Office workers are finally coming back to downtown Boston, nearly 2½ years after COVID-19 sent them home.
Depending on the day of the week.
For many, weekends are now bookended by work-from-home Mondays and Fridays, with commuting limited ― at most ― to Tuesday through Thursday. This pattern, which is widely expected to be here for the long term, is putting a squeeze on coffee shops and restaurants that have long relied on business from white-collar workers five days a week.
For some, survival depends on how well they can adapt to making money from fewer hours and fewer regular customers.
“Friday, Monday? Forget about it,” said Julie King, the owner of Villa Mexico Cafe on Water Street. “You don’t see anyone in the street anymore.”
Well, not exactly. The tourists are back on the Freedom Trail this summer and are spending money all over the city. Still, the Financial District is underpopulated on Mondays and Fridays. Only during the middle of the week do office workers overwhelm downtown Starbucks shops with mobile orders and fill up places to sit at lunchtime in Post Office Square.
Foot traffic on weekday mornings was 55 percent lower than in 2019, according to data the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District collected from March through June of this year, when several large firms rolled out long awaited return-to-office plans.
The difference from pre-pandemic times is noticeable.
“You wouldn’t be able to sit in the park for lunch,” said Mike Cardoso, a manager at Sip Cafe, as he stared at a nearly empty Norman B. Leventhal Park on a Friday. “You wouldn’t be able to see the grass because there would be people sitting everywhere.”
Office towers in Boston are only about 40 percent full, said Tamara Small, chief executive of NAIOP Massachusetts, which lobbies on behalf of developers and building owners. And she isn’t expecting that number to budge come September.
“I don’t think there’s the same focus on Labor Day that we’ve seen in the past two years,” she said. “The formal policies really have happened … a formalization of, ‘OK, we are asking you to come in three days a week, two days a week.’ ”
King informally surveys customers at Villa Mexico to keep tabs on which employers are asking workers to return in-person, and how frequently they expect them to come in. She records her findings in a notebook.
She says she tells customers that “it’s time” for workers to return downtown five days a week. But people typically aren’t swayed. They often respond by listing the reasons they prefer working from home.
“They don’t have to dress well, they can walk the doggies,” she said. “Nobody wants to come back.”
There was a time when businesses that depend on office workers thought people would return in full force once COVID-19 hospitalizations fell and safety protocols lightened. But now, most seem resigned to the new schedules.
“Obviously, that would be nice for business,” Cardoso said. “But realistically, I’m assuming if people don’t have to come into work, they are not going to.”
Nationwide, the office worker population is highest on Wednesdays and lowest on Fridays, according to building security firm Kastle Systems, which tracks key card swipes in more than 2,600 buildings across the United States.
There are signs that suggest the middle of the week might actually be busier for restaurants and coffee shops than before the pandemic. The thinking is that workers who come into the office less frequently might be more likely to eat out than to brown bag it. Employers also are catering breakfasts and lunches more often to help lure workers back.
Cardoso said the “middle days are probably busier than we’ve ever been.”
But Bessie King, assistant manager at Villa Mexico, said hybrid work schedules mean she might not see a regular customer for three weeks, as opposed to multiple times a week prior to COVID. She called the phenomenon “rotating.”
“They come in once a week to our restaurant, then the next week they’ll go to the other guy around the corner . . . the next week the next guy,” said King, who is also an advocate for Massachusetts Restaurants United, a lobbying group that represents independent restaurants.
One spot that’s been consistently packed is High Street Place, a food hall that made its highly anticipated debut in April after originally planning to open just before the pandemic. Manager Lauren Johnson said the space is busy throughout the day: office workers stopping in for coffee and breakfast, sitting down or grabbing something to go for lunch, and reserving tables at night for drinks with coworkers.
“We’re actually exceeding our pre-pandemic projections,” Johnson said. Between its long and narrow high-top tables inside and an outdoor patio, High Street can accommodate more than 600 patrons.
Chains and newer establishments downtown appear to be faring better than small independent businesses, which tend to more acutely feel the effects of inflation, supply chain snags, and the labor shortage. Some have been forced to make adjustments.
Sip closes early on Monday, Tuesday, and Friday nights, and also has fewer people working those days. Villa Mexico opens later in the morning and closes earlier in the evening, due to a lack of office workers and employees willing to work evening shifts.
Costs are rising, too. Bessie King said $80 cases of shaved steak now cost $200, and to stay competitive in a tight labor market, starting pay is now $15 an hour instead of $13.
As a result, Villa Mexico burritos cost $10.99, one dollar more than before the pandemic — with guacamole and sour cream extra.
In perhaps the strongest sign that local businesses are giving up on the prospect of a grand return of office workers, some are looking for different ways to generate revenue.
Sip is hosting more private events and serving beer and wine in the evening. Villa Mexico is trying to grow its catering business — for social gatherings — and sell its salsa in grocery stores.
“If people are going to continue working all this time at home,” King said, “what else is the local downtown Boston industry supposed to do?”