The breeze from the East River provides some respite from the hot afternoon sun, but the only real escape is where crowds of people are already heading: inside the Whitehall Ferry Terminal, home of the Staten Island Ferry. Hot dog stands and subway maps are scattered around the entrance while commuters speed in and out and tourists dawdle. It’s so crowded that there’s only one thing that tips you off to the fact that NYC is still in a pandemic: the mandate that requires visitors to wear masks inside the terminal and on the ferry.
Recently, Mayor de Blasio announced that the Staten Island Ferry, whose service was sharply reduced during the pandemic, will return to full service in August. By full service, de Blasio meant the return of overnight ferries every half hour, which is the only pre-pandemic service that has not yet returned. Rush-hour service came back last July, while overnight service was reinstated in May. Though the ferry is technically not back to pre-pandemic service quite yet, the increase in tourists and anticipation for full service has brought crowds back to the Whitehall Ferry Terminal.
Commuters stream up the escalators at the entrance, barely noticing the security guards with dogs as they mill about in the cavernous waiting area flanked by concessions stands and fast food stores. Security guards, cashiers, and restaurant employees are a vital part of the South Ferry terminal, making sure travelers are sated and safe. Their jobs, however, changed drastically with the pandemic; now they are grappling with the return to a semblance of normalcy.
“We had no off days,” Mathew, a security guard, remembered about working during the height of the pandemic. (Like the other sources in this piece, Mathew preferred to be identified by his first name). He noted that although the terminal was much more empty last year when there were more COVID restrictions, he and his colleagues still had to put in long hours on the job. Now there are more people coming to the ferry, though nothing fundamental has changed about his job during the return to full service.
When asked about something that still hasn’t returned to normal, Mathew replied that people still wear masks. “We give free masks to people if they don’t have any,” he said, which is a common practice in many public transportation stations. Yet even with all the mask reminder billboards and the offer of free face coverings, many customers in the terminal were wearing their masks either incorrectly or not at all. This is most likely due to the increase in NYC’s vaccinated population, as well as the growing consensus that masks are unneeded in public places.
However, not wearing a mask introduces a certain amount of risk into every social interaction, especially for those who talk to lots of people on a daily basis. Service and hospitality workers make up a large part of this group, and can be found in the terminal waiting area. From Dunkin Donuts to Pizza Plus, every concessions store or restaurant has opened back up at South Ferry. Their employees had a lot to say about what working was like during the pandemic and what it’s becoming now.
Mohsin has worked at the terminal’s Auntie Anne’s for three years, even during the restricted service months last year. He recalled that business was slower and that he had to work fewer hours. Now, though, business is “picking back up because of summer” and “because tourists are coming out.” He attributes the rise in business to the combination of the warm weather and the slowing of the pandemic, which create the ideal conditions for travelers to seek out the ferry.
Other workers agree with the sentiment that summer has come with a rise in business. Andrew, a seven-year employee at Rita’s, serves scoop after scoop of shaved ice to visitors desperate for some relief from the oppressive NYC heat. He described the environment of the terminal as “very slow” last year, but asserted that business was “little by little picking back up.” Although things aren’t quite back to normal, much of the pre-pandemic practices are in operation; customers pull down their masks to sip their iced treats as they make their way to the loading area.
As rush hour ferries run every fifteen to twenty minutes, customers are constantly coming in and out, causing terminal employees to need stamina and alertness to get through their long days. But while it can be overwhelming at times, increased terminal traffic means more jobs and a revitalized Lower Manhattan.
Nowhere is this more apparent than right outside the terminal, where ticket agents badger bewildered tourists into buying helicopter rides or guided tours. Speaking to one revealed that many had only just started working at South Ferry; their new jobs are the result of the ferry’s increased service. Slowly but surely, NYC’s economy is getting back on its feet, with every ferry ride a marker of how the city is returning to its busy, vibrant normalcy.