(Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash)

As New York’s quarantine began in March, Piece of Cake Moving & Storage saw a spike in the number of customers requesting their services. “A lot of people were scared that the city would shut down,” recalled Voyo Popovic, the moving company’s general manager. Many clients pushed up their moving date from April to March, but the higher volume didn’t carry over into the next month. Piece of Cake completed just 758 moves in April, compared to 924 in March. To keep his business running, the company has lowered its rates, not just to be competitive in the market but also to make sure its employees keep their jobs.

While New Yorkers are still being asked to stay at home, many have been on the hunt for new places to live or chosen to get away from the crisis’s epicenter. “The pandemic has convinced some New Yorkers that it’s time to finally give up on city living,” reads the subtitle of a New York Times story published yesterday. But moving companies tell us they’ve actually seen a decline in moves, and have had to adjust their business models accordingly.

“New Yorkers are playing a constant game of musical chairs with trying to find a better neighborhood and a better environment,” said Sven Wechsler, owner of Williamsburg’s Sven Moving Company, “and most people just kind of decided that it’s easier to stay put.” Around this time of year, there is normally an increase in the number of moves as universities close down for the summer. “Right at the month change, I would be turning down work,” said Wechsler. As summer approaches, his crew of 12 typically have seven jobs a day and sometimes up to nine or 10 jobs if there’s a rush. But with students now distance learning, Wechsler only has one job per day. 

For clients who are moving out of the city, Sven Moving’s job has entailed much more than lifting boxes up and down from one place to another; they are doing storage work as well. “Normally we wouldn’t be a pack-and-move company, we’d expect people to box up before we arrived,” he said. “But we saw a need for people who weren’t even in New York so we decided to switch gears.” 

Even before the city-wide shutdown, Wechsler has done everything he can to minimize the health risks for his crew. Beside ordering masks and gloves online, he has been making his own hand sanitizer using high-grade isopropyl alcohol and aloe vera.  

Jackson Heights-based Shea Moving is among the many others that have gone from being strictly a moving company to also handling storage. Owner Julie Shea said she recently cleaned out the fridge and broom-swept the floor for an elderly customer who had already left her apartment. “We basically did everything so she didn’t have to come to the city,” she said. Her company has also been collecting leftover furniture in people’s apartments and storing it in one of their unused trucks. 

As a medium-sized company relying on a loyal customer base, Shea still expects clients to come in, though not as many of them. “We’re probably doing a third of the business,” said Shea. “April was really hard.” She also noticed that many people seem to have pushed back their May moves, which will inevitably incentivize moving companies to adjust their prices to be more competitive. 

Shea believes having a smaller crew such as hers can lower the infection risk during this crisis. “Let’s say if you had 30 men and you were interchanging them, then each employee would be exposed to all of those germs from those 30 men and all their families,” she explained. “But since I only have a small group of four men that are doing our job every day, you’re exposed to a lot less.” To limit contact even more, Shea’s team is no longer doing onsite estimates. They are looking at apartments through photos, FaceTime or video conferences. “The super lets you into the building, and then we’d talk and video conference during the move,” she said.

The pandemic has also affected the way larger moving companies operate their businesses. 

Gentle Giant Moving Company, with 20 locations in 13 states, lost about 20 percent of its New York staff in March due to employees opting not to work and a 35-percent decline in April moves. While they have been able to replace most of that staff, they’ll need to increase staffing by another 20 percent in order to keep up with a surge of COVID-related moves. In April, Gentle Giant NYC worked with Move For Hunger to transport 12,600 pounds of food to the Food Bank of New Jersey. They have also received requests to transport donated bikes to essential workers and personal protective equipment to local hospitals. 

The moving process itself has also changed significantly for both customers and movers. Giant’s director of marketing, Danielle Rankin, said that the company screens its employees as they show up at work, taking their temperature and asking if anyone is sick or not feeling well. “Every truck now has COVID safety kits in them that are refreshed every day, which includes masks and gloves for all crew members, disinfectants, hand sanitizer and soap,” Rankin added. “Then we ask the customers to provide one sink in the house that the crew members are able to wash their hands and then disinfect it.”  

The day before a move, the company calls their customer and asks them if they or anyone in their family is sick or has been exposed to anyone who’s COVID-positive. “If they don’t pass any of our screens, we would ask them to reschedule for at least two weeks,” said Rankin. In addition, the company has gotten rid of signed paperwork and instead, has customers sign electronically over email.

Yesterday, Gov. Cuomo extended the eviction moratorium till August, buying renters at risk more time to stay put. Meanwhile, the crisis will continue to affect the prospects of the moving business. “I really just don’t even know what the future holds,” said Shea.