NYC’s Rat Activity Flourishes Amid COVID Pivoting

New York City councilman Eric Bottcher, who lives in the city's Chelsea neighborhood and sees the city’s rat problems first-hand, recently introduced a bill requiring that applicants for some construction permits confirm that they have employed a pest management professional for their projects. PCT reached out to several New York City pest management professionals for their rat observations during the past two years.

NYC rodents Norway rats
Two rats walking on pavement.
@iStock/Nick Francis

NEW YORK – On May 26, New York City councilman Eric Bottcher, who lives in the city's Chelsea neighborhood and sees the city’s rat problems first-hand, introduced a bill requiring that applicants for some construction permits confirm that they have employed a pest management professional for their projects.

Bottcher told the New York Daily News, “I’ve never seen so many rats in my life. They’re running over our feet. They’re dashing out in front of us as we walk. They’re climbing into trash cans on the corners.”

PCT reached out to several New York City pest management professionals for their rat observations during the past two years.

Timothy Best, technical manager, Terminix, Manhattan, concurred with the councilman that Chelsea is a “hot spot” for rodents now, and that Terminix has been working the neighborhood with a fair amount of regularity. “We saw some significant shifts in rodent behavior during the pandemic that have yet to otherwise ‘normalize,’” he said. “I cannot provide quantified empirical data, but anecdotally speaking from our own service and inspection reports and trending data, complaints of Norway rats have certainly become denser between 8th and 10th Avenues, from as far south as 15th Street up to 29th Street.”

Another PCO who confirmed an explosion in rodent work in Chelsea (and throughout New York City) is Timothy Wong, owner of M&M Environmental Services, Long Island City, New York. “We do tons of rodent work in that area, including rodent exclusion work, burrow treatments. Rodents have been a big issue in New York City the past couple of years and it's been worse during the pandemic.”

One way to gauge New York City’s rodent problems is by comparing year over year complaints registered by the city’s 311 rodent complaint hotline. As reported in the Associated Press, through April, people have called in some 7,400 rat sightings to the hotline, an increase of 6,150 during the same period last year, and up by more than 60% from roughly the first four months of 2019.

While these sightings, as well as pest control company data, do indicate rodents are thriving in the Big Apple even more today than in years past, PCOs said the “city being overrun by rats” narrative should be tempered, noting that increased rodent sighting by the public are related to (1) an uptick in construction projects; and (2) COVID trends, including people spending more time in their homes, gardens and parks, thus noticing rodents more.

MORE CONSTRUCTION. COVID-19 stopped existing construction projects and pushed back start dates of others. As the city came out of strict COVID restrictions, construction picked up again, including in areas like Chelsea.

As Wong noted, “When they're doing construction nine out of ten times there will be always rats on the construction site because you're lifting the dirt and you're disrupting their homes.” In this example, it’s most likely that citizens are not witnessing a new rat population, rather they are now just seeing an existing rat population.

New York City already does addresses rats on construction sites with a regulation requiring that prior to demolition buildings must be inspected and baited by a licensed rodent pest management professional.

While pest professionals say demolition regulation has some impact on rodent populations at the demo sites – and they appreciate the business opportunity – it is hindered by (1) a lack of oversight and (2) builders awarding contracts to pest control firms that provide the lowest bid. “What the city needs to do is stop [awarding] the lowest bidders on city properties,” said Joseph Sheehan, CEO, Colony Pest Management, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Moreover, rodent abatement on the demo site is only part of the problem. What really is needed, they say, is a regulation requiring builders to contract with a pest management professional for a rodent abatement program throughout the entirety of a construction project.

Gil Bloom, president of Standard Pest Management, said the real increase in rat activity at a construction site comes from the “army of laborers” whose temporary work shacks don’t have a sanitation plan. “So the trash builds up around these construction sites. Harborage increases with pipes, cement and beams, and all the all the stuff that it takes to build a building. And the surrounding areas are tangentially affected because garbage trucks can't get through, and things pile up. So, you really have a change in the environment. It's not as simple as putting a hole in the ground and rats pour out. You are changing this micro-environment to be supportive of rodents.”

Wong agreed with this need for rodent abatement throughout construction, adding “You're talking about millions of dollars of development and you're talking about a few thousand dollars for pest control,” he said.

PMPs contacted by PCT said Bottcher’s proposed bill will have a limited impact if it does not go beyond mandating the installation of exterior bait stations on demolition sites.

“The onus of responsibility to manage or otherwise ‘control’ rodents cannot be the sole responsibility of the PMP, and this bill, as it’s written (or at least interpreted by me), may inadvertently imply that,” said Best. “We all know that rodent management takes a collective effort, so the contractor(s) should be aware of their roles and responsibilities as well; for example, maintaining sanitation on the job site (among other tasks). If I was in a position to inform the councilman about this proposed bill, I would perhaps recommend to at least include some additional language via subclause(s) that speaks to known best practices for rodent pest management, and better, more clearly defines roles and responsibilities by party.” 

COVID-RELATED IMPACTS. While COVID-era construction is one factor cited in increase rodent sightings, there are several other important ones.

“It’s all things COVID- related,” said Sheehan, “Outdoor dining. The economy. No one paying their bills. No one working. Commercial spaces cutting back on pest control.”

New York City restauranteurs pivoted during the pandemic, creating make-shift outdoor dining areas. “Outside dining is one of the best things that could have happened for rodents in New York City,” said Bloom. “It is it is a nightmare. It is unregulated.”

One example Bloom provided was restaurants adding aesthetically pleasing dirt-walled traffic barriers (e.g., planters). “Rodents are burrowing in the very walls of these outside [structures],” he said.

Also, these outdoor dining areas are constructed with plywood as platforms atop 2 by 4s. “One they are hard to clean and two they provide shelter underneath for rodents,” said M&M’s Wong.

Bloom said there is really no provision to enable cleaning underneath these platforms. “The water flows, the food flows. Sanitation can't come through with the trucks and clean the streets anymore. The garbage restaurants are throwing out, which was bad enough when it was curbside, it's now sandwiched between one wooden village and another. And it's totally horrendous.”

New York PCOs also cited issues related to garbage pick-up as reasons for the rodent explosion in New York City.

COVID-19 threw off regularly scheduled trash pick-up, allowing garbage to pile up. And budget cuts have had an impact. As Best noted, “In a residential neighborhood like Chelsea, the cuts in the sanitation budget meant more garbage (more food) for the rats.  There was illegal dumping of refuse and waste on the streets, street corner wastebaskets were billowing with trash, lengthy delays between trash pick-ups; all equating to rats having easier access to these resources.” 

Botther’s bill is not the only the only anti-rat efforts being pushed for at New York City Hall. As the Daily News reported, in April, NYC mayor Eric Adams announced the city was expanding a pilot program bringing sealed trash bins to the five boroughs, and in May, Councilman Chi Osse introduced a bill that would mandate annual reports on rat mitigation from the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

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