New York’s Grand Capitol is slowly awakening from pandemic slumber

ALBANY, NY – The pace inside this huge pile of stone was once frenetic.

Lobbyists seeking to influence legislation in the New York State Capitol would stand sentry outside its doors, seeking to bend the ears of lawmakers who rushed out of debates or closed-door negotiating sessions.

Activists raced its steps to stage protests, rubbing elbows with aides on the way to lunch as school children toured the interior.

Elected officials would walk out of late-night meetings into dimly lit passageways where they would be cornered by news-seeking reporters.

These daily rituals once breathed life into the Capitol, a building that for more than a century housed a rich tradition of public service, and also endured bouts of scandal that have become synonymous with this city’s name.

But the coronavirus pandemic abruptly interrupted those daily rhythms in March 2020. The Capitol closed as lawmakers stayed home and turned to legislation from a distance.

The closure left the building’s cavernous interior, a gem of 19th-century architecture, desolate. Barely a soul has climbed its sweeping staircases, some of which are punctuated with haunting sandstone carvings, including mischievous-looking gargoyles and unidentified faces known here as “the Unknown of the Capitol.”

Gone was the hustle and bustle that also offered surprising accessibility, to witness the politics going on, even though much of that politics was still cut behind the scenes.

As deputy majority leader of the state Senate, Michael Gianaris was one of the few lawmakers required to show up regularly on Capitol Hill during the pandemic.

“It was like walking around Hogwarts at night,” said Mr Gianaris, a Democrat from Queens. “In a word, surreal.”

When the coronavirus first descended on the country, state legislatures from Trenton to Santa Fe restricted public access to state homes. Lawmakers have started holding hearings and voting on bills virtually. Many state employees worked from home.

This sea change has emptied many government buildings, severing the social fabric of capital cities whose identities and economic well-being have long been tied to the functioning of state government.

Even though all 50 state homes have reopened to the public and the Capitols have come back to life, the recovery has been slow. Some states are considering making hybrid work permanent, which could leave some government towns in a bind.

Downtown Sacramento, home to the domed California Capitol, remains a ghost town. Tens of thousands of civil servants are still working from home. “Closed” signs mark the entrances to restaurants once filled with lobbyists and lawmakers sharing expense account lunches.

Darrell Steinberg, the city’s mayor, recently pleaded with state agencies to ‘end the Covid lethargy’ and get workers back into office buildings, saying businesses ‘have suffered deeply from their absence. “.

In New York, the Omicron variant disrupted the return to Albany just as many anticipated normality. This has delayed the full recovery of the city’s downtown, which relies heavily on legislative business and office workers.

Visitors, now required to present proof of vaccination or a negative test to enter the Capitol, have mostly stayed away.

Lawmakers have largely returned for the 2022 legislative session, which runs from January to June, typically three or four days a week. Law-making had been a lonely affair for the past two years. Legislative chambers remained mostly empty due to capacity restrictions recently lifted.

Democrats who control the Legislature have passed far-reaching legislation, including redesigned congressional districts, without the typical cheering or heckling of chamber rafters.

Governor Kathy Hochul delivered her state of the state address, usually a grand affair, in Assembly Hall with just a few guests.

Lawmakers participate in video conferences at meetings and hearings while many reporters have worked remotely, away from the once teeming press office on the third floor.

The public, until earlier this month, had not been allowed into the Legislative Office Building, an 11-story marble structure where most lawmakers have their offices.

The lack of physical access had irritated lobbyists, as well as advocacy groups whose members, from dairy farmers to tenants, relied on so-called “lobby days” to meet lawmakers.

Rebecca Garrard, legislative director of Citizen Action New York, said lobbying lawmakers doesn’t have nearly as much of an impact as having voters hear them in person. She suggested the restrictions might have favored deep-pocketed interest groups with more established access to lawmakers.

“The rules of the game weren’t a level playing field,” Ms Garrard said. “If we could have teachers teaching in the classroom, then the state legislative capital could have found a way for voter visits.”

The pandemic has also wreaked havoc on businesses that depend almost entirely on people showing up for work on Capitol Hill, including elected officials and thousands of state workers.

The Capitol is surrounded by a complex of government buildings, all connected by a system of underground tunnels lined with restaurants and shops that cater to government employees.

But most of those businesses shut down when much of the government shifted to virtual work. And while many state workers have been brought back to the workplace, about a fifth continue to work remotely for part of the week, state officials say.

Ron Bulich, a farmer who sold his vegetables to state workers at the weekly farmers’ market for three decades, said many of his competitors had retired, gone out of business or sold their land.

“Last year when we were here, you could pick up a bowling bowl and roll it down the hall without hitting anyone,” he said. “Now I’ve started seeing people I haven’t seen in a year or two.”

Businesses have had to adjust to lower than normal demand, as well as post-pandemic labor shortages.

Patsy’s Barber Shop, where politicians and agency workers get their hair cut, now employs three barbers, down from six before the pandemic, after they left to become locksmiths or truck drivers.

“I miss the bustle here,” said Mark Jablonski, one of the barbers. “It was good people watching.”

The advent of remote working has also been an obstacle to the recovery of the surrounding region. Albany, a leafy, low-rise city of about 100,000 along the Hudson River, is also a hub for healthcare, education and technology.

Kathy Sheehan, the city’s mayor, said the “final linchpin” to capping off a full return was getting people back to their offices and feeling comfortable in crowded spaces again.

“If we’re going to continue to attract people and businesses to our area, our downtowns need to be strong,” Ms. Sheehan, a Democrat, said in her town hall office. “I think government towns are hurting, but I think all towns are struggling with this.”

There are signs that the city is turning a corner.

The MVP Arena, a stadium that hosts sports matches and concerts, is once again attracting crowds. The Palace Theater recently sold out a comedy show starring Kevin Hart in four hours.

About 70% of downtown employees have returned to their offices, and the number is expected to continue to rise, according to the Downtown Albany Business Improvement District.

“Covid has put the development and revitalization of the city center on hold,” said Georgette Steffens, the group’s chief executive. “Now we’re picking up where we left off.”

But she noted that the five downtown hotels, which rely more on people visiting on weekdays for business than weekend getaways, have suffered because of the emptier Capitol.

Some restaurants on Pearl and State Streets, once teeming with lawyers and lobbyists, are no longer open for lunch.

Jack’s Oyster House, a family institution serving seafood since 1913, used to operate seven days a week, but now serves dinner four days a week with only half its usual staff.

“We would have a lot of legislative business and a lot of travelers staying in hotels, and they would want to come here,” said Brad Rosenstein, the restaurant’s third-generation owner. “It just dried up.”

The restaurant, which withstood the 1918 flu pandemic, had to reinvent itself on the fly to attract more locals, according to Josh White, the managing partner. The owners are modernizing the bar area and experimenting with new cocktails, a Sunday brunch offer and tasting menus.

“There’s no amount or value I could put on what I’ve learned over the past two years,” he said. “There is extreme value in pain. Law?”

A semblance of normality began to return to the Capitol this month.

The mask rules have been lifted. Other in-person press conferences have taken place over the past week, with activists and lawmakers once again crowd building.

“So nice to be back at the Capitol, huh?” State Senator Jessica Ramos, a Democrat from Queens, told a crowd of about 50 people gathering to raise wages for homeworkers on Tuesday.

Some lawmakers had opted for virtual fundraisers during the Omicron surge.

But with coronavirus cases plummeting, many have started fundraising in person again, mingling with donors to the Fort Orange Club, the members-only mansion that has long served as a haven for politicians wishing to socialize away from prying eyes. .

At least two dozen fundraisers are taking place in Albany this month as election season resumes.

And many lawmakers remain more eager than ever to get back to their constituencies on Wednesdays or Thursdays, referred to here as “getaway days.”

“When are you coming home?” a Long Island lawmaker asked a colleague in an elevator one recent morning.

“Can I take a ride with you?”

Shawn Huber contributed reporting from California.

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