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Offices in Boston are open for business, but few workers are showing up

Health concerns are keeping downtown quiet as most people work from home

The lobby at 225 Franklin St. in Boston's financial district was mostly empty on Monday.
The lobby at 225 Franklin St. in Boston's financial district was mostly empty on Monday.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Workers could finally return to Boston’s office towers Monday, but the city’s central business district still looked more like a ghost town than a boom town.

The pandemic, not scenes of violence and looting from Sunday night, kept most people away. Several business leaders said that one night of unrest would not change attitudes about commuting into the city, unless the violence escalates.

Governor Charlie Baker allowed most offices in the state to open at 25 percent capacity last week as part of a four-phase reopening of the Massachusetts economy, with new health standards that include mask-wearing and social distancing rules. Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville followed by a week, with nonessential workers in those three cities allowed to return Monday.

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But few employers — in the cities or the suburbs — are in a rush to bring people back.

Of the 150 people who work at Eastern Bank’s Boston headquarters, for example, only about five go there now; they are essential workers who already were heading in during the pandemic.

“We feel like we’re prepared to reopen to the 25 percent [limit] today if we needed to,” said Bob Rivers, Eastern’s chief executive. “But we don’t need to, and by and large, our employees have told us they would rather not.”

Nearly all of Eastern’s headquarters staff will work from home until at least after Labor Day. That’s also the case at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, which normally draws about 450 employees each weekday to its Back Bay headquarters, out of a 3,800-person workforce. Jay McQuaide, a senior vice president at the health insurer, said Blue Cross knew it had the technical capability to handle everyone working from home, but hadn’t fully tried it out — until now.

“COVID was the ultimate test,” he said.

Many other Boston companies are also waiting until September, while some won’t bring people back until 2021, said Jim Rooney, chief executive of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. He cited concerns about the safety of public transit, the availability of child care, and access to COVID-19 tests.

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“The return to economic activity and the workplace will be much more driven by public reaction than by government relaxation of restrictions,” Rooney said.

Ruhul Ahmed, a security desk worker at 53 State Street, where the Globe has its headquarters, said Monday was much like every other day during the shutdown.

“It is still the same couple of people that have been coming in,” he said.

Mike Russell, an assistant property manager at 50 Milk St., was ready to make sure returning employees followed safety protocols like social distancing.

But “there was no one there,” he said, almost laughing at how prepared the building management was for the first day offices could reopen.

Around noon, Stephen Andersen walked to his office at Citizens Bank at 28 State St. The 25-year-old portfolio manager said he has been visiting the office occasionally throughout the pandemic. (Many financial services, including banking, were deemed essential by the state.) Although Citizens employees had the option to return to the office on Monday, few did.

“Our floors generally have a hundred people or so, and we have five floors, but there are probably about 12 of us in the entire office,” Anderson said. He said he didn’t have any concerns about coming into the city following the violent demonstrations on Sunday night.

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Andersen was holding lunch from Al’s State Street Cafe. Many other lunch staples for downtown office workers — including Sweetgreen, Pita Thyme, and Boston Kebab — were closed. There was just one customer at Falafel King on Washington Street at 1 p.m. Owner Kadhim Alzubaidy said that on a typical day, the restaurant can fill up to 500 orders. As he double-checked the cash register, he said that, so far, the restaurant had only 20.

Tamara Small, chief executive of the real estate trade group NAIOP Massachusetts, said it’s possible that concerns about using public transit could prompt more suburban office workers to resume commuting before city workers do, because they can more easily get to work by car. But she doesn’t expect a speedy shift in either place.

“Most employers are encouraging employees to work from home if they can,” Small said. “When they do return, it really is going to be a staggered and slow return.”

When commuters finally do come back, they’re likely to find a different office from what they remember. Colorful hand sanitizer stations and social distancing signs now mark the lobby of the One Washington Street tower, for example, and a few steps away, at 60 State St., a sign in the lobby window indicated that employees must wear a face mask at all times in common areas.

Workers might find new amenities, as well.

Chase Garbarino, chief executive of the Boston property-tech firm HqO, said landlords are considering new food delivery and telehealth services, for example. His firm makes an app that can help landlords and employers connect with these services while regulating office occupancy and access.

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“When you’re thinking about bringing people back to the office,” Garbarino said, “you really have to make the experience better.”


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto. Anissa Gardizy can be reached at anissa.gardizy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @anissagardizy8.