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NYC's Office Buildings Are Readying To Reopen, But Most Workers Aren't Ready To Come Back

New York City is inching back to life, and the owners of some of the world’s priciest, densest buildings are working toward a new era of protocols and regulations that would have been unimaginable four months ago.

7 World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan, where workers with face masks man the front desk.

The city took its first tentative steps to a return to normality this week, starting Phase 1 of the state's staggered reopening plan. Phase 2 will allow office buildings to open their doors once more. Temperature check technology, reduced elevator capacity and rules governing face coverings are all becoming de rigueur, as landlords rush to lay out their plans and ease the anxieties of a shaken workforce.

“We are only as safe and healthy as anyone who comes in,” Silverstein Properties Chief Operating Officer Dino Fusco told Bisnow this week.

Silverstein is rolling out a suite of changes across its 13M SF office portfolio in the city and is sharing the internal company return-to-office plans with all tenants.

“There is a lot of anxiety,” Fusco said. “There is no one-size-fits-all, and the majority of companies are moving with caution.”

Phase 2, which Mayor Bill de Blasio has said likely won't begin until July, will also allow for real estate services, outdoor dining and barbershops to start back up. While office buildings can open, the state has mandated they must function at 50% capacity — and many companies are choosing to keep their workers home for the rest of summer, at least.

“It is a lot to take on … You can’t get it wrong,” said PwC Advisory Director Katherine Huh, adding many companies are keeping staff remote until they can figure out the best approach. “Even my most conservative clients, the ones that are dying to get back into the office, have accepted the fact that they will not be back until the fall.”

The Partnership for New York City polled dozens of companies, and just 10% reported that workers would be back at their desks by Aug. 15, and less than a third are planning a full return by the end of the year, The New York Times reported this week.

Fusco said several tenants said they may not be back until after Labor Day, and that concerns about the safety of public transportation remain a major factor.

For its own staff, Silverstein is allowing anyone who feels uncomfortable returning to the office to remain remote, and it has doubled down on providing videoconferencing so no one feels at a disadvantage, Fusco said. The developer, which is headquartered in its 7 World Trade Center building, has created an employee rotation plan to make sure less than a third of the staff is at work at any one time, and intermingling between workers is reduced.

Cleaning underway at Sapir's 261 Madison Ave., which is one of the New York City offices that has opened

Silverstein employees will be required to wear a face mask except when sitting at their desks, tables have been removed from all kitchens and conference tables that would normally have 12 seats now have four. At Silverstein buildings, anyone who comes inside will be required to wear a face covering, security guards will enforce social distancing, elevator capacity will be reduced to five at a time and antimicrobial film is being placed on all high-touch areas.

While the company looked into temperature scanners, ultimately, it made the call it wasn’t worth it.

“The truth of the matter is [it is] very unreliable and inaccurate," Fusco said. "People come into a building and their temperature readings are infused by the temperature of their skin … It could send a false sense of security.”

RXR Realty, however, which owns 75 Rockefeller Plaza, 230 Park Ave. and the Starrett-Lehigh Building, will be installing more than 50 thermal-grade scanners across its entire portfolio. The buildings will not be admitting people if they fail the test, RXR Chief Operating Officer Frank Pusinelli said. 

Pusinelli said masks will also be mandatory in all common spaces RXR owns, elevator capacity will be limited and stairwells have been designated for upward or downward foot traffic. The Long Island-based developer and investor has also built an app for tenants that will help them rotate teams and stagger shifts.

With increased security and porters, operating costs are going up, Pusinelli said, though he couldn’t comment as to whether the cost is being passed onto the tenants — many of whom will be starting with just a portion of their employees at the office.

“We have seen a measured approach from most tenants," he said. "They are cautious until things like mass transit are figured out … They are erring on the side of caution, starting with 25 to 30% occupancy. There is a tremendous desire to get back to work, and I know people are looking forward to it, but everyone has to be patient with the process. The main objective is safety.”

Many buildings are requiring face masks to be worn in all common areas.

The Sapir Organization, which owns office buildings 260 Madison Ave. 261 Madison Ave. and 2 Broadway, is also installing technology to check people’s temperatures at buildings. If someone records an elevated temperature, they will be sent to a “cooling-off area”, said Husein Sonara, Sapir’s chief operating officer, and asked to check again.

“We don’t want to be in a position that we are turning into a dictatorship and we are turning people away,” he said. "We are not looking to disrupt people’s dynamics."

The company is also placing an antimicrobial film on high-use touch points and rolling out increased disinfecting throughout common areas. Tenants will be responsible for their own space, but Sapir is working to help them access any personal protective equipment they may need, Sonara said.

Sapir has updated its house rules to require tenants to inform the landlord if they have a confirmed case of COVID-19, he added.

“This is a common threat,” he said. "We are all facing it. We have to work together."

Solomon Page, which leases 52K SF of offices at 260 Madison from Sapir, has developed its return-to-work plan that goes beyond its landlord's mandates. The staffing and executive search company, which has 200 workers at its Midtown office, will start bringing a quarter of its staff back to the office on a rotating schedule for 30 days when New York City enters Phase 2, co-founder Lloyd Solomon said.

“It's not us versus them," he said. "We are operating alongside our landlord so that we both get to the other side together."

Everyone who returns in the first phase will be required to take a test for the virus and an antibody screening, Solomon said. The tests will be run again before the company moves to its own Phase 2.

“The delicate balance we all face is that we are trying to keep people safe, we are trying to keep people accountable ... [And] we have to deal with people’s sensibilities and anxieties,” he said. “You have to consider the business objectives, you have to consider people's feelings and circumstances.”

Elevators have been a major challenge for New York City buildings when safeguarding against the coronavirus.

Transwestern Partner Lindsay Ornstein predicted some companies will opt not to return to full capacity at the office until 2021. Her advice to tenants, largely, has been to invest in technology as opposed to costly office changes that may not be relevant in a few months' time.

“When tenants ask us, 'Where do we spend the dollars?’ our first answer is, ‘If you are going to spend on anything, spend on tech, so that you can use it far after COVID has resolved,” she said, pointing to things like speedy ways to share files and strong videoconferencing tools.

Architect Demetrios Comodromos, a partner with Method Design, said he is warning against making radical changes to offices.

“You should be doing work to make sure that you are lowering the occupancy of the office, so asking how you can space people out within an open setting," he said. “The last few years have been about building equity in offices, getting people light at their desks, reducing corner offices … We don’t want to lose that in a two- to three-month period because we are panic proofing against COVID.”