Several Boston hotels are finally turning the lights on again as they awake from their slumbers this spring. But some of the biggest ones will stay dark, with no sign of indoor events returning.
So the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau went to Governor Charlie Baker’s administration last week with an ambitious request: bring back the meetings and events business.
Who wants to gather with dozens of strangers in a conference room right now, with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging? It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that a big hotel in Boston was the site of the state’s first serious outbreak of COVID-19. No one would blame you for staying home. However, restoring these events could be crucial for some hotels’ survival.
Before the hotels can test the market, they will need the government’s permission. Toward that end, the tourism bureau submitted a proposal, signed by several prominent Boston hoteliers, to allow private meetings and indoor events to be held during Phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan.
There would be restrictions, the hoteliers acknowledge: Meetings could not exceed 40 percent of the allowed occupancy of a particular function room, up to a maximum of 100 guests, according to the proposal. The limit would rise to 60 percent, with a 250-person cap, at some unspecified later part of Phase 3, assuming the numbers on COVID-19 cases improve.
The organization sent the proposal on Thursday morning to the Baker administration, knowing the next phase of reopening was imminent.
By that afternoon, Baker had given the green light for Phase 3 to start on Monday for nearly the entire state, with Boston being told to wait another week.
The events business? A much longer wait.
Baker capped indoor event attendance at 25 people in Phase 3, rather than 100. Outdoor venues with enclosed perimeters can host crowds of that size, though, and tourist attractions such as museums and boat rides can reopen, albeit at a reduced capacity.
Martha Sheridan, the tourism bureau’s chief executive, hasn’t given up on the events push. She knows that Phase 4 — a.k.a. “the new normal” — might not come until next year. Sheridan believes a case can be made for a safe, methodical expansion of event sizes in Phase 3, even though the door is shut for now.
Yet the proposal comes amid serious COVID-19 conflagrations elsewhere in the US that have caused other government officials to delay their reopening plans, particularly those involving indoor activities, or even roll them back in some places.
Sheridan said her group’s venue safety guidelines for sanitizing, social distancing, and staggered staffing mitigate the risks. And she wouldn’t expect the state to expand the size of gatherings until certain COVID-19 metrics are met here. (The Centers for Disease Control ranks these types of meetings — medium-size gatherings of attendees from outside the local area, remaining spaced at least 6 feet apart — as “higher risk,” but not “highest risk.”)
Officials in the Baker administration wouldn’t say much about the request on Friday, other than to note that the state Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development is meeting with various industry leaders to develop rules that allow for the safest possible reopening.
Sheridan estimates about half of the 100-plus hotels in Boston and Cambridge remain closed, although that number improves by the day. During the worst of the pandemic, hotels in Massachusetts could only offer rooms for “essential” guests: health care workers, flight crews, displaced families. Many hotels closed down entirely as a result, furloughing thousands of workers.
They were allowed to start accepting other visitors again at the start of Phase 2, on June 8. Even then, it’s been a slow return.
Sheridan noted that places such as the Boston Harbor Hotel, the Commonwealth, and the Revere all reopened within the past week. The InterContinental just joined the crowd as well, and the Long Wharf Marriott is due to open on Tuesday. The city-wide hotel occupancy rate is now approaching the “high teens,” Sheridan said, up from the 10 percent range during the worst of the pandemic. She is hoping for 25 percent by the fall — a number that would have been unimaginably low just four months ago.
She said some of the city’s biggest hotels — the Marriott Copley Place, or the Sheraton — can’t survive on leisure travel alone. They depend on events and meetings to bring direct revenue and to pack the rooms.
Some hotel managers might be frustrated with this pace, she said, but they also appreciate Baker’s methodical approach.
Safety has been the top priority for Unite Here Local 26, the dominant union for hospitality workers in the city. Unite Here local president Carlos Aramayo said he is working with hotel managers to hammer out rules for cleaning, COVID-19 tests for workers, and exemptions for at-risk employees.
The one silver lining for the industry could come this fall from universities whose dorms are too crowded for good social distancing practices. Aramayo said several schools have already started discussing the possibility of using hotel rooms as an alternative.
Despite the hoteliers’ assertions, Aramayo said he doesn’t think the industry is quite ready to throw open the ballroom doors just yet. His members are eager to get back to work. But he would like to see the hotels prove they can be run safely first, before adding the variables associated with indoor gatherings. The recent surges of COVID-19 in places such as Las Vegas that reopened more quickly just underscore the risks.
As with many of his colleagues, the Biogen outbreak in late February at the Long Wharf Marriott remains fresh in Aramayo’s mind. He doesn’t see indoor events returning to Boston until 2021 — a more pessimistic view than the one held by the tourism bureau.
The two sides might disagree on the timing. But they agree on this: No one wants another Biogen-style flare-up in Boston. Everyone loses if the governor is forced to shut down the industry again.