Off to a slow start, rocky in places and ripe for setbacks, 2021 should nonetheless deliver some semblance of normalcy again
So what, exactly, are we in for in 2021? Think ahead to, say, the fall, and imagine heading back to the office. The morning train feels a little crowded for comfort but the sidewalks lack their old bustle, and your favorite lunch spot is long gone.
Most of your pals are working from home today — in houses weirdly quiet since the kids are back in school — so lunch out isn’t the same anyway.
After a one-on-one with the boss and some meetings via video, you head home about 1:30, pick up the kids, and get back on the laptop. After work, you go for a run. Your old gym didn’t survive the shutdown, either. Dinner is takeout from a neighborhood joint, then maybe some shopping: a virtual Target run at 10 p.m.
Welcome to life in 2021 — one version of it, anyway. After the big pile of misery that was 2020, the coming year has to be better for most of us. Right?
It sure should. But it will likely come in fits, with false starts and setbacks that may feel like 2020 all over again, long periods of muddling along broken by sudden bursts of new activity. Think Red Sox at Fenway, dinner out on a summer night, dropping off the kid on that first day of school — at an actual school. It will probably be December before we can all safely look back and exhale, just in time to ring out another year and genuinely look forward to the new.
That’s roughly the picture that emerges from more than 15 experts from various avenues of business and civic life in Boston whom the Globe interviewed about how they see the next 12 months unfolding.
To a person, they hold a fundamentally hopeful outlook for our region, but acknowledge there are huge unknowns. The effectiveness of vaccines, the appeal of cities as hubs for both commerce and culture, the prospect of more aid from Washington — all these and other variables could result in wild, abrupt swings in conditions and mood.
And 2021 will look very different for different people. Indeed, the gaps between the rich and poor will likely grow even wider. And countless decisions we all make — where to live, how to commute, whether to close a struggling restaurant — will collectively shape the fabric of Greater Boston, and its recovery.
And after the year we’ve just had, even hazarding a guess could be a fool’s game.
“Anybody who tells you they know how 2021 will go is crazy,” said veteran local developer Kirk Sykes, a former board chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. “There are just so many variables.”
January: Dark times, as COVID-19 cases and deaths surge, and business restrictions stay in place. While new vaccines and a new president signal hope ahead, the toll of the pandemic is inescapable.
Restaurants and retailers that hung on for the holidays shut their doors, some forever. Logan Airport is ghostly. A few big-name companies dump their leases on downtown offices. The sidewalks are empty.
“I hate to say it,” said restaurant industry consultant Ed Doyle, “but things are going to get worse before they get better.”
February: Signs of life, as the post-holiday COVID surge ebbs and vaccine distribution ramps up, despite some hiccups.
Gyms and museums reopen and restaurants resume more in-person dining. College kids come back to the streets of Allston and Cambridge. Some school districts plan a post-Presidents Day return to in-person learning, and parents rejoice. Traffic on the highways, for once, is seen as a good thing.
But for workers who’ve long since lost jobs, a new start is still a mirage, likely months in the future. Yes, the stimulus bill passed by Congress at year’s end is helping, but the expanded unemployment benefits will lapse soon. Spring (and more stimulus money) can’t come soon enough.
March: The months are a blur, but March marks one year since everything changed. And while we’re impatient to get back to normal, the machinery of daily life isn’t ready yet. MBTA cuts make it hard for some to get to work. Schools are probably still doing remote learning at least some of the time. Grocery store employees, delivery drivers, hospital janitors, and others still going into work have to dig deeper for child care and transportation.
“All the things that you need to get back to work, it’s on [essential workers’] backs with little to no support,” said Phyllis Barajas, chief executive of Conexión, a mentoring and advancement program for Hispanic and Latino business leaders. “Except for their drive to take care of their family, keep food on the table and a roof over their heads.”
April: Hope springs eternal, but it arrives with the warm weather carrying a mixed bag. The economic divide laid bare by the pandemic threatens to widen. Home prices keep surging, thanks to low interest rates and a still-strong economy for white-collar workers. But unemployed hospitality workers, Uber drivers, and others at the mercy of the service economy find themselves pushed from their homes as evictions surge.
And the binding rituals of a Boston spring — like the Marathon — are missing again this year.
This is also supposed to be the time the vaccines roll out to the general public. But any setback has people on edge, said venture capitalist David Frankel of Founder Collective, and suddenly the promise of spring appears to be fading.
”You could easily see somewhere a real psychological shift,” he said. A slower-than-expected return to normalcy “could wipe out the good will that I think will accrue as you see more people vaccinated.”
May: Finally, a sign: The Red Sox, the season delayed a few weeks, hold Opening Day at Fenway Park — with fans, though at reduced capacity. College graduation ceremonies — outdoors, of course — help to fill hotels desperate for visitors. Warmer temperatures and longer evenings bring a resurgence in outdoor dining. Suddenly it’s hard to get a table.
There’s also more work for people, at both ends of the job ladder. Big drugmakers announce plans for new buildings, while laid-off wait staff and hotel workers take up retraining opportunities to become electricians and HVAC technicians. Technical schools see a surge in applications.
“That part of the workforce has remained robust,” said Aisha Francis, chief executive of Ben Franklin Institute of Technology. “We need to figure out how to train people faster.”
June: Tourist sighting in the North End! As travel restrictions ease, the streets of downtown Boston are dotted with visitors, meandering along the Freedom Trail and queueing for the whale watch boats. Hotels begin to fill, and the stores and bars around Faneuil Hall that managed to survive celebrate the end of a long, cold winter.
For us locals, summer day camps fill fast, and if you thought it was hard to rent a house on the Cape last summer, well, good luck this year. With a year under their belt to plan, public spaces like Boston Common and the Lawn on D spring back to life with vibrant — though still socially distanced — events and concerts.
“It will be a time of great urban celebration,” said Carlo Ratti, professor of urban technologies and planning at MIT.
July: While the streets are livelier, the office towers of downtown Boston and Kendall Square remain quiet; some companies commit to remote work indefinitely, a few have moved to the suburbs. Some have also downsized, retooling their smaller offices to be less the center of company life, and more the occasional hangout.
“It’s going to be collaborative space, with collaborative tech. Screens, new systems for hybrid meetings,” said Arlyn Vogelmann, a principal at design firm Gensler Boston. “People won’t just come in and sit at a desk all day.”
August: One slice of Boston’s economy is growing fast: Life sciences. The same technology that quickly created vaccines for COVID-19 is now tackling a host of difficult diseases, and it’s all happening here.
“There are going to be breathtaking things that will happen in science this year,” said Tim Ritchie, president of the Museum of Science. “And Boston is the life science capital of the world.”
That’s apparent along Fort Point Channel, where politicians and pharmaceutical executives gather to celebrate the start of construction of a tower once planned as the world headquarters for General Electric. Instead, it will be home to a drug company, one of dozens of life science groundbreakings around Boston this year. As the ceremonial dirt flies, everyone wears a mask.
September: A duck boat parade celebrating front line workers on Labor Day is nixed. Too risky. But the vaccine is now well into general distribution, and for many people, this is the month life finally starts to feel normal again.
Most crucially, schools are back. There are masks and social distancing and COVID testing for teachers and students alike. But public schools across Greater Boston at last return to in-person classes. But there is so much catching up to do, with districts struggling to resolve the huge disparities exposed, and deepened, by kids who’ve missed so much regular school.
“I expect different states and even different communities to do this at different paces,” said Will Austin, chief executive of the nonprofit Boston Schools Fund. “Because as much as we want to say this stuff is scientific, a lot of it is political.”
With kids in school, more parents are back at work in person, part of a broader return-to-the-office that picks up speed in the fall. It’s not the typical post-Labor-Day rush, but downtown feels the busiest it has been in 18 months, with new restaurants and bars starting to open. Jobs come back too, though the biggest help-wanted ads come from Amazon, gearing up for an online-shopping season to dwarf this past year’s. Some new habits die hard.
October: Life back at the office isn’t quite the same. Many white-collar workers are on hybrid schedules, working from home one or two days a week. No one’s jetting in from Chicago for a meeting that can happen on Zoom. Conventions? Maybe next year. So parts of the economy remain down, particularly the hard-hit hospitality sector and downtown restaurants that relied on expense account business dinners.
But even in travel, there’s hope, as a few of the city’s signature events — maybe the Marathon, or the Head of the Charles — finally get back on track.
“The vaccine rollout will have been a success if those events happen,” said Carlos Aramayo, president of hospitality-workers union Unite Here Local 26. “And if those events happen, that’s great for our members, because that means a lot of other things are going to be happening.”
November: Dare we say, life in Boston is starting to feel somewhat . . . normal? The Celtics and Bruins fill TD Garden again. Concert venues come back on line and a wave of pop-up stores open downtown. Logan Airport bustles at Thanksgiving. No one’s skipping the holidays this year.
By now, some are even able to look back on the pandemic as a missed opportunity, a squandered chance to reset how Boston functions, for the better. There was no big rethinking how we create affordable housing, or use public space, no mass buildout of bus lanes in the quiet, traffic-free months of the pandemic.
“We never made any meaningful changes that would change behavior, and the way people get around the city,” said Stacy Thompson, executive director of transit advocacy group Livable Streets Alliance. “Because of that, the unevenness of our system feels profound.”
Still, the vaccine has largely done its job. Along with our annual flu shot, we all get a COVID booster, and go about our lives. After the last 18 months, that feels like a win.
December: We’re already looking ahead to next year. If 2020 was a mess, and 2021 was a stop-and-start recovery, we all think 2022 is when things get moving again for real.
With more people coming in to work, holiday parties feel like a just reward. There’s some of the usual Christmas bustle at hotels and event businesses. New restaurants experiment with different formats — though takeout and outdoor seating are here to stay. Neighborhood joints thrive.
While there’s so much left to rebuild — and still 200,000 fewer jobs than before the pandemic — hiring is picking up speed, and finally, COVID feels like a thing of the past. After nearly two years of trying to stay afloat, companies and people are looking forward again. Indeed, ideas we haven’t even thought of yet are starting to bloom.
“On the other side of this are some amazing opportunities,” said Doyle, the restaurant consultant. “This is a forest fire. Everything is going to burn down. And out of those ashes are going to come some new sprouts that could never have seen the light of day.”