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What’s It Like to Return to the Office?

Tales of New Yorkers who are braving buildings in Midtown, schools, gyms and other communal spaces.

By Alyson Krueger

Ever so carefully, New Yorkers are trickling back into offices that have been revamped for the pandemic. But as infection rates rise around the country and city residents fear a repeat of last spring, the return to in-person meetings and chatter in break rooms has been slow: As of September, only 10 percent of office workers in Manhattan were back, according to a recent report.

So, what’s it been like to go back? Here, a selection of professionals — from a high school teacher in Washington Heights to a paralegal in Midtown — share their experiences.

Back to the law firm

Lauren Pellegrino, 25, paralegal in Midtown Manhattan

We went back to work on Sept. 28. They gave us a two-week warning. Mentally I wasn’t ready. It was like, “Don’t worry, we have hand sanitizers and masks, and all this stuff.” But I kept thinking, If I have to go to work in a hazmat suit, maybe it’s not time yet?

Midtown is empty; it’s completely dead. You know Wok to Walk? I would literally marry that place, but all the locations are closed, and that was the one thing I was excited about in Midtown. Now I have to get a freaking salad or something.

I take the M into the city from Bushwick, and before Covid, it was a sardine can. Now I get a seat every day. I only go to work every other day, and the office is only at about 40 percent capacity. Since there aren’t that many people in the building, they are doing this weird thing to save electricity. Randomly all the lights will shut off, and you have to wave your hands in front of a motion sensor for them to come back on.

I actually think I work more when I’m at home. Anything I can do in the office, I can do from home. During the pandemic they even passed an executive order saying you can notarize stuff over Skype. We have to serve things in the mail, but they bought us all printers and gave us an allowance on Stamps.com.

I am not understanding the rush to get back in. I would like remote work to be optional. The fact that going to the office is now mandatory is a bit dystopian to me.

Back to the gym

Mauro Maietta, 37, district manager, Crunch Fitness

On Sept. 2, we reopened for full operations, except for group fitness. My primary role is to oversee training, and I still have a few clients who I train myself. I am not nervous at all. We installed this awesome machine called an airPHX that recycles air every 90 minutes. Our gyms are so clean, I would eat lunch on the middle of the floor and feel perfectly fine about it.

Our clubs used to have prime times, in the morning before work or on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday evenings. They were packed, energy was high, every piece of equipment was in use, music was blasting. We don’t see that anymore. Now we have a constant flow of 6 to 11 people every hour. It helps with the social distancing, but the energy isn’t the same.

Back to the restaurant

Steve Lee, 34, sous chef, Mokyo, East Village

I went back around June when the restaurant reopened. It was takeout and delivery and then outdoor dining and now indoor dining. We are getting busier and busier. Most people are sitting outside so we had to change the menu. For example, for the steak dish we now use hot stones to keep them heated a little longer.

Our restaurant opened right before the pandemic, and it’s almost like we are opening again. I had to relearn all the new dishes and the way of cooking. It is hard to wear your mask and gloves more than 10 hours a day. But it is safer, so I’ve gotten used to it.

I drive to work from Bayside, where I live, and while the traffic is about the same, it’s hard to find a parking spot. Because of all the outdoor dining there is less space. Obviously I support it though.

Back to architectural design

Brooke Luckock, 41, project manager, Design Republic, Midtown

We officially reopened after Labor Day. We implemented a lot of practices we are telling clients to do: adding signage and hand sanitizer; creating a seating plan so no one is directly across from someone who is also in the office. We also did a town hall. There were a lot of questions about what it is like riding on the MTA. I take New Jersey Transit from Linden, and then the E train from Penn Station, so I helped them.

It’s a little sad because the vibrancy of the city is gone, but on the other hand, it’s nice. I actually sit outside and enjoy my lunch now. I never did that before when it was nuts.

During the pandemic it’s been constant Zoom meetings. Now that is still happening, but I also have in-person meetings. What I missed when I wasn’t in the office is the spontaneous collaboration. Now I can walk by someone and ask a question because they are here.

Also: a partner and I both have vegetable gardens, so we compete every year on who grew the spiciest peppers. Last week we made margaritas and bloody Marys with them, Covid-style, with latex gloves. It was so fun. You can’t have a margarita party on Zoom.

Back to school

Marilyn Ramirez, 51, high school teacher, Washington Heights

The students returned in October. I am a hugger, and I remember on the first day back it was hard to just do elbows. The freshmen are always shy, but they were even more shy because we had only met them through the computer.

We are in the building two or three days a week and then home, on the computer, the rest of the time. It’s boring in the school. Kids sit in the same classroom all day while teachers rotate. They can’t hang out in the halls or do clubs or sports. One student told me he can’t come back because it’s too awkward. I am a little nervous about Covid. I know a teacher who got it at her school. You just have to be diligent. I was in a room today, and the window wouldn’t open, so I couldn’t be in there.

I now love to teach remotely because I’ve been getting certified using different tools. I just finished a class on how to make interactive lessons. It’s a lot more fun. You can’t just stand in front of a computer and lecture kids anymore.

But I do miss the students. I can’t wait until we can sit in a circle again and do a group project or share a box of cookies or take a walk together. Nothing can beat that human connection.

Back to tech media

Laura Sapp, 43, head of talent, IAC, Chelsea

They opened up the office on a volunteer basis after July 4; I came back right away. It was refreshing to be able to have that separation from work and life. I am happy to say my little cactus plant on my desk survived. The other day I had a Zoom meeting with a hiring manager, and we both realized we were in the office. We had this look of joy and found a conference room to meet in.

We have an app where you put in your information and go through questions. You get a check mark that you can go into the office, and you show that to security. We have stickers on the elevators where we are supposed to stand. We also have all these new lounges outside that they created for us. They have heat lamps and a beautiful view of the Hudson River. We pop out there when we want to have a socially distanced conversation or meeting.

It’s fun to remember what clothes you have in your closet and put together outfits for work everyday. It feels good to put on makeup and have some semblance of normalcy.

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