Survey reveals New Yorkers are very scared to return to work and school

The latest in a series of surveys gauging New Yorkers’ reactions and feelings to the COVID-19 pandemic depicts a city still very much in a transitional period. While there are reasons to be optimistic, most New Yorkers are still very hesitant to return to their jobs or classes. Moreover, the survey points to a persistent testing problem in the Empire State. 

Nearly a quarter (23%) of surveyed New Yorkers said that at least one person in their home has exhibited symptoms consistent with COVID-19, but only half (49%) were tested for the coronavirus. Among those tested, 76% tested positive. This suggests there are potentially millions of NY residents with clear signs of the coronavirus who haven’t been tested.

The research was performed by the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy and consisted of 1,000 NYC residents and 1,000 New York State residents (NYC, Long Island, Upstate). The survey was just conducted a few days ago (May 15th-17th).

“These results indicate that at present we are still testing only the sickest New Yorkers,” says Dr. Ayman El-Mohandes, Dean of CUNY SPH. “If our goal is to reopen the city safely, most of those tested should be testing negative, which would mean that the spread of the virus is on the decline. We cannot open up until we ramp up our testing of people without symptoms, and conduct thorough follow-up contact tracing.”

Besides testing worries, the majority of New Yorkers are also very wary about returning to work or school. Over half (51%) believe they are still in significant danger of infection, and 69% are either opposed to or uncertain about reopening NYC public schools, colleges, and universities.

Just like other areas all over the world, NY residents are becoming more and more comfortable with remote work. Many are uncertain if they ever want to return to the usual 9-5 commuter grind. For instance, before the pandemic started 26% of employed New Yorkers worked from home. Today that percentage is 70%, and 40% of current NY-remote employees plan to work from home “for the foreseeable future.” 

So, why do so many New Yorkers want to keep working from home? When asked, the top response from respondents was a fear of bringing the virus home to their families (76%), followed by serious anxiety about using public transit (69%) and a general fear of becoming sick themselves (68%).

A whole lot is going to have to change before most NY residents are comfortable commuting to a physical work location once again. The vast majority (84%) said they won’t feel good about going back to work until a vaccine or effective treatment is widely available, and the same percentage said they’ll demand their employer professionally cleans their workspace regularly.

Another 82% want facemasks to be mandatory all the time while working, and 79% want anyone who enters their building or workspace to immediately report any COVID-19 related symptoms. Others want to see more space between employees/customers (77%), regular employee testing and tracing (77%), and temperature checks when entering buildings (72%).

With all of these changes on the horizon in offices, restaurants, and shops, it makes sense that a significant portion of New Yorkers expressed concern about their job security. Over one in five (21%) are worried that their particular product, service, or skill won’t be in demand once the economy fully reopens. Meanwhile, roughly one in four New Yorkers who have been laid off or furloughed because of COVID-19 are already planning on changing career paths.

Among newly unemployed New Yorkers, 61% have already applied for unemployment benefits. However, half are still waiting for their first check, while 41% have received some benefits (9% were rejected).

Close to one in five (17%) respondents consider themselves small business owners or self-employed, and 42% of those locals have applied for an SBA Economic Injury Disaster Loan or Paycheck Protection Program. Nearly all applicants have been approved, and 67% have already received their loans.

All in all, life is slowly getting back to a new “normal” in New York, but it’s also clear that things are going to be very different when the economy reopens in the city that never sleeps.

The full survey can be found here. It is also published in the Journal of Health Communication. 

John Anderer is a frequent contributor to Ladders News.