by Matthew Guarracino
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected institutions of all stripes here and abroad, leading to the short- and long-term closures of many academic institutions, brick and mortar retailers, museums, construction sites, and restaurants. To contain the pandemics spread, many municipalities and organizations have grappled with an important question: How do we, as a community, maintain productivity amidst such uncertainty?
To be sure, the immediate impact of COVID-19 has become quickly evident. Early in the spring, schools, colleges, and universities transitioned to online learning, and malls were eerily quiet while online shopping became the go-to option for retail therapy. And with the majority of Bostonians working remotely, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority announced a $231 million budget deficit for the fiscal year caused in large part by a more than 90% decline in ridership during the crisis.
The situation remains precarious. Many schools are still debating what form class instruction will take in the fall, and many businesses and nonprofit organizations are expressing widespread concern about the negative impact on their bottom lines.
But there is good news. Moratoriums on construction in Greater Boston lifted last spring, allowing companies such as JM Electrical to resume work on many of the region’s developments, including projects at MIT, Tufts University, and Berklee School of Music. An additional silver lining: Regional transit leaders have taken advantage of the slowdown in ridership to accelerate capital improvement projects with minimal disruptions to commuters.
For instance, the MBTA has advanced timelines on subway improvement projects, and highway work is getting done more efficiently and cost-effectively during daytime hours rather than overnight. Additionally, the Massachusetts Port Authority, Massport, was able to fast-track runway and terminal improvements with limited inconvenience for travelers.
Indeed, almost all of the city’s institutions and industries have been forced to innovate during this time. Boston storefronts and restaurants have also adapted to the restrictions imposed by COVID-19 through a variety of creative measures, including implementing curbside service for customers. And cultural destinations such as the Museum of Science have reacted to the pandemic by incorporating COVID-19 programming into their exhibits and robust online offerings, leveraging its relationships with scientists and doctors in Greater Boston to keep information up-to-date.
Meanwhile, as communities look for ways to reopen their economies safely, places like Boston have identified opportunities to expand space for pedestrians, bicyclists, and small business customers. Such efforts, including the introduction of outdoor restaurant dining areas, will allow for adequate social distancing. These upgrades will also represent a victory for environmentalists and clean infrastructure advocates, who have championed more sidewalks and walkways to provide stabilized/paved surfaces, making pedestrian trips more viable. Indeed, future investing in clean technologies and building infrastructure could create jobs and help get communities back to work, post-pandemic.
For now, cities remain at the center of the nation’s economic activity, with most major American urban areas requiring robust infrastructure investment. Six months into the restrictions, major institutions – including those in Greater Boston – have adapted by effectively turning lemons into lemonade, driving stealth reforms in the regional framework. While the pandemic has threatened long-term development planning, particularly in the real estate industry, these modest gains are examples of innovations being implemented and could become an even larger part of COVID-19’s legacy this year.
Matthew Guarracino is principal at JM Electrical.