All fall we hoped, we prayed that 2022 would mark the moment when downtown Boston bounced back as pandemic fears waned.
It was a vision of something we now barely remember: Come January, offices would be teeming with workers, hiking through the cold in “hard pants,” filling restaurants in the evenings. Boutiques and bars would turn a profit. Life would feel more normal.
Instead, the city is suffering through another deep lull, a “holiday hangover,” said Cameron Labeck, a manager at M.J. O’Connors, an Irish pub in the Park Plaza building near Boston Common.
Twinkly lights still adorn the leafless trees near Faneuil Hall, and last week, a massive red bow remained wrapped around the Flour and Grain Exchange Building overlooking the Greenway. Behind the Daily Catch on Atlantic Avenue, you could find a gingerbread couple and reindeer, sagging in the snow. But the tourists have come, photographed the Common’s Christmas spruce, and gone.
And here instead? Omicron.
The variant is everywhere, raging through homes, schools, and workplaces. Late last year, companies like Fidelity Investments and Rapid7 fiddled with return-to-office dates to trounce the virus. Come back this February, some suggested. Or April. Now? Maybe just work from home indefinitely. And so downtown office towers are perhaps a quarter full on any given weekday. Measures of foot traffic and MBTA ridership remain well below pre-pandemic levels.
That’s left Michael Wang and his Financial District sandwich shop out of luck — again. He reopened Fóumani in August after a 17-month closure — they had a party, the mayor came — and then watched Bank of America employees trickle in for chicken katsu subs and wasabi Caesar salads. Still, business lagged at 25 percent of pre-pandemic levels.
By late December, Wang decided to lock up until Jan. 3, the first workday of the year. Dismal sales prompted him to close for another week, until Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
“Every time it feels like COVID is subsiding, there’s a setback,” Wang said. “And another setback. And another setback.”
He’s learned to stop holding his breath.
“Just waiting for more people to come back is a lost cause.”
Boston has been here before. The first pandemic summer was eerily quiet downtown. Businesses hit pause on reopening efforts last winter and then again in August when the Delta wave dashed plans for a Labor Day return. Sudden ebbs and flows in traffic have tested the resolve and economic staying power of shops in Downtown Crossing and Back Bay.
Joe Spaulding, president and CEO of the Boch Center, has resignedly accepted that the city cycled back into a grim reality this month.
People flocked to theaters in September, clamoring for long-postponed entertainment. Shows sold out with audiences who were either fully vaccinated or recently cleared with a negative test. About 5,000 people would come through the Wang Theatre a day, he said.
After Thanksgiving, a flood of breakthrough cases had thinned the crowd. Planned holiday runs of “Urban Nutcracker’' and “Elf on the Shelf” were scaled back. Concerts sold tickets, but less than Spaulding had imagined.
And shortly after the final bows on Dec. 21, several Boch Center cast and crew members tested positive for COVID — and unknowingly infected their families.
Now all but one performance in January has been canceled or postponed.
“It’s hard to keep going,” Spaulding said. “Two steps forward, four steps back.”
The ripple effects are everywhere, as a recent afternoon visit to Broad Street made clear. A sign stuck to the door at Lucky Rice announced truncated hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., five days a week. But a Google search revealed that the Asian counter-eatery is actually temporarily closed. “For lease” signs papered other storefront windows in the neighborhood. Pedestrians were few.
Less than a mile away, the Thinking Cup and Tatte bordering the Common served a handful of masked customers. More people will come through when Emerson College and Suffolk University start in-person classes this week, an employee at Maria’s Taqueria theorized.
Still, it’s not all bad news.
“In April 2020, you could’ve rolled a bowling ball down Broad Street and no one would see it,” said Carri Wroblewski, co-owner of Brix Wine Shop. “This is not that.”
Customers filtered into Al’s State Street Cafe and walked out with long subs in their trademark yellow paper bags. Construction workers remain omnipresent. If you look closely enough, you can spot a hurried worker jaywalking, alone, across once-busy streets. A mother-daughter duo sauntering on Newbury Street. A fitness buff in Barry’s. Or tourists stopping a local to ask the age-old question, “Which way is Faneuil Hall?”
But Wroblewski believes fond memories of the bustling Financial District are just that — memories.
“It’s never going to go back to the way it was before,” she said.
Even if companies return to the office, many workers say they have no plans to make it an everyday thing. Say bye-bye, Wroblewski added, to the nine-to-five grind.
So her store has adapted. Brix relied heavily on sales to nearby residents and holiday gifts corporations sent to remote employees last year. The shop opened a commercial kitchen behind the store, too, selling cheeses and charcuterie boards.
It’s a similar state of affairs across the street at Marvelous Barber Lounge. Before the pandemic, owner Lex Andre Daluz thought Marvelous would cater to employees wandering in for a shave or trim. But by its August 2020 opening, foot traffic was nearly nonexistent.
“So this has to be a destination location,” something that attracts clients from around the city for specialty services, like hot towel shaves and custom hair designs, said Daluz.
He’s balancing a Brockton location and high-priced rent on a 10-year lease in the Financial District, with just a third of the staff he originally envisioned.
Regardless of the doom and gloom, businesses are treading forward with cautious optimism. There’s hope in scientists’ estimate that Omicron may peak in Massachusetts soon. Some think the proof-of-vaccination mandate now in place in Boston will help tame the spread of the virus.
David Howse, the executive director of ArtsEmerson, said “uncertainties have wreaked havoc on the bottom line, but also the human line” of the organization, which operates the Cutler Majestic Theater and Paramount Center.
Yet he holds onto faith in the city’s resilience, and its eventual resurgence.
Let’s call this “a pause,” Howse said. “So much has changed these past few years. We have to sit and reflect about what we want the neighborhood to become. We cannot just lament what it was.”
He took a moment, then quoted from Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” — which is set for a three-night run at the Cutler next month.
“The only lasting truth is change.”