George Maherakis has been working at a seafood stall in Quincy Market since the early '90s, when he was a teenager.
He was floored when Massachusetts shut down nonessential businesses on March 24, 2020, in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Even after a gradual reopening began a few months later, and even after his restaurant, Fisherman's Net, began serving takeout again, the business struggled.
“It's been a rollercoaster ride in here for the last two years. It was brutal. We thought we weren't going to make it," he said of the business, which he co-owns with his father. "We really thought at some point ... we're not going to survive."
Over that first year of the pandemic, he estimates business went down by 80-85%. The family might have shuttered the stall for good, but managed to stay open.
"[The landlord] gave us some rent relief. They helped us out, and it's turning around,” he said.
"It was brutal. We thought we weren't going to make it."
Two years after the shutdown, business is steadily returning to Quincy Market and the rest of Faneuil Hall Marketplace. Foot traffic is up significantly, according to management, but it still hasn't returned to pre-pandemic levels. Some merchants have had to shut their doors for good, and for those who kept going, there are large losses to make up.
Maherakis, who is also the newly elected president of the Faneuil Hall Marketplace Merchants' Association, is working with other business owners to try to solve challenges like staffing shortages, and how to drum up more visitors.
“This isn't a tourist trap. A lot of people think that this has been a tourist trap for years and years, and we're not a tourist trap," he said. "We want locals to come down here and have a good time, walk through here and make it a destination.”
The marketplace's management is focused on attracting visitors, too. But for the first 18 months of the pandemic, General Manager Joe O'Malley said the best he could do was offer tenants some rent relief and focus on COVID safety measures.
“I'll admit, I was afraid," he said, noting that some merchants rely on their businesses as a sole source of income.
O'Malley estimated that the marketplace is now drawing thousands of daily visitors, up significantly from the height of the pandemic, when he counted no more than 100 per day.
"The place was a ghost town," he said. "If there were ... tumbleweeds in the area, we would have seen them.”
Elif Murat is another merchant trying to make up for financial losses she incurred during the pandemic. She owns two pushcarts in Quincy Market, where she sells custom embroidery and home goods.
At times, she said she was unable to pay rent or make loan payments on some of her debts. She drained her savings account. Still, Murat said she learned to accept the hard times as they came.
“It's not the end of the world," she said. "Yes, you do need money. But, I mean, at the end of the day, if there's like a pandemic going on and you cannot work and there's no money coming in ... you still appreciate the things that you have."
Murat took up yoga and meditation, and found other ways to adapt, too, like trying to grow her business online.
“It just made me open an account on Instagram, Etsy, Amazon," Murat said. "So, that's a change.”
Not every business has come back to Faneuil Hall; some had to shut their doors for good. O'Malley said he expects to fill roughly a dozen vacancies by the summer, which would push the number of merchants back up to over 100. Overall, he said, he's optimistic about the future.
“Now that, you know, the mask restrictions are lifted, the vaccination restrictions are lifted, people are coming into the city, they're taking advantage of, you know, not having international tourism too much right now," he said. "So we're seeing daily numbers steadily increase.”
Among those strolling through the area on Monday were Heather Huffman and Morgan Day, who were visiting from Colorado. It was the first time they'd traveled for vacation since the start of the pandemic.
"It's been really exciting, honestly, to see everybody kind of out walking around," Huffman said.
"It's really nice to be able to go out and see people without masks and stuff like that," Day said. "It's a little bit more relaxing and back to kind of normality.”
Their friend, Jessica Moore, who lives in New Bedford, said Faneuil Hall wasn't as busy as she remembered it.
“Last time I was here was pre-pandemic actually, and it is way less of a crowd size right now," she said. "I'm used to street performers all along the streets, waits at restaurants, all of that, and it's definitely not that anymore.”
There were a couple of performers present, including Keytar Bear, the internet-famous busker who performs around Boston wearing a large bear mask and playing a handheld synthesizer.
The musician, who declined to reveal their identity because the secrecy is part of their act, said it was their first time out playing in quite a while.
"It's kind of weird," they said. "The world is empty still.”
Merchants like Maherakis of the Fisherman's Net, who remembers Quincy Market in its busier days, remain hopeful that crowds will return.
“It's going to take time. It's not going to happen overnight," he said. "Back in the day, it was packed in here. And I want to see that again.”
This segment aired on March 24, 2022.