New York City began its phases of reopenings in June, amidst a Summer that has seen New York turn around the COVID case numbers more than any other comparable state. Rather than just declare victory and start a reopening frenzy-- a strategy to came back to bite many other states this Summer-- New York has approached this cautiously. While the city is filled with inventive outdoor dining options, indoor dining remains off-limits, as do other indoor activities... bars, museums, shopping malls. In short, outdoor activities are what the reopening strategy has revolved around. Besides restaurants, more parks have reopened, as have the botanical gardens, the zoos, and places like the grounds on Liberty Island. These reopenings follow new normals: masks required, limits on capacity (enforced by timed tickets acquired in advance), social distancing markers, and sometimes temperature checks.
I recently visited four great NYC attractions to experience first-hand how each is handling our COVID world.
1. Empire State Building, 86th Floor observation deck:
The observation decks, it has been observed, could be seen as somewhat of a cheat. The decks themselves are technically an outdoor activity, but anyone who has visited knows that all the security and queueing are all indoors (over several floors), and have museum-like features built in to them. So, yes, you will be moving through the inside of the building. The good news is that, for now, almost no one is visiting these sites. I'd visit sooner rather than later, before that changes.
As before, you enter for the observatory on 34th St. Before you enter, an employee scans your temperature. Their site states a temperature of lower than 100.4°F is needed for entry. After you are cleared to enter, you proceed the usual way up around to the 2nd floor, and go through security. All employees you encounter inside are wearing masks, many wearing face-shields as well. Before you go all the way up, you proceed through the usual hallways filled with historical images and videos about the building. They even make you stop for the usual green-screen photo (in which I was shockingly encouraged to take my mask off for a better photo!). I'd insist on skipping that part when you visit. Normally, these are busy spaces/queues, but right now, I had it to myself, save for a nearby group getting a private tour from staff. Not sure what it would look/feel, comfort-wise, if they were at their full (under new limitations) capacity, however. But when I went, the emptiness was a comfort (though doubtful a great comfort for them financially). Finally, you get to the elevators. This is all a touchless experience, as the employees have clickers that control each elevator. Elevators are also limited to 4 persons max, with little decals on the floor of each elevator instructing the 4 riders to face one of the corners as they go up. When you are finally at the top, decals on the deck remind you to observe social distancing from other visitors.
I had the benefit of a largely clear day, and really liked the freedom to enjoy the space with only a handful of other visitors present. If you dislike someone hogging the exact spot(s) you wanted to take photos from, this is an obvious benefit.
After you leave, the elevator situation is the same as going up... touchless, and maximum of 4 passengers. Due to the low crowds, going both up and down I had my own private elevator. As before, the elevator dumps out back onto the 2nd floor where the corridor takes you right to the gift shop (open for business!). The restrooms by the gift shop were also open. Then, either out into Walgreens, or down the escalator into the main 5th Avenue lobby.
I would add that, all throughout the experience, hand sanitizer stations were plentiful.
2. Top of the Rock
Today, I had the pleasure of being the first paying customer to enter the 70th floor observation deck at 30 Rock since March!
At opening, there was only a small crowd of maybe around 10 people waiting to be part of this reopening. It was a very similar experience to the Empire State Building. You enter on 50th St, where a temperature check is mandatory before going inside. Then upstairs you go, and through security. Past that, the usual corridors of Rockefeller Center historic photos, infographics, and videos. You can easily skip all this, without any staff trying to take a souvenir photo fortunately. Or, like ESB, with almost no else there, you have also a rare chance to take your time and really explore these displays if you prefer. Elevators here too were limited to a max of 4 passengers, though again I had my own private elevator going up and down. Hand sanitizer stations aplenty (my favorite: the foamy kind!). All staff you encounter are wearing masks, but no face-shields like at ESB. Staff was very friendly and inviting. Once again, decals on the outside decks promote distancing.
Here too you have the benefit of enjoying the photogenic views without the huge crowds.
After heading back down, you of course proceed through the gift shop in the concourse to exit (the gift shop upstairs on the deck was closed when I visited).
3. The High Line
This is probably the most changed experience of the four I am covering. Timed tickets are required in advance, and may be acquired, free of charge, through the High Line website. Some some-day walk-up tix may be available, but I'd recommend securing yours in advance. Masks are, of course, required. It also now operates one-way (south to north)... with the only entrance point being the southernmost one at Gansevoort Street. Staircases at 14th St, 16th St, 17th St, 20th St, and 23rd St, are all open and staffed, and are designated as exit only. The experience also now ends at 23rd St, at which point all guests must exit. They are currently raising funds to extend the reopening to 30th St... so I assume the current exit point is a staffing issue.
This was, for me, the most complicated experience of the four in terms of my emotions. Obvious pro: the huge crowds that had increasingly made the High Line a sardine can-like experience at its narrowest points are all gone. Related con: that energy coming from the High Line being such a well-used public space is gone too. Reviews I've read this month indicate that, to most visitors this Summer, that pro far outweights the con.
Once you are up on the High Line, the experience is mostly the same, minus most of the vendors. The benches were available to use, bathrooms open, gardens green and wild, welcome breezes coming off the Hudson River. Since my last tour up there in February, there was also noticeable development on the Lantern House and several of the other new developments surrounding the park. I took a leisurely stroll up.
Another con for me on the very hot day I went: Rather than the convenience of ending at Hudson Yards-- where there is: a subway station, bathrooms, food options, etc-- exiting at 23rd St does mean that long walk from 10th Avenue to the nearest subway at 8th Avenue. Again, this may change later this year.
4. Governors Island
This is the experience that, to me, felt the least changed. One change: advance, timed tix are required for the ferry, on which they say they are limiting capacity. Tix cost $3 round-trip, though anyone with NYC ID can book for free (that part seemed to be on the honor system). The day I went (a hot, sunny Wednesday), the first ferry must've been at its new capacity, as the crowd lined up on South St to board felt close to a typical Summer weekday crowd. Someone comes through the queue to scan your ticket before boarding begins.
Again, this was by far the busiest of these four attractions, and thus the one that felt... almost normal, for better or worse? Lots of biking, walking, picnics, journeys up the Hills, journeys down the slides, and general lounging. Governors Island has always been a fantastic Summer daycation spot, and its open harbor location still makes it a draw during this pandemic. It has also always drawn more locals than tourists.
The big changes were that the NPS spots-- Castle Williams, and Fort Jay-- remained closed, and the non-profits/art groups that usually inhabit the Nolan Park homes were absent.
Signs indicate that masks are required during your visit, and that was certainly true on the ferry. However, once on the island, the mask compliance was... a very mixed bag. People cycling, picnicing, enjoying a solitary rocking chair on a Nolan Park porch, etc, felt very comfortable removing their masks once settled into their activity. All this activity was outdoors, and fairly distanced, so there is that context to that behavior. Still, a fair warning to those avoiding places with dubious mask compliance. All staff I encountered, however, were wearing masks.
New York's slow reopening is clearly being done with safety in mind at the forefront. I do have to hope, however, that the city will do whatever it takes to save all the institutions, attractions, and businesses that remain closed in order to do the right thing. I would add that the reports above can only speak to my own comfort level, and everyone's mileage still varies in terms of what type of places and experiences they feel comfortable with at this time. But I hope I have given a better look into what visiting these spaces is like at this time.
Stay safe, and stay New York Tough!