The year ahead: Small businesses, restaurants key to local economic recovery

2020 will certainly be a year we all remember, but it’s one many of us would like to forget. The coronavirus uprooted every aspect of daily life.

Now, the promise of widespread vaccinations offers hope that some of those things we treasured will come back. Simple pleasures like hugging a loved one or going to Fenway Park. As we turn the page to 2021, what can we expect in the year ahead?

All week long the Boston 25 Morning News will be shedding light on when life might get back to normal.

After the medical consequences of COVID-19, its greatest impact was on the economy.

Small businesses like the one run by Lisa Wisel of Brookline is an example of the pandemic’s crippling impact.

Wisel is the owner of the VineRipe Grill, which also has a robust catering business. The holidays are usually an extremely hectic time of year.

“Hopping. It was. Christmas time for us was a very busy season,” Wisel said. “We have a lot of bar mitzvahs in December, basically daily events. The kitchen’s busy.”

A year ago, she had about 45 workers. Now it’s just her and the chef making takeout orders.

“One by one by one our catering events canceled. Every day I got a phone call that people couldn’t do their party. So, we had to adapt.”

Adapt in a big way when the bottom fell out of the economy last spring, experiencing the biggest plunge since the Great Depression.

“The money was not coming in and we were working so hard,” said Wisel.

Small business owners in particular got slammed. So far, more than 100,000 restaurants around the country have closed.

“We’ve recovered certainly from the March and April lows dramatically, but we’re nowhere where we were last December, so I think you’re going to still see struggles,” said Doug Butler, Senior Vice President at Rockland Trust.

The big question is how long parts of the economy will continue to struggle, and if widescale vaccinations will help.

“As long as the vaccine implementation of the vaccine beats the third wave, we should be in pretty good shape,” said Butler. “I think for the full year, I’m pretty optimistic. I think for the next few months, I’m more on the fence. Like, it wouldn’t surprise me for us to begin to take a few steps back the first part of the year.”

“It also depends on the policies with respect to whether business is going to go on as usual,” added Boston College economics professor Chandini Sankaran.

Sankaran says one of the big issues to watch is economic equality. While working from home was an option for higher-paid workers, many lower-paying service jobs were eliminated, worsening the nation’s wealth gap.

“It’s been devastating to urban communities and communities of color,” added Sankaran.

“I do expect that wage inequality would increase. As we know the stock market is doing particularly well, but not everybody is going to be involved in the stock market. It only tends to help the richer group in our population.”

Butler believes issues of economic inclusion need to be front and center as the country bounces back. “That remains one of the biggest challenges facing both the economy and the country, is how do we continue to grow the economy but also grow it for everyone.”

Economists will also be keeping an eye on how the state economy fares. Last June, Massachusetts had the highest unemployment rate in the country. At the time, I was more than 17%.

“Overall, the Massachusetts economy is probably a little healthier because we are more service-driven,” explained Butler.

Small businesses will play a big role in any recovery.

A knack for capturing the essence of the local sports scene has kept Mahlon Williams’ business bustling for a dozen years. I Love Boston Sports has several stores throughout the area.

“Even though our numbers this year are down, down significantly, we’re not the only ones,” said Williams.

So far, he’s survived a lockdown, losing teams, and shoppers flocking to the internet. Still, he remains optimistic. “This taught us all how to bootstrap. In many ways, it’s a blessing in disguise. We just have to take the lessons that we’ve learned, and you know position ourselves as we come out of this.”

That doesn’t mean he is sad to say turn the page. “I don’t even want to say anything, talk about anything that has to do with 2020. I don’t want to say hindsight is 2020, that’s how much I detest this particular year.”

Back at the VineRipe Grill, Wisel is also hopeful better days are ahead.

“The restaurant will open again in the spring, so I feel pretty optimistic that things are going to change. This can’t last forever, and things have to get better. So, I think everyone has to stay positive.”

At the end of December, Gov. Charlie Baker announced about $700 million would be made available to help the state’s small businesses get back on track.

This program will focus on establishments like caterers, restaurants and salons.