Boston restaurant reservations are off by 78 percent on weekdays, foot traffic at shops and other businesses is down more than 50 percent compared with normal times, and the 18.2 percent hotel occupancy rate is a fraction of what it should be.
Only in a pandemic would such cataclysmic economic indicators be a sign of something that is right: Government restrictions to control COVID-19 are keeping people at home.
The kinds of public health data related to the virus that experts watch closely are well known: positive cases, deaths, and hospitalizations. But since June, Boston has been tracking 25 additional data points to gauge how active people are on a daily basis. They include requests for driving directions, the number of commuters and visitors, and the amount of time residents spend in their homes.
Since mid-December, Boston has rolled back its economy further than the state by closing museums, gyms, movie theaters, and other businesses. These restrictions are set to expire Wednesday , and city officials are weighing whether to extend them again, even as Governor Charlie Baker on Thursday said he would lift a statewide stay-at-home advisory and allow restaurants to resume normal hours, though still at 25 percent capacity.
Boston’s rules will remain tighter than the state’s, at least until next week. Throughout the health crisis Mayor Marty Walsh has more than once instituted ― and kept in place ― more stringent restrictions than the state, so it wouldn’t be surprising if he continued to be more conservative than Baker.
The city’s stricter measures were enacted to blunt the expected surge from people gathering and traveling over Christmas and New Year’s. The upshot: The current 7.5 percent positivity rate is about where Boston was before the rollback but still nearly twice as high as the city wants it to be at this point.
For Marty Martinez, Boston’s health and human services chief, public health is the priority, but he acknowledged that it’s been tough to tell businesses they have to keep their doors closed after nearly a year of economic hardship.
“We are trying to reduce the number of people engaged in nonessential things,” he said. “This doesn’t mean these aren’t difficult decisions.”
Striking a balance between letting the economy open up and keeping the virus at bay has been a constant dilemma since last March. Let businesses flourish untethered, and all that activity might increase the spread of the virus, which would be even worse for business long term. Sensible people say follow the data to make the right decision at the right time, but the numbers are not always so clear cut.
Consider the argument from gym owners who want to reopen, or restaurateurs anxious to expand indoor dining: Contact tracing indicates that most COVID-19 cases don’t stem from commercial settings ― they originate in households when one member spreads the virus to another after a gathering, perhaps with extended family or friends.
Yet restaurants and gyms continue to bear the brunt of COVID-19 restrictions. John Barros, Boston’s economic development chief, said he feels their pain but also knows the economy can’t heal until the virus is vanquished. From his vantage point, businesses are making sacrifices; now it’s up to the public to do its part ― despite the collective weariness ― to reduce household spread.
“We need the public to jump in with us,” said Barros. “They have the bigger levers.”
Analytics have been a hallmark of the Walsh administration. It’s not uncommon to see giant TV screens at City Hall displaying data that track everything from 311 calls to the number of potholes filled.
The economic dashboard, maintained by the Boston Planning & Development Agency, paints a sobering portrait of a city in hibernation compared to about a year ago. Consider these statistics:
— The time people spend at workplaces is less than half of what it was before the pandemic hit.
— The number of visitors in Boston is down 40 percent, while the number of commuters is off by 56 percent.
— The number of unemployed Boston residents has more than doubled to nearly 25,000.
— Consumer spending in Suffolk County, which includes Boston, is up 2.1 percent but lags the state overall, which is up 8.4 percent.
Alvaro Lima, director of research at the city’s planning arm BPDA, has been the keeper of the data. He and his staff cull numbers from a variety of sources, including credit card transactions, apps such as OpenTable, and anonymized cellphone data from mobility insights provider Cuebiq and Google COVID-19 mobility reports. They use it to prepare weekly internal briefings supplemented with interviews with industry leaders, such as hoteliers.
“We try to have not just the data, but the ear on the ground,” said Lima.
Lima drives through the city every week to get a sense of where the people are and whether they’re wearing masks. He continues to see a relatively empty downtown, while residential neighborhoods such as Jamaica Plain and South Boston are getting busier by comparison. When he hears about too many young people at restaurants in South Boston, he has a look for himself. “That gives me anxiety,” he said.
The pandemic is far from over, but Lima said the data tells him mobility is on the rise. He’s detecting more movement, including a slowly rising influx of workers and tourists, while the flow of international visitors and students remains anemic.
Since the beginning of the year, for example, more people have been asking for driving directions into the city, and time spent at home, based on cellphone data, has been decreasing.
Meanwhile, the city’s public health numbers have been moving in the right direction since the first week of January. Does the city stay the course on restrictions to accelerate that trend, or lift them to allow some small semblance of normalcy?
“Boston has to recover on the public health side before it can truly recover on the economic side,” said Martinez, the city’s health chief. “John and I have been so focused on tying those together . . . we cannot do one versus the other.”
But an economic rebound needs to be plotted. Along with grants and technical assistance to small business owners, Barros has championed a $2 million marketing campaign to bring back tourists. Initially, it was supposed to launch at the end of last year, but now the city will wait until the spring to get past the recent surge. He cites the date change as an example of how public health and the economy can both be priorities.
“That,” he said, “is how data has informed us.”
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.