Even as trains sat mostly empty and silence filledVanderbilt Hall, for one day it felt like a time capsule in a corner of Grand Central Terminal: The station’s famed Oyster Bar, which had closed for seven months because of pandemic restrictions, had reopened and 80 of its 81 reservations slots were filled.
Soon the flood of customers dwindled to a trickle, and only two weeks after the restaurant reopened, it closed.
For over a century, the New York City subway has served as the backbone of the city’s economy, shuttling riders to workplaces and tourists to famed sightseeing spots. At the same time, the system spawned its own economic ecosystem of businesses sustained by the millions of people traipsing through stations every day.
But when the pandemic decimated ridership, those establishments lost almost all their customers, dealing a blow at least as devastating, if not worse, as the pain the outbreak has inflicted on businesses above ground.
The number of transit-linked businesses, from newsstands and hot dog vendors to florists and shoe shiners, had already been in steady decline as print newspapers lost favor and tighter regulations meant to make the subway system cleaner and less cluttered shut down stores.
Now the prolonged period of low ridership has made the situation even worse.
Since March, 77 of the 321 retail businesses still operating in the system have permanently closed, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the city’s subway.
In an effort to keep remaining shops open, the transit agency adopted a plan last week to offer long-term rent relief, adjusting rents to reflect current sales until business returns to normal.
“We want to make sure when the system comes back, we haven’t lost all the amenities for our customers,” said Janno Lieber, the head of the authority’s capital construction.
Still, some shop owners say with subway ridership at just 30 percent of normal levels — and unlikely to rebound to pre-pandemic levels anytime soon as more businesses keep their workers home — rent relief may not be enough to keep them afloat.