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As Broadway lights come back on, theater district businesses reflect on 18-month shutdown

Big name shows like Hamilton, Wicked and The Lion King roll their curtains Tuesday for the first time since the pandemic began, as Broadway reopens at full capacity. But fans and performers alike aren’t the only ones excited about the return of the Great White Way – the businesses surrounding Midtown Manhattan theaters are too, but with caution.

Alan Rosen, third-generation owner of Junior’s restaurant and bakery, expects a “big night” for his two theater district locations.

“Broadway is just a barometer for New York and it’s also a barometer for our business,” he said, adding that business had already grown 10% since the first wave of Broadway reopening in the United States. Beginning of the month. “It’s important to us.

Junior’s, a New York City staple and dessert, closed its three New York properties at the start of the pandemic. Its downtown Brooklyn location reopened last summer, and the two downtown properties only reopened recently.

The cast of “Waitress” at the musical’s encore reopened on Broadway on September 2, 2021.Bruce Glikas / Getty Images

Aside from a fire that led to a nine-month closure of the Brooklyn site in 1981, Rosen said that in Junior’s nearly 71-year history, he hadn’t suffered anything like it in the past 18 years. month. Although he said he was still “a little concerned” about the impact of Covid, as winter approaches Rosen said he finds relief in the fact that business is much better. than they were, now down only 30% from the pre-pandemic era.

“I hope there will be light at the end of this tunnel here and I look forward to the time when we are 100%, not just in business but in our lives,” he said. . “We look forward to welcoming all of our guests back, very happy to have survived.”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called the full Broadway comeback a “big night to come back to New York” during a press briefing on Tuesday, noting that it is bringing back “a lot of jobs.”

“It’s really, really exciting,” he said. “It’s about who we are as New Yorkers. We are the capital of arts and culture. Broadway and all of the arts and culture in the city expresses life, energy, diversity, the spirit of New York.

New York City’s tourism industry has suffered greatly during the pandemic, contributing about 75% less to the city’s economy in 2020 than in 2019, according to an April 2021 report from the Office of the Comptroller of New York State. Employment in the industry also fell by 89,000 jobs, or more than 30%, in 2020. A 10-year streak of record tourism growth came to a halt last year, with just 22.3 million people visiting the city, down 67% from the previous year, according to the report.

Pedestrian traffic levels in the heart of the theater district are recovering. Total chain store foot traffic in the Times Square Alliance business improvement district, an area stretching from West 53rd Street to West 40th Street, recovered 51% in August 2021 from August 2019 , according to a report from the foot traffic analysis company Placer. have. More specifically, the pedestrian traffic of catering establishments rebounded by 55%, while the pedestrian traffic of hotels rebounded by 61% for the same period of comparison.

Vijay Dandapani, president and CEO of the New York Hotel Association, which represents nearly 300 hotels across the city, said in an emailed statement that the industry is “strongly supportive of the reopening. of Broadway ”and welcomes fans. However, Dandapani also said it was still “too early to say whether the occupancy rate has improved significantly as a result, given that most sources of tourism, especially the international market, remain closed. “.

Peter Dafnos, president of Westway Diner, a restaurant one avenue from several Broadway theaters, doesn’t jump to conclusions either.

“It’s a day-to-day operation,” he said. “It’s like starting from scratch.

Although he said the return of Broadway “means a lot” given the number of spectators, crew members and performers who typically walk through Westway’s doors, Dafnos remains skeptical of a possible increase in business. in the near future, especially given the usual September lull and uncertainty of the delta variant of the coronavirus as winter approaches.

“We haven’t done anything special in return for Broadway because again it’s a wait-and-see policy,” he said. “We’ve been in a pattern of waiting, as they say, just waiting to see what happens.”

Dafnos, who told NBC News at the start of the pandemic that Westway’s business was down 95% at the time, is still waiting 50% of the recovery before the pandemic. The restaurant still operates at reduced hours.

“At this point, if my business could make enough money to break even, I’m happy,” he said.

Other Broadway shows like Come From Away, Aladdin and Moulin Rouge are expected to return in the coming weeks.