In the year-and-a-half arc of the pandemic, this Labor Day has loomed large.
As vaccines rolled out this spring and office managers across Greater Boston mapped out their return-to-work plans, the holiday became synonymous with normal life resuming. “After Labor Day” schools would be back, shows would go on, commuters would fill the T, and the bustle of city life would return at last.
Or so we told ourselves.
Then came Delta, and those hopes and plans were upended. Big companies decided to keep workers home for a few more months. And the businesses and institutions that rely on them face a fall that’s more uncertain than celebratory. When Back Bay stalwarts John Hancock and Liberty Mutual late last month told workers to stay remote at least into January, you could practically hear the groans down Stuart Street.
Honovan Hyep got a call last Friday from one of her dry cleaning customers who works at Hancock. It would be, he told her, four more months until he’d be back in the Back Bay. Bob Bacco’s corporate clients are calling, too, switching their welcome-back-to-the-office wine-tasting events from in-person to Zoom. “You gotta be kidding me,” Steve DiFillippo said when he saw the news, then he started scrambling, scuttling plans to reopen his Davio’s To-Go sandwich shop on St. James Avenue this month.
“I’m just shocked we’re going through this again,” he said. “I thought by now we’ve all been vaccinated, everything was going great, and then Delta turned everything around.”
A lunch hour walk through the Back Bay right now is a study in contrasts. Newbury Street teems with tourists and students —as is typical this time of year — and it’s as hard as ever to snag a table at Life Alive or Tatte on Boylston. But two blocks south, it’s a different story. The canyon of office buildings along Stuart and St. James are still quiet, and that’s tough for folks like Bacco, who was hoping to see the return of workers coming in for lunch at his eponymous wine and cheese shop on St. James Avenue.
It’s already been a tumultuous 18 months for Bacco: When looters broke into his shop last summer, he lost $160,000 in inventory and saw over $100,000 in damages. He has a massive renovation underway, expanding into larger space next door. After pivoting to virtual wine tastings last year, he’d started booking in-person events for this fall with corporate clients. Now they’re calling to change plans.
“A lot of people were doing events this month as welcome back to the office. Now it’s welcome back to staying in the living room,” he said. “It’s terrible.”
Things are no better for Billy Najam, owner of Lynx Fitness Club, a gym and golf simulation studio just a block from Liberty Mutual. After a “frustrating” 2020, he started this year being forced to close temporarily when COVID-19 spiked in Boston, missing a crucial month for gyms when customers adopt New Year’s resolutions. But he’s been building back and notes September, too, is a big month for the fitness industry.
“We were gearing up,” he said, and looking forward to office workers coming back to the neighborhood. Now?
“Liberty Mutual is right across the street, and it has [thousands of] employees,” Najam said. “That’s [thousands of] people not walking around the street looking for a fitness club.”
DiFillippo said that while he’s still seeing steady bookings at his suburban Davio’s restaurants, corporate clients who would ordinarily crowd his Back Bay location are being far more cautious. “The quote I’m hearing from everyone is they don’t want to be the next Biogen,” he said, and risk an office party or gathering that might set off a string of breakthrough infections. That means his lunch business in the Back Bay is still hovering at about one-third what it once was.
“We don’t have the office workers,” he said. “And that’s really hurting our city.”
For Honovan Hyep, the Labor Day bust means just more of the same. Her 36-year-old dry cleaning business in the YWCA Building has been hanging on by a thread since the shutdowns in March of 2020. She saw a slight pickup in June, after vaccinations were rolled out broadly, but, she said, her customers have pulled back again.
“Every single month you worry about rent. You worry about paying workers. After that we said September will be awesome, even if they open with half of the people it will be awesome,” she said. “And now? Nothing.”
She shook her head.
“I don’t know how long we can keep doing this.”
That sense of disorientation and worry extends to other sorts of institutions for which thriving downtown is part of their core business. They wonder how to proceed and what date, if any, to now pin their hopes to.
“It’s the uncertainty of how to behave right now and what the next six months will bring in terms of business,” said Neal Vohr, general manager of the University Club.
The Stuart Street club has redone its HVAC system and has been welcoming back more members over the last few months. As the club is a private space, Vohr has been wrangling with what to do about mask mandates and establishing vaccination status among staff and guests.
“How do we slowly creep back to normal, if it ever does happen?” he asked.
Matt Chapuran, executive director of the Lyric Stage Company in the YWCA building, is pushing toward normalcy, too, despite the setbacks. This month, the company is producing its first live performance since the pandemic started. So he’s thrilled, even if guests must wear masks.
“Even though we all let ourselves get caught up in the illusion that we were at the finish line, I don’t think we’re at the 50-yard line either. Delta has been a rude party crasher,” he said, but “so many aspects of life that a year ago were absolutely unattainable are within grasp again. So we’re operating with a daily mixture of optimism and reality.”
Indeed, despite the still-empty towers, signs abound of things moving in the right direction, said Meg Mainzer-Cohen, president of the Back Bay Association. The old Ritz along the Public Garden, newly redone as Newbury Boston, and the ‘Quin social club have drawn crowds, she said, new leases are being signed on Newbury Street, and it’s been tough to get a table at the Banks Fish House, which just replaced Post 390 at the corner of Stuart and Clarendon streets.
And she’s been hearing from luxury store managers on Newbury that visitors are choosing Boston over cities like Miami because it’s safer, with our higher vaccination rates and willingness to mask in public.
“We’re still in a process,” she said. “I think obviously we’re sorry that this situation continues, but we are certainly grateful that Massachusetts continues to be a leader in COVID safety protocols; our citizens are very respectful and responsible. And so I remain hopeful that all of this is behind us at some point.”
By next Labor Day, at least.