N.Y. Today: An uneven return to office

What you need to know for Friday.

Good morning. It's Friday. Today we'll look at the unevenness of R.T.O. — return to office — and what it means for New York.

Jose A. Alvarado Jr. for The New York Times

So many things seemed patchy during the pandemic.

There was a patchwork of stay-at-home orders and mask rules that differed from state to state (and sometimes from city to city or county to county). There was a patchwork of regulations about eligibility when vaccines became available, and as restaurants reopened, there was a patchwork of requirements for customers to show they had been vaccinated.

Now there's a familiar patchiness to return-to-office scenarios, which vary from company to company. Bosses' expectations for when employees should come back — and how many days a week — can even vary within companies, leaving many offices empty.

Office occupancy across the country leveled off last month at around 43 percent, according to data from the security firm Kastle. But in Manhattan, only 8 percent of office workers were back at their desks five days a week, the Partnership for New York City, a business advocacy group, said last month.

In Manhattan, there are actually fewer desks to be back at. Some companies have moved their offices closer to where their employees live. My colleague Matthew Haag wrote that the idea was to make returning to work more appealing by shortening the trip. Before the pandemic, workers in New York City endured a 38-minute commute, on average — the longest of anywhere in the country. And that was just one way.

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Before the pandemic, Manhattan's office buildings supported a web of coffee shops, restaurants and stores in Midtown and the Financial District. Many closed after the daily office rush dwindled to almost nothing. For-lease signs remain in many storefronts, and 19 percent of Manhattan office space is available, the equivalent of 30 Empire State Buildings. That is up from 12 percent before the pandemic, according to the real estate firm Newmark.

Daniel Ismail, the lead office analyst at Green Street, a commercial real estate research firm, told Matthew he expects the office market to get worse before it gets better as leases signed years ago expire. He said many companies no longer need the space they have, while others have moved to buildings with better amenities, including better access to mass transit.

Yet Midtown, which emptied out when the pandemic closed in, seems to be picking up. Sidewalks are busy and there are happy-hour crowds at bars. I asked my colleague Winnie Hu what to expect.

Isn't Midtown's rebound affected by return-to-work plans, which many companies have delayed, and hybrid schedules, which many have adopted? How many office workers are going to the office?

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Yes, Midtown is still office central. The last survey by the Partnership for New York City found that just 38 percent of Manhattan's one million office workers were back at their workplaces in mid-April.

A lot of business leaders had expected that figure to be higher this summer, but many companies (including ours) pushed back return-to-work plans once again because of rising virus rates.

Given that, I was surprised to see so many people out and about in Midtown. It seems that the office workers who are back are picking up their prepandemic routines. In Times Square, the new Margaritaville hotel had more than 30 corporate events last month and expects to be even busier this month.

You wrote that people are once again chair-stalking in Bryant Park. What is that, anyway?

It's one of those essential urban skills if you want to sit and eat. You circle the park with your takeout, looking for people who are taking their last bite of lunch. You hover nearby so you can grab their chair or table as soon as they stand up. But you try not to seem too pushy or rude or desperate.

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Before the pandemic, you had to chair stalk on warm sunny days when it seemed like everyone was in the park. It's even more essential now because there are fewer chairs than before. The park did not replenish its chair supply during the pandemic. There was no need when there were more chairs than people. That's changed now. The lunch crowd reached 3,500 people a day in May, or about 83 percent of what it was in 2019.

Foreign tourists were essential to the economics of Midtown before the pandemic. What about now?

There are more foreign tourists than just a year ago — you can tell by all the different languages you hear when you're walking around.

About eight million foreign visitors are expected in the city this year, or nearly triple the 2.7 million who came last year, according to the city's tourist promotion agency. But that's still a long way from the 13.5 million visitors in 2019.

Domestic tourists have returned much faster, but foreign tourists are still crucial. Many have stayed away because of a federal testing requirement for a negative Covid test the day before boarding a plane to the United States. Until that changes, we may not see a lot of foreign tourists.

We can't talk about Midtown without talking about traffic.

Yes, Midtown traffic is back and crawling again at 6 miles per hour. That's still better than before the pandemic, when you could go just 5 miles per hour. But it's painfully slow compared with zipping along at 11.1 miles per hour at the height of the pandemic in 2020.

There are a lot of reasons gridlock is back. Transit riders switched to driving during the pandemic. Car ownership increased across the city. Deliveries have surged, and construction is booming. More people than ever are using the streets for biking, outdoor dining and socializing.

Aren't some people finding it difficult to readjust to the crowds?

Yes, many New Yorkers — myself included — enjoyed having more space in the most crowded part of the city. Rochel Pinder told me she had gotten used to walking along without getting boxed in on the sidewalk and to having her pick of chairs in Bryant Park. She's a college administrator who commutes to Midtown from Queens.

She told me she feels overwhelmed now. "There's just so many people," she said. "Personally, I'd rather have the space for myself to enjoy. But I think it's a good thing for New York City."

WEATHER

Enjoy a sunny day near the low 80s, New York. The evening is mostly clear with temperatures dropping around the mid-60s.

ALTERNATE-SIDE PARKING

In effect until June 20 (Juneteenth).

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Dismissal last fall at P.S. 295 in Park Slope, Brooklyn.Benjamin Norman for The New York Times

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METROPOLITAN DIARY

Bookmarks

Dear Diary:

A friend and I had plans for a jazz night in SoHo, and we decided to get a quick drink at a wine bar beforehand. It was a pretty intimate spot, and a few minutes after we sat I noticed how cute the bartender was — a bit younger than I was, maybe, but very much my type.

I had been trying to be more forward lately, so as my friend and I were getting ready to leave, I decided to give the bartender my number.

I fumbled around in my bag for a pen and a scrap of paper and found neither. So I resorted to eyeliner pencil and a McNally Jackson bookmark. After scribbling down my number, I handed the bookmark to my new crush when he walked past.

He quickly said he had a girlfriend, and my face reddened impressively.

A short time later, I was reading my book during my morning commute, lucky to have finagled a seat by the door.

As the train pulled into Canal Street, the page I was reading was suddenly obscured. A man on his way out the door had tucked a folded piece of paper right into the spine of my book and melted away into the bustling crowd before I could react.

Taken aback, I unfolded the paper to find a name and a number.

Looks like I got my bookmark back.

— Charlotte Rea

Glad we could get together here. See you on Monday. — J.B.

Melissa Guerrero, Jeff Boda and Ed Shanahan contributed to New York Today. You can reach the team at nytoday@nytimes.com.

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