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Businesses in the city that never sleeps wake up to a new reality

New York City emerged from its coronavirus-imposed stasis Monday morning to a landscape altered by the coronavirus and protests over systemic racism.
Image: New York City Begins Phase One Of Reopening Allowing Construction And Curbside Retail Pickup
A woman walks through an open Cookies store in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Monday, June 8, 2020. Stephanie Keith / Getty Images

The city that never sleeps emerged from its coronavirus-imposed stasis Monday morning with a handful of "phase one" businesses in New York City raising their roller shutters to a landscape altered by the virus and protests over systemic racism. While some small-business owners said they were eager to get back to work after three months, they expressed uncertainty about what's next.

Retail, construction, manufacturing and agriculture are the first nonessential enterprises to cautiously resume in New York, the center of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S.

About 25,000 businesses in the Big Apple had certified with the state as of Thursday that they could reopen while following safety regulations, a prerequisite for opening, said Jonnel Doris, commissioner of the city's Small Business Services Department. Each industry has had to significantly reduce operations and implement new safety measures.

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The handful of additional employees called back to work Monday morning at Martin Greenfield Clothiers of Brooklyn, which specializes in custom suits, were greeted by one-way signs on the floor and new protection measures. The building's old elevator buttons, handrails and work surfaces get wiped down three times a day with Clorox wipes that the owner was able to secure before the supply ran out.

"Today we called back in some people who hadn't worked since early March, and we started to make clothing again," Vice President Tod Greenfield said. "It's an exciting day."

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The company said that while customers haven't been getting new measurements taken, it has made some sales to customers for whom it already had recent measurements and to whom it mailed swatches of fabric for approval. A limited number of workers at the facility and at home continued to work during the shutdown, sewing masks and hospital gowns.

Greenfield is hopeful the company will start up more business as customers who lost or gained weight during stay-at-home times order new suits or order suits and tuxedos for Zoom weddings. The business, which continued to pay employees and benefits during the shutdown, has to reopen with fingers crossed.

"We're trusting that business will get back to normal. It's a leap of faith we're taking," Greenfield said.

People at the business are familiar with turmoil and risk. Founder Martin Greenfield survived a Holocaust concentration camp and immigrated to America. He got a job at a garment factory, learned English, became a citizen and became a production manager at the facility. He bought the factory in 1977 when the previous owner wanted to get out as the neighborhood took a downturn after the citywide blackouts.

As Tod Greenfield made his calls this week to determine whether employees were healthy and feeling confident about coming back, he found that some, especially older workers, weren't. One call was to an employee whose father had died from COVID-19. The worker himself contracted the illness a month ago and recovered. But when he got the call, he said, "I'm ready, boss," Greenfield reported.

Image: Phase one of reopening in New York
People wait for trains at Times Square during rush hour on Monday, June 8, 2020, on the first day of phase one of reopening in New York after the coronavirus lockdown.David Dee Delgado / Getty Images

Over 32,000 construction sites were also allowed to reopen Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio's office said Friday. Construction sites welcomed back employees under altered conditions, cleaning up job sites and implementing procedures that included workers' wearing masks and having their temperatures checked before entering, employees' working staggered schedules, and reducing working density on-site, said Louis Coletti, president of the Building Trades Employers' Association, the largest contractor association in New York City.

"We're glad to be back," Coletti told NBC News. While many projects "can come back under full construction as long as they're in full compliance with the protocols of the city and state, the first priority is to ensure sites are safe for workers and the public."

Essential construction work on projects like airports and hospitals never stopped during the shutdown, but now work is resuming on the backlog. That will put employees back on the job for now. After that, it's unknown what the appetite will be to fund new projects.

Increased infrastructure spending could be an engine for jobs, with each project generating over $1 million in economic activity, Coletti said. The city could have a "new New Deal" moment "if we get the federal funding."

If cases don't rise significantly and it meets certain metrics over the next two weeks, New York City will be allowed to consider moving into phase two of reopening, which would allow for outdoor restaurant dining and a return to business for offices, hair salons and the insides of retail stores at 50 percent reductions in capacity.

The iconic bookstore The Strand, down the block from Union Square, where protesters gathered, has reopened with curbside pickup at its side entrance — where graffiti from the protest was washed off — and limited hours.

"There's been an outpouring of excitement," communications manager James Odum said. "Everyone is excited to have some face-to-face interaction, with social distancing."

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The store has been selling out of texts by classic black authors and has been doing a brisk trade in works about economic inequality. "It's been really gratifying to help people on this journey through understanding systemic racism," Odum said.

While people at the store are glad to be back serving the community, the pages ahead are unwritten. "It's difficult for us to plan anything" because of the pandemic's unpredictability, Odum said.

Mackenzi Farquer, owner of Lockwood home and gift shops in Astoria in Queens, said, "It's been soul crushing." She shut down her five shops in March. On Monday morning, she was back open for business with a big jug of sanitizer up front in the window.

"I hope it will be super busy," she said of the weeks — and months — to come.