sequence.

“Having this shelter,” Mr. Daly said, “will allow us to safely welcome students back to school.”

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