PROVIDENCE — For businesses in downtown Providence, there were many moments during the pandemic that felt like an extended, merciless winter. Some closed permanently. Others remained, but are now just a shell of what they once were. Hundreds of restaurant workers have not returned to the industry, offices have not fully reopened, so employees don’t visit their favorite lunch spots when they’re working remotely. And business travelers, who typically book annual meetings at the Convention Center and fill hotels during the week, have been sparse.
But recently, there have been undeniable signs of economic recovery.
More than 95 percent of the state’s adult population has received at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine, and the state is holding onto more than $1 billion in federal funds that could help refuel nonprofits on the frontlines of nearly every crisis, build homes for those left on the streets, invest in schools and the state’s workforce. The funds are a chance, if administered strategically, to provide opportunities for those who have typically been left behind.
And on Friday night, an economic rebound felt like it was within arm’s reach when nearly 120 residents and leaders gathered in front of city hall for Providence’s ceremonial tree lighting for the first time since December 2019.
A tree “means different things for different people… I view it as a symbol of hope,” said City Council President John Igliozzi. “Of a special time for family and friends to be together. And being kind to each other… more now than ever before. This COVID pandemic has been tough on us all.”
He added, “Let’s not forget the loves ones we lost and those who have struggled. It’s going to get better. This country is a great place to live. And this city is a great place to live.”
Families with children too young to remember the last time a 35-foot evergreen was set at the top of the City Hall steps took photos as carolers sang, making their way from Trinity Repertory Company, down Washington Street to City Hall.
Some wore masks as they hummed familiar holiday carols. Others stayed socially distant, off to the side.
In 2020, the tree lighting was a virtual celebration to prevent the spread of COVID-19. At the time, Rhode Island was going through a second wave and a 14-day economic “pause” that locked down much of the state was extended by weeks.
“Last year, [spectators] had to painfully laugh at my jokes virtually,” said event MC Brendan Kirby, who is also a co-host for WPRI’s Rhode Show.
But this year, optimism can be found nearly anywhere, including in downtown: Federal Hill has opened two new restaurants in the last month, the luxurious Beatrice Hotel by former mayor Joseph Paolino invited guests to stay overnight in October, and standing ovations after Broadway shows are happening again at the Providence Performing Arts Center.
A second tree was lit outside of BankNewport City Center, and the Brown University Marching Band took the ice on skates, opening a show featuring two-time US Olympic Medalist Nancy Kerrigan.
More than 250 people crowded around the rink, decked in puffy jackets, fluffy earmuffs, and fleece blankets as they watched children’s theater companies and national champions in sparkling costumes glide along the ice.
On the outskirts of the brightly lit rink, parties of diners outside restaurants along nearby Washington Street were flooding in and out, holding leftovers. Hotel Providence’s valet team was helping car after car unload duffle bags and suitcases.
Back at BankNewport City Center, one young girl, perched on top of her father’s shoulders, holding a stuffed toy elf with striped socks, bent down and said to him, “It kind of feels like the old days again.”