Over the last two years, lots of people fled big-city apartments and landed on patches of grass in the suburbs.
Now, as Omicron recedes, urban centers must grapple with struggling downtowns, darkened storefronts, and sparse crowds ambling through museums and other attractions.
So the question for Boston — and for New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and plenty of other cities — is what it will take to rebound, to lure people back, to reclaim that prepandemic vibrancy.
One painful reality is that the four states with the biggest outflow of residents over the past year were California, New York, Illinois, and Massachusetts.
Florida and Texas, meanwhile, were at the top of the list when it came to welcoming newcomers.
So, what’s motivating people to leave certain states and head to others?
“Americans vote with their feet. It’s the most powerful vote we have,” says Richard Florida, a professor at the University of Toronto’s School of Cities and the cofounder of Bloomberg CityLab.
Florida argues that two factors have loomed large in motivating people to pull away from cities, or at least to be more wary of them: COVID and crime.
We’ll get to crime in a minute. First, COVID.
In Boston, COVID has taken a toll on businesses in at least two ways. Those who are worried about the virus tend to shy away from shopping, eating out, or even working in the city. And those who are frustrated with restrictions (mask mandates, vaccine mandates for dining) may consider migrating elsewhere.
For places in the Commonwealth that had been holding on to mask mandates, we’ve seen an avalanche of announcements about lifting them in recent days: from Worcester to Lowell to Salem, and now in schools. But masks — at museums, restaurants, shops — don’t seem to be disappearing anytime soon in Boston.
“I do think these COVID-era restrictions are bigger than many people want to make out,” Florida told me. “That’s what people talk about. When they say they’re going to move to Miami or Austin, it’s not taxes. Taxes are secondary.”
He notes that you do get a lot for your money in Boston, such as access to great universities — including MIT, where he once taught — and an expansive public transit system (despite occasional hiccups).
But there’s a hitch.
“Americans are a group of freedom-seeking, liberty-loving people, no matter what you say about them . . . and they don’t want to be told when they can go out and when they have to wear a mask, and how they can send their kids to school,” he says.
As has been widely noted, pandemic restrictions and shutdowns could adversely impact Democrats in the 2022 elections (and may have already in 2021, boosting the fortunes of candidates like Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin).
Though Florida is a professor at the University of Toronto, he currently has young children in school in the Miami area.
“One of the reasons we’re in Miami Beach — it’s a great city — is because our kids have been in school every day.”
He says when he talks to people, they’ll often tell him they’re personally very cautious when it comes to COVID. “They’ll also say ‘I didn’t vote for [Florida Governor] Ron DeSantis, and I don’t like Ron DeSantis. But I don’t mind this [freedom]’ . . . You hear it all the time.”
And it’s not just an issue of full-on relocation (though the numbers clearly reveal some of that). The rise of remote work has allowed a chunk of knowledge workers to Zoom in temporarily from Tampa, Atlanta, Jackson Hole, Wyo., or wherever they choose.
So, in addition to the political self-sorting that we’ve seen accelerating in the United States for decades, COVID has added an additional layer of self-sorting, based on risk tolerance.
OpenTable, the restaurant reservation service, recently published data showing that late-January restaurant reservations in Miami were up about 20 percent, compared to the same period in 2019. In Boston, reservations were down more than 50 percent (in Cambridge, they were down more than 70 percent), compared to the same week in 2019.
Those are shocking numbers, when you consider their implications for the business community.
Clearly, while public sentiment about the risks of COVID may have shifted in some cities, it has not — writ large — in Boston.
Which is not to say that the decisions folks in the Boston area have made — from moving, to staying home, to vacationing in Florida — are either good or bad. But they do have consequences.
Rishi Shukla, cofounder and cohead of the Downtown Boston Residents’ Association, says that “we’re still seeing all the businesses here — the small ones — suffering.”
“So many of these are theater-driven, seasonal businesses. And so: less theater, less ability to stay open. If you can’t open, you can’t hire these workers. These workers can’t be productive. They can’t live, and they move on,” he says.
Shukla believes COVID-related restrictions will lift relatively soon, and that downtown and the Financial District will evolve into places, as a whole, that emphasize interpersonal connections and experiences, rather than the 9-to-5 grind.
But the other challenge that cities face, says Florida, is people’s perception of crime and urban disorder.
Eric Adams, the new mayor of New York City, has put this issue front and center. And that, Florida argues, makes sense. “People care about public safety in a way that most politicians don’t understand,” he says.
News reports chronicled a 50 percent spike in Boston homicides from 2019 to 2020, but the numbers fell in 2021, setting the city apart from lots of other places, where the spikes continued into 2021.
Still, it’s often appearance and a general sense of safety that most affect the feel of a city — factors impacted by eerily quiet streets.
Shukla believes that “our officers are working their tails off, trying to do the right thing 99.999 percent of the time,” but as approaches to criminal justice have shifted, he says, so have the police and the landscape around them.
Shukla worries that lots of little infractions can snowball, like small drug deals that might not always make sense to crack down on. “And then you regress. And people become afraid, if you live here. And you can’t have citizens who are afraid to live in their neighborhood,” he says.
But he praises the diligence of those who work for the city, and feels confident that, over the long term, Bostonians, businesses, and officials can make downtown increasingly attractive to residents and tourists, balancing the need to create a more equitable criminal justice system with a sense of safety for all.
“Over time, you’ll find more families moving into downtown . . . And from a commuting standpoint — myself as an example, working in finance and private equity by day — I’m using my feet to drop off [kids] and walk to my office and walk home. It’s a quality-of-life play as much as it is that we just love Boston.”
Richard Florida agrees that Boston will indeed be successfully reinvented, in large part because the city is working with powerful raw ingredients.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that the things that have made Boston desirable — high-quality institutions . . . great art museums, great symphonies, great artistic and cultural centers, great restaurants — those amenities are hard to duplicate.”
And the plethora of colleges and universities in the area, he says, feed the region’s burgeoning tech and innovation cluster, and enhance its ability to attract venture capital funding. Which, in turn, has helped make Boston into one of the most expensive rental markets in the country (behind New York, but almost tied with San Francisco).
The central question, then, may simply be the timing of the city’s rebound.
For now, less foot traffic means fewer shops and restaurants can survive. And that diminished traffic (whether on the sidewalk or in the T) can make people feel unsettled and more vulnerable.
Florida says it is up to city leaders to restore the notion that the city is “a safe and reasonable place to go about your business.”
He says it’s about “understanding that the pandemic has become endemic, and maybe the error we made in this is we gave the public health authorities too much of a say . . . Maybe it should have been more multidisciplinary teams of economists and economic development and urbanists. And I think that’s a lesson we have to learn.”
Economist James Parrott recently described how the restrictions and fear that came with Omicron impacted New York City’s low-income residents, who often work in jobs that depend on public patronage (like restaurants): “The risk is to have a more permanently polarized society between the haves and have-nots.”
Boston’s streets and storefronts will, undoubtedly, bounce back. But the pace of recovery will likely dictate how much more economic pain — and displacement — the city will witness.
Follow Kara Miller @karaemiller.