Letter from New York: 2020 – A year like no other

Living in New York is always a walk between the mundane and the extraordinary.  Most days are like the day before and the day after.  In other words, like life in any city or large town in the world.

But when things happen, they have an outsized impact on the lives of my fellow New Yorkers, just as they do in London.  While we missed much of the traumas that Europe experienced with the two World Wars and the devastation they brought to much of Europe, my contemporaries and I have lived through more than our share of traumas since the latter half of the last century – municipal bankruptcy, spikes in crime charged by an exodus of manufacturing jobs and unprecedented surges in drug abuse, hugely destructive storms, multiple crashes of equity and real estate markets and, of course, 9/11 – certainly the most spectacular terrorism event in modern history.

Yet each time the city rebounded, typically quickly and to new heights.  New York, if nothing else, has always proven itself to be resilient.

But nothing prepared us for COVID-19.  Like much of Europe, we were essentially bystanders to SARS and EBOLA, MERS and H1N1.  These things happened – just not to us, at least not in a meaningful way.

So when COVID came to America, we were emotionally, economically and logistically unprepared.  While the first cases in China were announced to the rest of the world just after the New Year, it would be a month before the first cases were reported on the US west coast and yet another month before the first case was detected in New York City, on March 1.  And despite having two months to prepare – more actually since we were aware of the outbreak at least a month earlier — few steps were actually taken to do so.  It was as if Britain had done nothing to mobilize between the declaration of war with Germany in September ’39 and the German invasion of France eight months later.

And once the disease hit New York and surrounding states, it hit with a vengeance matched only in Italy at the time.  The city went from full speed to full stop in just two weeks.   By March 20, New York was among the first states to enact an Executive Order closing all non-essential businesses — though, in fact, most had already closed the week prior.

The economic impact was dramatic and immediate.  Key components of New York’s economy – most prominently tourism, hospitality and entertainment – were essentially shuttered and remain closed.  This put much of the lower end of the service economy out of work as well.  Office based work – led by finance, law, accounting, marketing and advertising – quickly adjusted to remote operations, as did schools.  Thankfully, most companies had the technology in place to make the transition in a fairly seamless fashion.  (More on that presently.)

The human impact was something else.  As the rate of infections – and the deaths – grew exponentially, the retreat of humanity from public spaces was rapid and comprehensive.  While the streets never felt unsafe, the shuttered storefronts, restaurants and bars, the empty subways, busses and commuter trains and the traffic-less avenues felt post-apocalyptic.  And it continued in this state for months.  None of our previous traumas had ever resulted in this.

 

One thing that helped New Yorkers get through this crisis were the daily press briefings given by our Governor, Andrew Cuomo.  Not particularly press-friendly prior to COVID, he either had good instincts or had gotten some very smart advice from his communications staff.  While other states instituted similar briefings as the pandemic took hold, he was singled out as a leader in part because New York had the worst outbreak but also because of his seemingly total transparency.  He made a point of separating facts from opinion by literally titling sections of his briefing as one or the other.  He had experts on a dais with him whom he readily deferred to.  He gave these briefings daily for 111 consecutive days.  It was truly a textbook case study of positive and extended crisis management.  For a time President Trump attempted his own version of these briefings, but he stopped after receiving harsh criticism for frequently being at odds with his scientific and medical experts and his heavy handed use of the events as vehicles for campaigning.

Of course, COVID wasn’t occurring in a vacuum.  Other issues were shaping the mood and tone of the city as the year wore on.  Just as it appeared the tide was ebbing on the pandemic’s first wave, another storm hit our city and country – this time in the form of a massive response to the death of George Floyd, a black man living in America’s midwestern heartland, at the hands of police.  This unleashed a wave of protests, both peaceful and violent, throughout the United States, calling for police reform and racial justice and reviving the Black Lives Matter movement.  The protests in New York City – and the destruction of property that followed in a few cases – along with an outburst of gun violence not seen in New York in 30 years, received an outsized amount of media coverage and added to the city’s trauma.  It helped accelerate an exodus of some of NYC’s residents that was already underway due to COVID.

And then there was the drumbeat of America’s endless election season that was building throughout the spring and summer.  COVID both reshaped the form of politics and refocused the key issues of the campaign that is, only now, reaching its crescendo.  Initially, at least, pressing the flesh was out and virtual campaigning was the only option available.  As the election approaches, each party has modified that approach, with Donald Trump more or less, throwing all caution to the wind.

So how did all this affect us at Lansons Intermarket?   Like our colleagues in London, we quickly shifted to a virtual office setting, officially closing our offices the week of March 16, though some of us began working remotely the week prior.  The shift went surprisingly well. Luckily, we’ve had a WFH policy in place for a number of years, so every employee was already versed in the ins and outs of working remotely. As a smaller operation, our technology issues were clearly not as daunting as the ones faced in larger operations.  There were few problems with technology, and those that did arise were handled by our very able Chief Administrative Officer, Corey Jefferson.

As clients were, in every instance, facing the same challenges we were, we had no issues with working remotely.  And maintaining contact with one another was remarkably smooth.  The key was to make sure that we were maintaining ongoing contact within teams and with our clients.  Beyond client and team communication, nearly every aspect of business operations, including hiring, we were able to do virtually.  And yes, there were some negatives.  We saw some budget cuts and client losses.  And new business development is more difficult.  But we feel the worst of that is behind us, at least for now.

All I can say is, thank goodness that when we needed it most, the technology and connectivity was there for us to use.  That may prove critical given that we have no idea how much longer our current situation will go on.  In fact, when we conducted a survey of our staff, regarding their views toward returning to the office at some point in the future, the general consensus is that they’re more than happy to continue working from home.

One thing that remote working clearly cannot overcome is social isolation.  For that reason, we are planning our first, socially distanced gathering in Central Park for those of us living nearby.  Let’s hope we recognize one another with our masks on!

 

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Martin Mosbacher

President, Lansons Intermarket