There is no place like Broadway – at least there wasn’t until the coronavirus pandemic shuttered the New York City arts scene last year. Nowadays, the theater district is like any other urban stretch in the U.S., with struggling businesses and relatively empty sidewalks. That is just one of many scenes that highlight the economic effects of COVID-19 that threaten the viability of cities.
“Cities are by definition, centers of energy, entertainment, theater, and cuisine. Without that activity and attraction cities lose much of their appeal,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Tuesday in the second installment of his four-part 2021 State of the State address. “New York City is not New York without Broadway … compound the situation with growing crime and homelessness and we have a national urban crisis.”
Rapid testing will be key to reviving the artistic and cultural life of cities sooner rather than later, according to the governor, who outlined several new initiatives Tuesday that aim to stage music, comedy and other performances as the vaccine distribution process continues and a newly announced commission on the future of the New York economy begins its work.
Cuomo said the state gained valuable experience in deploying rapid testing at the Buffalo Bills playoff game last weekend that included thousands of fans in the stands. “All early indications suggest this model was successful,” he said, though it remains unclear whether the game led to additional COVID-19 cases. “Why can’t we use rapid testing to open restaurants in orange zones, theaters, offices, there are so many options.” This will require hundreds of rapid testing sites across the state, according to Cuomo, who said some commercial real estate operators in New York City are also offering space for regular testing.
Comedians Amy Schumer and Chris Rock are among the celebrities signing on to a new “pop-up” show organized by the governor that will start performing outdoors on Feb. 4 as part of a public-private partnership between the state and 1,000 local organizations. Another gubernatorial initiative aims to put more than 1,000 artists back to work while funding dozens of community organizations. New pilot programs will also focus on allowing indoor performances to resume with better ventilation and additional testing, Cuomo added.
Restoring artistic and cultural life back to its former glory, however, will have to wait until enough New Yorkers get vaccinated against the coronavirus to end the pandemic, but Cuomo said the recovery has to begin as quickly as possible. “We cannot wait until summer to turn the lights back on for the arts and provide a living wage for artists,” Cuomo said Tuesday. “We will not let the curtain fall on their careers or on the future of our cities.” That all appears to be welcome news to elected officials concerned about the long-term damage to New York City’s creative economy that generated more than $100 billion in annual economic activity in the Before Times.
The gubernatorial initiatives announced Tuesday could jump-start the return of the arts during the pandemic, but it appears that the governor is leaning on the federal government to help struggling theaters, comedy clubs, concert halls and other venues in the coming months. A new aid package recently approved by Congress provides $15 billion in grants to live performance venues, which are struggling to balance new public health guidelines with declining revenues. “Such establishments are also incurring new costs in adapting spaces, pursuing digital strategies more aggressively, and adopting and enforcing safety protocols,” reads a January 2021 analysis by the National Endowment for the Arts. Getting more people involved with the arts also requires better internet access, according to the analysis, which noted a correlation that the same people who attended virtual events also attended live ones before the pandemic.
Expanding broadband access would also help other types of struggling businesses survive the remainder of the pandemic, while also making sure that students are not left behind in being able to attend classes remotely and businesses allow their employees to work from home. The governor proposed a new state law that would make telecommunications companies provide internet access for $15 per month to low-income families.
A new state commission on the future of the state economy (to be led by Sherry Glied of the NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service) will take things from there by identifying strategies for the economic recovery from a pandemic that still threatens to change urban life for years to come, according to the governor. “The post-COVID economy is still taking shape,” he said. “We know it will be different; we just don’t know precisely how different.”
NEXT STORY: Why Max Rose didn’t see a path to City Hall