UN General Assembly kicks off in New York, without the assembly

The 75th anniversary of the global gathering is unlike any other before it, with meetings and speeches nearly all taking place online

The iconic Lotte New York Palace hotel in Manhattan reopened in August after being closed for months. Credit: Willy Lowry
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On a crisp, early, autumn day in New York City, the sun glistens off Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer's famed UN Secretariat Building. The glass facade reflects the cloudless sky.

It is the beginning of the UN General Assembly and, any other year, the area would be cordoned off with police barricades. World leaders and their delegations would be weaving through traffic and dashing into high-level meetings.

But this year, the 75th anniversary of the General Assembly is unlike any other before it, with meetings and speeches nearly all taking place online.

Only a few metal barricades line First Avenue. A handful of police officers stand idly by. Men and women in running gear have replaced the suit and tie and lanyard-wearing diplomats.

“It feels surreal,” said Penny Abeywardena, New York City’s Commissioner for International Affairs. “It really reinforces the seriousness of this moment.”

New York City is eerily quiet for UNGA

New York City is eerily quiet for UNGA

But Ms Abeywardena said the city was grateful for the approach the UN had taken.

"This would have been the first, large international meeting in the city since the pandemic began, but we're still in the middle of the pandemic," she told The National.

For months, New York City has been struggling to contain the spread of Covid-19. At the height of the outbreak in April, the city was reporting more than 6,000 cases a day and hundreds of deaths.

The numbers have slowly, painfully subsided, but the threat remains.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo enforced a strict lockdown that is only gradually being lifted.

More than 200 hotels across New York City, including the Four Seasons New York, remain closed. Credit: Sophie Tremblay
More than 200 hotels across New York City, including the Four Seasons New York, remain closed. Credit: Sophie Tremblay

New York City is currently in Phase 4, with museums reopening and restaurants open for outdoor dining only.

It is a slow process and businesses have been hurting.

Online UNGA is latest hit to city’s struggling economy

Larbi Rahli, 45, owns a food cart on 44th Street and First Avenue, right in front of the UN headquarters. Usually, the week of the General Assembly is so busy, he would not even be able to have his cart in the area. This year, he has been able to stay in his spot, but he said people just were not coming back. "With what's happening, people aren't here. There's just no business."

It is not only street vendors, many of New York’s historic hotels have been closed for months, including the Plaza and the Midtown Hilton. Even those that are open are struggling.

Across from the UN headquarters, the Millennium Hilton New York One UN Plaza adapted by catering to a different clientele from its usual diplomatic guests.

"While the UN has not held its regular cadence of meetings and events this year, medical professionals have kept the hotel busy," a Hilton representative told The National.

This year, the hotel provided more than 17,500 complimentary nights to frontline medical professionals.

The renowned Lotte New York Palace in Manhattan reopened its doors on August 10. The luxury hotel found creative ways to ensure its guests feel safe.

Before reopening, the hotel partnered with public health expert Dr Robert Amler, dean of the school of health sciences and practice at New York Medical College, to introduce safety and sanitation measures.

The luxury hotel also began offering frequent hotel guests exclusive access to the same room during recurring visits, meaning no other guest is allowed to check into that room between visits.

According to the Hotel Association of New York City, hotel revenue is down 85 per cent since March 22, the date the New York pause order by Mr Cuomo came into effect.

September would typically mark one of the busiest months. According to past city estimates, about 100 heads of state and 10,000 delegates attend the UN every year.

"Due to the absence of UNGA and the US Open tennis, September revenue is down approximately $500 million," said Vijay Dandapani, president and chief executive of the Hotel Association of New York City.

According to Mr Dandapani, more than 200 hotels, including almost every large hotel in the city, was closed, resulting in nearly 65 per cent of hotel rooms, or 129,000, remaining unoccupied.

The devastating effects of the coronavirus pandemic extends to restaurants as well. A survey released by the NYC Hospitality Alliance found that nearly nine in 10 restaurants, bars and nightlife venues could not pay full rent in August.

"We're seeing widespread closures, approximately 150,000 industry workers are still out of their jobs, and the overwhelming majority of these remaining small businesses cannot afford to pay rent," said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the alliance.

Both organisations are seeking more help from the city, including relief from property taxes and lower interest rates, but also the lifting of strict measures.

“Most importantly, we would like the city and state to lift the quarantine requirement of US visitors from 32 others states and replace it with an RT-PCR test that shows a potential guest as Covid negative,” Mr Dandapani said.

UNGA's 75th anniversary was meant to be big event

Since the first session of the General Assembly was convened on January 10, 1946, the event has grown into a week-long affair with dozens of important side events and functions that attract politicians and celebrities. This year was meant to be an especially big celebration.

“What we had been anticipating was what we had seen in 2015 when the Pope was here and the Sustainable Development Goals were agreed to,” said Ms Abeywardena.

“It was a big moment and we had anticipated that this would be equivalent to it.”

Many of the leaders of the world's most powerful nations were expected to attend in person, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, instead of sending their representatives.

While Mr Putin, Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan and US President Donald Trump considered attending in person despite the pandemic, they decided to join other heads of state by sending in a video address instead, avoiding New York State's 14-day quarantine for anyone who has travelled to a country or state deemed at risk by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

For now, the blocks around the UN headquarters remain eerily quiet. Cars cruising along First Avenue are only momentarily inconvenienced by two lonely Greenpeace activists holding a large poster showing the Amazon burning.

In a normal year, their small protest would be overshadowed by one of the hundreds of larger demonstrations that typically occur. But today, they hold court, attracting thumbs up and words of encouragement from passersby.