Reopened restaurant a “beacon of hope” in financial district

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (SHNS) – Sidewalks were barren, streets devoid of cars, and once teeming office buildings in Boston’s Financial District shuttered as employees turned to virtual work settings during the worst of the pandemic in an effort to keep safe while a deadly pandemic raged in the state.

That’s the situation Fóumami owner Michael Wang found himself in nearly 17 months ago when he decided to close his restaurant until the area returned to some semblance of normalcy. Now, with the state of emergency over and some workers returning to offices, Wang reopened his business Wednesday alongside Boston Acting Mayor Kim Janey, House Ways and Means Chair Aaron Michlewitz, and Massachusetts Restaurant Association President Bob Luz.

“The Financial District is a very unique part of Boston that relies heavily on the men and women that come to work here every day,” Wang said. “I’m very hopeful that today marks a turning point, not only for Fóumami, but for the Financial District, this neighborhood as a whole as it starts to show life coming back.”

State, city, and industry officials cast the reopening as a reawakening of Boston’s Financial District, a business hub that, in normal times, would be swarming at lunchtime with employees looking for a bite to eat. But as with most cities and towns, the pandemic turned the area into a ghost town.

The struggle restaurants encountered over the past year and half has been well documented in anecdotal stories of neighborhood venues shutting down. In downtown Boston, a number of established bars and eateries closed for good during the height of the pandemic as rent bills piled up and revenue streams dried up.

Prior to the pandemic there were about 16,000 eating and drinking establishments in Massachusetts, according to the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, and since then roughly 3,200 have closed — about 21 to 22 percent of all restaurants in the state. Luz said without the support and efforts from state and city officials, more restaurants would have closed during the pandemic.

“The numbers are tragic, and we’ve suffered great losses,” Luz said. “Michael, congratulations. You know, it is important because this is a beacon of hope as we come into September. The end of the summer, sadly, is upon us. We expect a lot more workers to be returning here over the coming weeks, hopefully not months, and bring the vibrancy back.”

Wang said many of the restaurants in the Financial District rely heavily on corporate catering, a service which was no longer needed when people started working from home.

“With people working from home and with COVID, and people holding Zoom meetings, the whole corporate catering business was basically wiped out and opening here with no customers here, you just can’t open,” he told reporters outside his business, located on the corner of Oliver and High streets.

Janey said restaurant owners have voiced a need for more support from government officials, not just financial, but assistance in attracting and retaining staff.

“To have a small business owner open up their doors and be a successful restaurant for 10 years, only to have to shut down for 17 months, I think underscores the importance of the work that we are doing all together,” said Janey.

But overhanging Wednesday’s celebrations was the looming threat of a deadly COVID-19 strain known as the Delta variant that has led the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue new masking guidance. The CDC now recommends that vaccinated people in areas where there is high or substantial COVID-19 transmission wear masks indoors.

As of Wednesday, 12 out of the 14 counties in Massachusetts fall under the CDC’s definition of “high” or “substantial” virus transmission, according to an online map updated by the federal agency.

The Department of Public Health updated its recommendations at the end of last week, advising vaccinated people living with a person at high-risk for COVID-19, those with weakened immune systems, or who are at increased risk of COVID-19 because of their age or health condition to wear masks while indoors.

And yet the story of one restaurant’s perseverance is worth commemorating, said Michlewitz, who presented Wang with an official state citation on behalf of House Speaker Ronald Mariano.

“We have a lot of small businesses that are trying to survive that have been trying to work it through and today’s a celebration of perseverance. I mean, Michael had to persevere, day in and day out to survive,” Michlewitz said. “The city of Boston, the Commonwealth, Massachusetts, the federal government, we all were able to step up and provide resources for restaurants to be able to persevere, some didn’t make it and Michael’s a testament to the hard work and the dedication that he provided to his business and to his employees.”

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