Coronavirus may force NYC office staffers to work remotely

Batten down the hatches — New York City is lurching closer to a lockdown.

With the largest white-collar workforce of any US city, hundreds of thousands of New York’s mobile tech-equipped workers can be dispatched rapidly to work remotely from home and alternative “safe” sites — as others tough it out in quarantine to fight the coronavirus, according to one expert.

This huge multitude of New York City workers — from Wall Street to Silicon Alley — with laptops and smartphones at the ready, could soon be working from home for extended periods, said Marc Cenedella, founder and chief executive of job-search site The Ladders.

“It’s a potentially very serious situation,” he added. “New York is particularly vulnerable. Many people come in and out of New York for business and tourism — and are at risk of a lockdown, or some type of curfew or quarantine because of the coronavirus.”

This unparalleled human exodus from the ranks of some 4 million New York workers to the suburbs and other defensive locations won’t be the only mass flight. Worst-case scenarios nationwide see as many as 100 million Americans — the aggregate white-collar population — working remotely for health reasons, Cenedella said.

As the number of reported deaths from coronavirus surpasses 3,400 worldwide — and more cases are identified in New York — the city’s businesses are moving to limit potential exposure to employees. International business travel is getting squeezed as a slate of industry conferences have been canceled, and some on Wall Street are ready to turn the switch on at off-site trading floors in the suburbs.

Last weekend, employees at SquareFoot, an online real estate company in New York, took their laptops home in the event of a coronavirus escalation. As workers returned to the office this week, management imposed a travel ban for all employees. In a companywide email seen by The Post, Eugenie Fanning, VP of people, wrote: “If you have traveled to, or are traveling to, any Warning Level 2 or 3 countries as determined by the CDC [Centers for Disease Control], upon your return you will have to work from home for two weeks. Current countries include: China, Italy, South Korea, Iran, Japan.”

Wall Street last week also ratcheted up the human defenses as it licked its wounds from market losses, despite a big Fed interest rate cut. Banks and brokerages have swamped regulators, seeking exemptions and waivers in case the coronavirus forces staff to bolt the city. Many took note of HSBC, which uprooted dozens of employees from its London office after one worker came down with coronavirus.

“There is a fear of traveling and moving around because you could get quarantined,” said David Shields, CEO of brokerage house Wellington Shields in New York.

Shields should know. The 2003 SARS epidemic disrupted his own travel plans to China from New York. “I was told we would have a physical done once we stepped off the plane,” Shields recalled. “If there was any hint of something wrong with you, they’d put you in quarantine. That scared me, so I canceled my trip.”

Jonathan Seif, founder at the ProFolio Group, said some of the fear may be overblown. In the past two decades, there have been 10 major epidemics, or fast-spreading diseases, including SARS, swine flu, Ebola and Zika that saw markets temporarily plunge. Six months later, the S&P was trading in positive territory in six out of these cases, Seif noted.

“Could this latest turn out to be worse than previous outbreaks? Possibly,” he said. “That said, the biggest difference today is the flow of information. I believe many companies will get ahead of negative earnings with revised estimates. Those reports are already out there.”

Still, Cenedella at The Ladders said much remains unknown about the spread and economic impact of the coronavirus, and how it may potentially displace millions of workers in New York and other regions.

“We’re already seeing from overseas that the disease has led to shutdowns for businesses in commercial areas, and in some cases to complete lockdowns,” he said.

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