Cuomo announces plan to get workers back to offices

Hundreds of rapid-testing sites will be opened

Andrew Cuomo wants NYC workers to return to otherwise empty office buildings. (Getty)
Andrew Cuomo wants NYC workers to return to otherwise empty office buildings. (Getty / Photo Illustration by Alison Bushor for The Real Deal)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is pushing a plan to get employees back in office buildings — and office landlords are on board.

In the second installment of his 2021 “State of the State” address, Cuomo announced that rapid testing would be used in state-designated orange zones to open office buildings, along with restaurants and theaters.

In orange zones — where the seven-day average Covid rate reaches 4 percent for 10 days and hospitals have 85 percent of capacity — there is limited outdoor dining, and some non-essential businesses can operate at reduced capacity.

Cuomo said he will work with the real estate community to open hundreds of new “pop-up” rapid testing sites, where people can be tested before engaging in a social activity or patronizing a business.

He said that major commercial operators with space totaling more than 100 million square feet have already agreed to offer regularly scheduled Covid tests to all tenants in their buildings, although he did not offer specifics on who has committed to such a testing program.

“Office buildings are the engines of our economy,” said Cuomo. “Bringing workers back safely will boost ridership on our mass transit, bring customers back to restaurants and stores and return life to our streets.”

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Some of New York City’s prominent commercial landlords, including RXR Realty, Related Companies and Rudin Management, have pushed for workers to return to offices, with some arguing it is a civic duty.

In April, amid the first wave of Covid-19 cases, the Real Estate Board of New York began coordinating with New York state to craft a return-to-office plan. James Whelan, president of REBNY, said that the trade association’s members are now working with the state to offer free space for the rapid-testing centers in retail spaces and large commercial buildings.

“We are committed to significantly expanding this effort over the coming months, as increasing access to rapid testing will play a crucial role in our City’s economic recovery as the governor stated,” said Whelan.

The plan is a welcome development for New York City’s office sector, but it is unclear if rapid testing will be enough to entice workers back to their offices.

As commercial owners pushed for employees to get back to offices, workers showed little desire to do so. By the end of October, only one in 10 Manhattan workers had returned; by mid-November, only a quarter of employees nationwide had returned.

Some companies have instead embraced the transition to working from home. Zillow has said its workers may continue to do so indefinitely, while Google pushed back its target date for employees going back to offices to September 2021.