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For New Yorkers, the gridlock and street closures of late September mean one thing: the UN General Assembly is back in town, signifying a return to normality with hundreds of world leaders and their entourages.
This time last year, even the most jaded residents would have welcomed the cacophony of angry horns and police sirens flooding the eastside of Manhattan near the UN headquarters.
In 2020, the assembly was held online and streets were almost deserted. Even ambulance drivers stopped using warning signals.
UNGA 2021 is a hybrid event due to the Delta variant surge, with 100 world leaders attending in person and many others choosing to stay home.
Leaders attending were encouraged to reduce their groups to seven on-site attending and access to the event has been pared down.
But there is a determination to take small steps towards a return. The traffic is just one indicator of this.
“There’s always a lot of police and traffic is deadlocked,” said Karnail Singh, who has driven a New York City yellow cab for 30 years.
And even though it is not a full slate of world dignitaries, it is a welcome return for many New Yorkers who view it as a harbinger of the end of the pandemic.
“On the one hand, I’m not a fan of the traffic, of having to show my ID just to get back into my apartment,” said Taimur Dar, who lives within the expanded police perimeter that is set up every year around the UN complex on the East River.
“On the other hand, after 2020, you kind of miss that kind of disruption and that normality, as annoying as it may be in your daily lives.”
New York City was hit extraordinarily hard by Covid-19. Since the start of the pandemic, more than 1 million New Yorkers have been infected with the virus and 34,000 have died.
The city has also experienced a mass departure as many left for employment and financial reasons, and pandemic restrictions have heavily reduced tourism, a major part of the city’s economy.
In 2020, 22.3 million people visited the city, a decrease of 67 per cent from the previous year.
The economic impact was even more devastating. The state comptroller reported that the economic impact from tourism has plummeted 75 per cent from $80.3 billion in 2019 to $20.2bn in 2020.
Those numbers are expected to climb slightly in 2021, said NYC & Company, the city’s tourism agency, with 38.3 million people expected to visit the Big Apple this year.
New Yorkers appear to be cautiously optimistic that events like the general assembly, even hybrid ones, signal the welcome return of a city still struggling with the pandemic.