Reuters

The estimates at this early stage vary widely.

Long after the streets, squares and businesses of Boston spring back to life, and the Red Sox games resume at Fenway Park, the debate will go on: was Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick right to ask Boston residents to stay inside under a "shelter-in-place" order beginning Friday morning?

The responses at this early stage vary widely. With suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev still at large after a firefight with police early this morning -- and said to be armed and dangerous -- Patrick evidently feels that the "lockdown," as it has been called, is a matter of public safety. But there has been ample speculation that shutting down the nation's 10th largest metro area to find a 19-year-old may be an overreaction, and a poor show of resilience: when the city shuts down, the thinking goes, the terrorists win.

Our friends at Quartz have compared the reaction to some of America's most recent urban disasters, arguing that while 9/11 and the D.C. sniper attacks were textbook cases in resilience, authorities have since turned to a more conservative approach. For Hurricanes Sandy and Irene, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg moved quickly to shut down transit systems before the storms arrived. Schools in Bear Valley, California were shut down during the manhunt for Chris Dormer.

What is clear is that the lockdown in Boston -- the local transit authority is still closed, as are most businesses -- is totally unprecedented. Not since the Watts Riots of 1965 has so much urban territory been closed off. In that case, the cause was a six-day riot that resulted in 34 deaths, over 1,000 injuries, and over 3,000 arrests. Martial law was declared.

Therefore, predicting the impact of a lockdown is difficult. A closer comparison than any man-made disturbance is probably to be found in extreme weather incidents, which, at their worst, can cause cities to shut down for several days. Certain parts of city life then fare worse than others: hourly workers suffer more than their salaried counterparts; low-overhead operations like restaurants and theaters also do poorly -- a lost weekend can put a serious dent in small business finances. 

There have been various conjectures about what a lost day might cost Boston. Brad Plumer at Wonkblog does a back-of-napkin estimate, writing that with an annual GDP of $326 billion, the metro area might lose a billion dollars a day during the shutdown. Matt Yglesias says that's an overestimate, and reminds us that the lockdown isn't as expansive as the MSA:

"The Boston-Cambridge-Quincy MSA includes all of Rockinham County and Strafford County in New Hampshire. It extends south into Plymouth County in Massachusetts. So we're talking about a fraction of the MSA losing a fraction of a day's worth of income. And that's assuming that 100 percent of the employers whose hourly employees are impacted choose to act like jerks about this."

Addtionally, both Yglesias and Yuval Rosenberg at the Fiscal Times write that absent economic activity might just be delayed, as in a storm -- extra work to get through on Monday, a Red Sox doubleheader next time the Royals come to town. Bloomberg Businessweek conjectures that a lost day could cost Boston $333 million.

But all this theorizing hinges on a big question: when will the lockdown end? We hear that many local businesses in the Boston area -- Dunkin Donuts, Armando's -- have reopened, but it will be hard for the city to get back on its feet until transit reopens, and many residents and business owners seem to be taking Patrick's suggestion (it is, apparently, just a suggestion -- not an order) seriously. As our staff writer Emily Badger tweets:

If Tsarnaev's location isn't confirmed by sundown, does the lockdown continue through Friday night? Over the weekend? It's unclear.

Lastly, the decision to shut down Boston may not represent a trend, but it will have a huge influence on the next mayor and governor who find themselves in a similar situation. Does the lockdown set a precedent for securing an urban area with a terrorism suspect on the loose? If it becomes politically unfeasible for politicians to keep things running as usual with a suspected terrorist at large, we could be seeing more lockdowns in the future -- and that means the cost of what's happening in Boston is just beginning.

About the Author

Henry Grabar

Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.   

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