Report: Bronx Hit Hard by COVID-19 Pandemic Begins Long Road to Recovery

Report: Bronx Hit Hard by COVID-19 Pandemic Begins Long Road to Recovery

NEW YORK—The COVID-19 pandemic hit the Bronx harder than any other borough, according to an economic analysis released on June 8 by New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli. As vaccinations rise and restrictions ease, the Bronx has begun to repair the significant economic damage caused by the coronavirus that included a nearly 25% unemployment rate in May of last year when the virus raged in the borough and throughout New York City.

As DiNapoli’s report detailed, prior to the start of the pandemic, the Bronx was on an upward trajectory, with steady economic and population growth after years of economic decline. The pandemic, however, has stalled progress in the borough that is home to one-fifth of New Yorkers and has threatened to reverse the gains it has made in recent years.

“More than a year of sustained damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on the Bronx, throwing it off its pre-pandemic course,” DiNapoli said. “The borough has proven its resilience before, with its recent long period of renewal aided by government efforts to provide basic services and boost economic activity and quality of life in the borough. The road to recovery will take time, and it is crucial that the state and city ensure that the Bronx receives its fair share of assistance to address the serious damage it has sustained.”

“Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, The Bronx had record low unemployment and development was at an all-time high, we were trending in the right direction,” said Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. “While the pandemic hit our borough hard, we will come back strong and move forward with large infrastructure projects including the Bruckner-Sheridan Interchange, four new Metro-North stations, the renovation of Orchard Beach, and various development projects. I want to thank New York State Comptroller DiNapoli for releasing a comprehensive report shedding light on our borough and working to ensure The Bronx receives our fair share of assistance as we rebuild.”

The full economic impact of the pandemic on the Bronx will take years to become known, but many residents are already experiencing hardships, the report stated.

Even before the pandemic hit, there were high levels of evictions and nonpayment filings. Bronx residents saw the highest levels of evictions in both 2018 (6,860) and 2019 (5,850) of any borough.

Many borough residents work in essential and face-to-face sectors, which increased their risk of contracting COVID-19 and losing employment to the shutdown. They were far more dependent on the subway system than other New Yorkers. In all but one month (October 2020), the level of ridership was higher in the Bronx than in all other boroughs.

The sudden and dramatic closure of businesses across New York City hit the leisure and hospitality sector the hardest, as an earlier report from DiNapoli detailed. In the Bronx, it meant the loss of 9,600 jobs — a 45.6% drop — in that sector by the summer of 2020.

The borough also had the highest unemployment rate throughout the pandemic. Unemployment averaged 5.4% in the first three months of 2020, then shot up to a peak of 24.6% in May 2020, before gradually declining to 15% in April 2021. The extension and increases in unemployment payments have been particularly important resources for Bronx residents who remain out of work.

Most businesses in the borough are small, and the measures put in place to combat the health impacts of the COVID-19 virus forced many to close. Some business owners were able to rely on economic relief to stay afloat. Programs such as Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans served as vital resources but were slow to reach businesses in the borough. Better targeting of more recent rounds of funding and continued outreach regarding the program have led to an improvement in critical resources reaching those in need. Existing federal, state and city programs to support businesses and individuals should continue to be adjusted for and communicated to those hardest hit, including residents in the Bronx.

Improved outreach and delivery of support programs are welcome signs as the borough sets its sights on recovery, but there is a lot more that needs to be done in order to accomplish a true recovery. The Bronx’s continued revitalization and improvement will serve as an important benchmark for measuring the city’s success in achieving an equitable recovery for all New Yorkers.

DiNapoli urged city and state leaders to prioritize a recovery in the Bronx by addressing its needs including: continued aggressive borough-wide vaccination efforts; sustained outreach for resources such as food distribution and rent relief; targeted programs aimed at helping those most affected by COVID-19; close tracking of relief dollars to ensure that the Bronx receives its fair share that corresponds to the serious damage it has sustained and continued investment to aid recovery.

Ahead of Pandemic, Bronx Enjoyed Decades Of Steady Growth in Population, Employment

The Bronx is one of New York City’s most diverse boroughs with the highest share of minority residents of any borough (more than 90%). Over the past 20 years, the Bronx grew faster than any other borough, driven in large part by immigration. From 2000 through 2017, the Bronx’s population increased by 10.4% to 1.47 million residents. During that time, the borough’s immigrant population rose by 38.8%. From 2017 through 2019 the overall population saw a slight decline from 1.47 to 1.42 million, in line with declines citywide.

The Bronx experienced steady employment and new business growth from 2009 through 2019. Employment in the borough grew by 20% and reached 249,000 jobs in 2019. Although the borough trailed the citywide growth rate of 29.9% for employment, it was the only borough to show no decline in employment during the Great Recession. The steady growth in employment is heavily concentrated in four sectors: health care, social assistance, leisure and hospitality and retail.

Over 70% of Bronx residents work in essential or face-to-face industries, the largest of which include 25.9% in health care and social assistance; 10.2% in retail trade; 9.6% in accommodation and food services; and 7.7% in transportation and warehousing.

The borough is comprised of mostly small businesses and in the 10 years leading up to the pandemic, businesses in the borough increased by 15.3%. This was faster than both the boroughs of Manhattan and Staten Island.

Persistent Challenges and Inequities Threaten Progress

Despite the impressive gains the Bronx experienced, challenges and inequities remain. They have made the borough particularly vulnerable to the negative health and economic outcomes of the pandemic. The pandemic laid bare these stark inequities as minority Bronx residents faced the highest rate of hospitalizations and deaths.

Certain conditions put individuals, and thus communities, at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 and experiencing more severe outcomes. These conditions include poverty, unemployment, crowded housing, underlying health conditions and access to healthcare services. The Bronx had the highest rate, nearly 42%, of residents who faced three or more risk factors. The prevalence of these risk factors reflects residents’ relatively poorer access to quality healthcare ahead of the pandemic, which contributed to the borough’s relatively high rate of hospitalizations and deaths from the virus.

Income and housing also remain critical challenges facing residents. The Bronx’s $41,400 median household income is well below the citywide median of $69,400, and its 27.3% poverty rate is far higher than the citywide average of 16.4%. Housing affordability is a serious issue facing many residents. The borough has the largest share of households who rent (80%) among all counties in the state, 61% of whom are rent-burdened, paying more than 30% of their income towards rent.

Additional findings in the report included:

• As of May 25, 2021, only 44% of the borough’s residents were fully vaccinated. 52% of Bronxites had received at least one dose.

•. As of 2018, 17.5% of all borough residents, and 23.5% of all Bronx children, were estimated to have limited or uncertain access to adequate food, the highest rate among all boroughs.

• Each Bronx neighborhood had rates similar to, or higher than, the citywide average for diabetes, obesity and hypertension, which are suggested to be associated with more severe cases of COVID-19.
Enrollment in the Bronx for prekindergarten through 12th grade fell by 6.9% in the 2020-2021 school year, compared to 4.9% citywide, with a concentration in younger grades. Pre-K enrollment declined by 22.8%. Student attendance also dropped during the height of the pandemic, but largely returned to pre-pandemic levels by the spring of 2021.

• Only 61.3% of households had reliable Internet compared to a range of 69.5 to 78% across the city. As part of a recent settlement, the city expects fiber-optic infrastructure to reach 500,000 new households citywide, including the Hunts Point, Fordham, Morris Heights, Mount Hope, University Heights, Bedford Park, Jerome Park, Kingsbridge Heights and Norwood neighborhoods in the Bronx.

• As of May 16, 2021, year-to-date major index crime in the Bronx was up 3% when compared to the same period last year, while citywide major index crime fell by 4%. Shootings have increased citywide by 82% and by 152% in the Bronx over the same period.

• PPP loans for independent contractors, sole proprietors and self-employed individuals accounted for 55.5% of all first-draw loans approved for the Bronx and for 19.9% of first-draw loan dollars, both highest among all boroughs.

• Revenue declines during the pandemic resulted in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) suspending the start of most new capital projects. This delayed the start of the Penn Station Access project to expand Metro-North Railroad service in the Bronx, but the project received important federal approvals in 2021. The MTA’s work to make stations compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act has also advanced at a slower rate than planned.

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