New York nodded off during Covid, now it’s struggling to wake up again

<span>Photograph: Frank Nowikowski/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Frank Nowikowski/Alamy

New York is the city that never sleeps. Or is it? Post-pandemic, short-staffed restaurants are closing earlier and the city’s late-night bars, gyms and clubs are less plentiful than they once were.

Amid the economic stress, back-to-work drive, crime and other quality of life issues facing the metropolis, mayor Eric Adams and the city’s Office of Nightlife are fighting to reclaim the small hours and get New Yorkers back to showing off their moves on the dancefloors.

“As New York recovers from the global pandemic, one may wonder whether its reputation as a 24-hour town is in jeopardy,” the New York Times fretted last week.

“It’s sad that it’s difficult to buy a slice of pizza after 10pm, but I think we will become a 24-hour city again soon,” says Paul Sevigny, brother of actor Chloe, who has run a series of nightclubs including Don Hill’s, Beatrice Inn and currently Baby Grand and Paul’s Casablanca.

“The powers-that-be understand what a loss it would be to the city if it was not known as the city that never sleeps,” he says. “The last thing they want is for it to end up like Boston with all of the troubles and none of the benefits.”

Guests enjoy an evening out at Paul’s Baby Grand cocktail lounge in New York.
Guests enjoy an evening out at Paul’s Baby Grand cocktail lounge in New York. Photograph: Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images

Sevigny says demand for nightlife in the city is returning, for smaller clubs such as his and for an influx of private membership clubs, but also for cavernous dance clubs in Brooklyn and beyond.

Part of the impetus for getting back to 24-hours-a-day, seven-days a week, he says, is rent. “You’re already paying astronomical prices, so why not stay open?”

Han Jiang, a stylist at Saint Laurent who DJs at Sevigny’s clubs, says the city is “leaning toward people not sleeping again”. For now, as nightlife returns, customers are in a nostalgic mood, like much of the culture, and are favouring Abba and Michael Jackson as well as looking for something new, she says.

A 2019 report from the city’s Office of Nightlife estimated the night-time economy supported 299,000 jobs with $13.1bn in employee salaries and $35.1bn in total output. It noted that “throughout its long history, nightlife has been central to New York City’s identity. The ‘city that never sleeps’ is a destination for dreamers and doers and an epicenter of creativity.”

But there are also post-pandemic issues: New York has bounced back slowly. Employers are battling to get workers to return to offices and the city has lost 176,000 jobs. Vacancies that do exist, often late-night or for low pay and tips, have proved tough to fill.

But the shortage of workers and a surge in street crime and homelessness often coupled with mental illness, has led to anxiety among residents across the city.

Asked for a list of local tips on how to get the best bang out of the Big Apple, longtime Village Voice nightlife correspondent, Michael Musto, recently included: “In a subway station, while waiting for your train to arrive, cling tightly to a pole. Need I say more?”

The Office of Nightlife’s executive director, Ariel Palitz, told the Observer that the city is still in its recovery. “The compassionate perspective is not that Covid was a fatal blow to the persona of the city. We’re in a process of healing and improving.”

Palitz’s office has undertaken a number of reforms, including introducing mechanisms for smoothing disputes between clubs and community boards, mental health care for nightlife workers and a Narcan Behind Every Bar campaign to ensure clubs have overdose kits to help cope with drugs adulterated with fentanyl.

Young people, says Palitz, still have a strong urge to get out and stay out, to let go, drink and dance. “But now we have an opportunity to build back better. We had come to a full-stop, and we can’t just go back to how it was.”

Leading that charge is the mayor himself, Eric Adams. He is often to be found at Osteria La Baia, an Italian restaurant in midtown, or at Zero Bond, a private members’ club whose owner was recently appointed to the board of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Adams’ recommendation.

“It ain’t an album release party until the mayor gets here,” the rapper French Montana said in an Instagram post over the summer.

“When you’re out at night, it helps decrease crime. It attracts tourists,” Adams said before he took office.

“He goes everywhere,” says Sevigny. “We love him.” But some have already begun questioning whether his enthusiasm for the night could create conflicts of interest.

“He unapologetically understands that New York is a 24-hour city,” says Palitz. “He’s prioritised that New York is not just about 9-to-5, Wall Street, getting people back into offices. It’s about getting people back into the clubs, workers back behind the bar, DJ-ing and back to entertaining our businesses and our visitors.”

But Jiang cautions that while people are going out again, the nightlife scene has changed for reasons that predate the pandemic. “People used to be able to get loose in nightclubs and feel completely safe but social media changed that. They worry people might pull out a camera.”

Sevigny’s defunct Beatrice Inn, one of the last legendary wild dives, came just before the advent of the smartphone. Customers may not mind being photographed on the way in, but once inside Sevigny now has a no-pictures policy in his other clubs. “A lot of places made their reputations off bold-faced names but you won’t see those names doing what they used to do in New York,” he says.