‘Do I need to be here?’: Some New Yorkers decide to pack up and leave

Stephanie Ellis, plays with her son Nolan and her husband Paul at her home in Marlboro, New Jersey, U.S., June 19, 2020. Picture taken June 19, 2020. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

By Maria Caspani and Angela Moore

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Rebekah Rosler and her husband did not intend to leave Manhattan for good in March when they packed up their three children and headed 50 miles north to wait out the coronavirus pandemic in her parents’ vacant home in upstate New York.

“My kids were all dressed in their pajamas, we loaded up the car with paper towels and toilet paper and food,” said Rosler, 40, who works in mental health. “That was what I thought was going to be a commitment for a week.”

A week became months as New York City emerged as the global epicenter of the outbreak. The Roslers postponed their return again and again until in May, they broke the lease on their apartment after they decided to stay upstate.

Rosler said she loved her Manhattan neighborhood but it was nearly overwhelming to care for her small children in a two-bedroom apartment where her husband was also working remotely at his full-time job for a nonprofit.

The Roslers are not the only New Yorkers re-evaluating whether to stay in the country’s largest metropolis. High costs, small living spaces, density and reliance on public transport make it extra hard to deal with social distancing and staying at home.

This has pushed some New Yorkers to consider alternatives, said Bess Freedman, chief executive of Brown Harris Stevens, a real estate firm specializing in luxury Manhattan properties.

“There’s some that are going to leave because they don’t want to be in vertical living, they don’t want to be in an elevator with other people, they don’t want to raise kids here,” she said. “That’s part of what happens during a time like this.”

There is no hard data on how many New Yorkers fled the city during the pandemic or whether those who relocated will eventually move back. New York has proved resilient in the past, defying predictions of a permanent exodus after the World Trade Center attacks in 2001 and after Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

Still, New York City’s population was declining even before the pandemic. The city of some 8 million lost more than 53,000 residents during the 12-month period ending on July 1, 2019 – the third straight annual decline, according to an Empire Center for Public Policy analysis of U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

But many New Yorkers cannot afford to pull up stakes and move out even if they wanted to do so.

When the lockdown began in March, Judy Dodd, an actor and director who lives in Manhattan, said a sense of solidarity almost compelled her to stay in her beleaguered city. She changed her mind after sporadic looting in her neighborhood during recent civil unrest, but concluded she could not afford to move away, even temporarily.

“I just don’t have the cash, my work has been decimated,” she said.

As many as 300,000 workers were expected to return to their jobs on Monday as the city entered Phase 2 of reopening, Mayor Bill de Blasio said last week. But with many businesses allowing employees to continue working at home in the coming months, some questioned the need to go back to the office.

“It has a lot of people asking the question, ‘If I can work from home, do I need to be here?,” said stay-at-home mom Stephanie Ellis, 33.

She said the pandemic not only forced her to think about her family’s health and safety, but also to ask whether it was still worth living in a city whose energy and glitz has faded, at least for now.

“To pay such an extremely large amount of money to live there and not really have it be the city that we want it?” said Ellis, who moved from Manhattan to Marlboro, New Jersey in March with her husband and toddler.

“We sort of slowly realized and accepted we are not going back.”

(Reporting by Maria Caspani and Angela Moore in New York, Editing by Frank McGurty and David Gregorio)

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