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It was supposed to be the summer when things returned to at least “kinda normal” here in the Big Apple.
Lots of us have received the vaccine, and Wall Street’s biggest firms (JPMorgan, Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, Bank of America and Goldman Sachs) have been boasting about their own form of herd immunity, with around 90 percent of their workforces vaccinated, senior execs at the firms tell me.
The financial industry — a major driver of the city’s economy — was slowly bringing its people (and their hefty salaries) back to the office to spread the wealth of a booming stock market to local businesses.
Not so fast. Word on the street is the CEOs of the big banks are growing anxious for an obvious reason — the rapidly spreading Delta variant of the coronavirus. And also a somewhat less obvious one: The propensity of elected officials here to screw up the public-policy response to the virus.
That means there’s a real possibility that the New York financial industry — the economic engine of the state and in many ways the country — could crawl back into its 2020 fetal position and delay returning to the office until well into the fall or possibly next year, senior execs at these firms reluctantly concede.
I want to underscore the word “reluctantly” because the CEOs of the banks that have begun to tell their employees to get back to the office really do want to keep it that way. Yes, there is a reason why JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley — the banks with the strictest return-to-work policies — are the crème de la crème of Wall Street.
Each has a culture of teamwork and excellence, and the people running the banks know both are difficult to achieve with Zoom meetings. Each firm has instituted the most rigorous back-to-office mandates in corporate America. Goldman and JPM are demanding that many employees return immediately. Morgan Stanley wants its people back in the office by Labor Day.
On the positive side of the Delta outbreak, New York City area hospitalization levels remain low. Those admitted to area ICUs are mostly unvaccinated, while most Wall Street workers got the shot. So-called breakthrough cases result in mild or no symptoms.
But there’s always a “but” when it comes to the public-policy response of our elected officials, particularly here in New York. Comrade Bill de Blasio won’t be mayor this time next year, but he officially doesn’t leave office until January. On top of that, we still have Gov. Cuomo to muck things up for at least 18 more months.
Both deserve low marks for the harsh lockdowns that turned a nearly deserted Midtown Manhattan — the epicenter of our business community — into a playground for criminals and the homeless last year and continue to hamper our recovery now.
One worry at the banks is that the dynamic duo do it again, returning us to business closures or something less Draconian but still destructive to large businesses like massive indoor-mask mandates. And it’s something every big firm is planning to address with possible delayed reopenings, even if publicly they will tell you there are no “plans” to change course.
Good thing for New Yorkers that bank execs give low odds of a second harsh lockdown. The economic and political price would be severe since so many New Yorkers know what Cuomo and de Blasio ignored in 2020; non-lockdown states (Florida and Texas) fared better from a business standpoint and not drastically different from a COVID standpoint than we did.
A more likely, and still worrisome, response would be the return of the indoor-mask mandate, Wall Street executives tell me. Los Angeles just implemented one and California Gov. Gavin Newsom is weighing a statewide edict.
Cuomo has a history of following Newsom’s disastrous COVID policies, thus a real concern among bank executives is that he will do so when it comes to masks. The problem with masks: It’s difficult and maybe impossible to integrate thousands of people — the size of the New York banking workforce — in an office environment with their faces covered all day.
“It defeats the purpose,” one bank CEO told me. “Masking will definitely change reopening plans.”
Part of me wants to think our elected officials have learned something from 2020. Then again, this is Cuomo and de Blasio we’re talking about, and Wall Street is at least planning for the worst.
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