BOSTON. It’s the day after Labor Day, and after working from home since mid-March Eloise Fricken was shocked by what she found as she walked from the Park Street subway station to her place of work in the financial district this morning.
“It’s like a ghost town–without the ghosts!”
“Vegan Garden–gone. Espresso Express–empty,” she says, a look of dismay on her face as she walks by shuttered retail space with “For Lease” signs in the window.
Across Summer Street, Nile Berwang experiences a similar sense of anxiety. “All the little spots where you could settle in, put your headphones on and tune the world out at lunch before heading back to the office–closed,” he says, shaking his head. “The pandemic has been tough on a lot of people, but nobody has been hit harder than restaurateurs and people like me.”
What, this reporter asks Berwang, has been the disproportionate impact that he’s suffered from that has spared others? “Are you kidding,” he says, pulling his wallet from his pocket and taking out little cardboard tickets with holes in them. “I was just two punches away from a banana-peanut butter smoothie at The Friendly Blender!”
The retail food industry has indeed been hard hit by the loss of business in high-rent locations throughout the country due to lockdown restrictions that have kept potential patrons away from urban areas, but experts in personal finance say users of “loyalty cards,” which grant customers a free drink or sandwich once they complete a specified number of purchases, have been decimated. “How would you like it if you’d bought nine cups of coffee and along comes COVID-19 and wipes you out before you get a chance to grab a higher-priced drink for your freebie?” says Dr. Donna Stewart-Grimes, chairman of the Department of Home Economics at the University of Iowa-Keokuk. “Yes I feel for entrepreneurs who’ll lose their homes and face years of scrambling to keep body and soul together, but dammit–I had my heart set on a free cappuccino when we flattened the curve!”
“Dying. Must have free vanilla latte.”
While other constituencies affected by the current lock-down have had their problems addressed by legislation or government aid programs, holders of “stranded” loyalty cards represent a smoldering source of consumer resentment that could be ignited by a charismatic demagogue who promised them relief. “Hitler got started with a beer hall putsch,” says Professor Anil Wyand, a historian who studies transformative social crises. “Who knows what kind of revolutionary upheaval we’re going to get from frustrated yuppies who want their free salted caramel lattes?”
While she waits for relief, Eloise Fricken tries to keep things in perspective. “Yes I realize there have been 9,133 deaths from COVID in Massachusetts,” she says with a look of genuine sorrow. “But a lot of those people had co-morbidities, and the chicken pesto sandwich at Vegan Garden was to die for!”