Pandemic has forced downtown businesses to adapt or close

Macy Norman, center, serves a table of guests at Puckett's Grocery and Restaurant, Friday, Sept. 10, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. In Nashville, tourism has come back faster than downtown office workers following COVID. Nashville's reputation as a tourist des
Macy Norman, center, serves a table of guests at Puckett's Grocery and Restaurant, Friday, Sept. 10, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. In Nashville, tourism has come back faster than downtown office workers following COVID. Nashville's reputation as a tourist des

'There’s no question, it’s hard for business districts like ours, we miss our workers.'

Posted: Sep 13, 2021 7:24 AM

NEW YORK (AP) — Downtown businesses in the U.S. and abroad once took for granted that nearby offices would provide a steady clientele looking for breakfast, lunch, everyday goods and services and last-minute gifts. As the resilient coronavirus keeps offices closed and workers at home, some are adapting while others are trying to hang on.

Some businesses are already gone. The survivors have taken steps such as boosting online sales or changing their hours, staffing levels and what they offer customers. Others are relying more on residential traffic.

Many business owners had looked forward to a return toward normalcy this month as offices reopened. But now that many companies have postponed plans to bring workers back, due to surging COVID-19 cases, downtown businesses are reckoning with the fact that adjustments made on the fly may become permanent.

In downtown Detroit, Mike Frank’s cleaning business was running out of money and, it seemed, out of time.

Frank started Clifford Street Cleaners eight years ago. Pre-pandemic, monthly revenue was about $11,000, but by last December, when many downtown offices had to close, revenue had dropped to $1,800, Frank said.

Frank had to borrow money from his wife to pay the bills. “It got down to , I was almost ready to go out of business.”

Instead of shutting down, Frank adapted. He converted part of his store into a small market with toothpaste, laundry detergent, shampoo, bottled water, soft drinks and other essentials. He also delivered clean laundry and goods from the store.

Eventually, some foot traffic returned. With the combination of retail sales and dry cleaning, revenue is back up to about $4,100 per month , he said. That’s enough to keep him afloat, and the figure is improving each month.

In Lower Manhattan, 224 businesses closed their doors in 2020 and 2021, according to the Alliance for Downtown New York. About 100 have opened.

“There’s no question, it’s hard for business districts like ours, we miss our workers,” said Jessica Lappin, president of the Alliance for Downtown New York. “Nobody misses them more than local businesses.”

Lappin predicts office workers will come back, but it might be two or three days a week, on different days or in shifts.

“Just in the way we had to adjust so dramatically to being at home all the time, there is an adjustment to coming back,” she said.

A block from Wall Street, Blue Park Kitchen used to have lines out the door each weekday as office workers waited to buy one of the grain bowls Kelly Fitzpatrick served as a healthy lunch option.

“Things are completely different,” she said.

Online orders now account for 65% of the business — although they are less profitable because the online apps take a cut. Higher-margin catering orders remain non-existent and Blue Park has reduced its staff by nine workers.

“At our peak in July 2021 (before the delta variant surge), we had about 65% of peak pre-COVID business,” Fitzpatrick said.

Fitzpatrick has seen more offices reopen and hopes more companies return in October, before the slower holiday months of November and December.

Nearby, Aankit Malhotra took over Indian restaurant Benares with his brother in 2019. When the pandemic hit, overnight, their core banking clientele vanished. No one came in for the $13 three-course lunch special the restaurant was known for. Previously lunch accounted for 95% of Benares’ business.

Now, Benares has about 10 lunch orders a day, down from 100. But locals, grateful that the restaurant kept its pre-pandemic hours of 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day, are keeping the brothers afloat.

Business is back to around 70% of pre-pandemic levels, helped by delivery and dinner meals. The clientele has changed from workers to younger people and families from nearby Battery Park City.

“It’s nice to see not just corporate people downtown. It’s becoming more of a family-oriented place.”

Jorge Guzman, assistant professor of business management at Columbia University, said the shift of economic activity away from downtowns is likely to last. There has been a boom in entrepreneurship in non-downtown New York areas like Jamaica, Queens, and the South Bronx.

“Downtowns are not going to die, exactly. It’s not like Midtown’s going anywhere. But it’s going to be a little bit more of a mix, more residential and mixed-use concepts.”

Across the Atlantic in London, office workers have been slowly trickling back to their desks since the government lifted COVID-19 lockdown restrictions on July 19. The U.K. saw a peak of delta cases in July, but the numbers fell sharply in about two weeks. Recently, however, cases have been climbing again.

The number of commuters is nowhere near pre-pandemic levels, making it tough for small businesses in Central London’s financial district to survive.

“It was amazing, it was good, it was busy before the pandemic,” said Rado Asatrian, who has worked as a barber at the Man-oj hair salon in the financial district for six years. Before COVID-19 , he usually had 10 to 15 customers a day, but now it’s down to three or four.

“Now, it’s just so empty,” said Asatrian. He said he is considering moving to a busier location, switching careers, or moving abroad.

In some downtowns, while the workers are still remote, the tourists are back and providing a boost to businesses.

In Atlanta, Kwan’s Deli and Korean Food is doing just about as much summertime business as it did before the pandemic, said Andrew Song, whose family owns the restaurant.

At the height of the pandemic, Kwan’s had lost about 80% of its business, reduced its hours and cut staff. But the deli has bounced back thanks to tourists from the Georgia Aquarium and events at a nearby convention hall.

Still, the delta variant surge is creating uncertainty about the fall. Song said he has heard that some businesses have relocated permanently or downsized.

“It’s sort of hard to imagine what it will look like with office regulars not returning or being more remote,” he said.

In Nashville, Lyle Richardson, chief operating officer for restaurant operator A. Marshall Hospitality, said he has seen the city’s restaurant industry ravaged by the coronavirus epidemic. He sits on the board of the Tennessee Hospitality Association trade group and estimates that hundreds of restaurants have had to close.

Those who stayed open made adjustments. Richardson stopped serving lunch at one restaurant, Deacon’s New South, to focus on dinner only after office workers went remote. But he kept his other restaurant, Puckett’s Grocery & Restaurant, open from 7 a.m to 11 p.m., to attract the tourists flocking back to the city.

“The normalcy we called pre-COVID, that no longer exists,” he said. “We have to be prepared, on our toes, to adapt. ”

Back in Detroit, business at Cannelle by Matt Knio, a downtown bakery and sandwich shop, has rebounded above 2019 levels after a precipitous drop-off early in the pandemic. Baseball and football crowds are back, and outdoor dining and takeout remain popular.

If businesses are subject to more restrictions when the weather gets colder, Knio believes he can rely on the lessons learned so far in the pandemic to get by.

“I think we know our way around now, and how to deal with it,” he said. “We’ll be able to do takeout and curbside pickup.”

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 694320

Reported Deaths: 8142
CountyCasesDeaths
Hennepin1423771859
Ramsey59270950
Dakota52926503
Anoka48822485
Washington31123312
Stearns25308241
St. Louis20783337
Scott19966146
Wright18874163
Olmsted16191112
Sherburne13779105
Carver1232552
Clay930196
Rice9242125
Blue Earth885747
Crow Wing8008102
Kandiyohi751491
Chisago729258
Otter Tail684095
Benton6616102
Mower573938
Winona562752
Goodhue558981
Douglas546484
Itasca529272
Beltrami527572
Steele516521
McLeod516164
Isanti499070
Morrison475763
Nobles454850
Becker449960
Polk442175
Freeborn436040
Lyon401054
Carlton396960
Nicollet386448
Pine381626
Mille Lacs361860
Brown355244
Cass352636
Le Sueur346530
Todd330334
Meeker312649
Waseca295725
Martin270533
Wabasha24874
Dodge24755
Hubbard240441
Roseau237424
Houston209816
Redwood205142
Renville203148
Fillmore202210
Pennington194922
Wadena190527
Faribault183725
Sibley179610
Cottonwood178824
Chippewa173139
Kanabec167329
Aitkin158038
Watonwan156811
Rock142419
Jackson135812
Pope13418
Yellow Medicine127720
Pipestone125826
Koochiching123719
Swift118719
Murray117210
Stevens113711
Clearwater107118
Marshall106719
Lake93221
Wilkin90714
Lac qui Parle89224
Mahnomen7239
Big Stone7034
Grant6918
Norman6749
Lincoln6694
Kittson53922
Unassigned51193
Red Lake5017
Traverse4345
Lake of the Woods4194
Cook2150

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 439050

Reported Deaths: 6420
CountyCasesDeaths
Polk69441683
Linn26618363
Scott23312265
Black Hawk19397338
Woodbury17483233
Johnson1698692
Dubuque14775221
Pottawattamie13369186
Dallas13048102
Story1211448
Warren707893
Webster6479103
Cerro Gordo6370105
Clinton635898
Des Moines618084
Muscatine5985109
Marshall586981
Sioux547676
Jasper532076
Lee529084
Wapello5230128
Buena Vista479442
Marion464086
Plymouth442185
Henry351341
Jones341159
Bremer331365
Washington330454
Crawford326844
Carroll326553
Benton325756
Boone318636
Mahaska282754
Dickinson276547
Kossuth257471
Clay255629
Jackson253844
Tama246073
Hardin244547
Buchanan244238
Delaware240143
Cedar228025
Fayette227945
Page225724
Wright221741
Winneshiek219237
Hamilton216752
Harrison205476
Madison199920
Clayton199758
Floyd195742
Butler191936
Poweshiek188837
Mills188225
Iowa185927
Cherokee184740
Allamakee181152
Jefferson178238
Lyon178041
Calhoun172213
Hancock170336
Winnebago170131
Cass164356
Louisa161651
Grundy161335
Appanoose158149
Shelby156539
Emmet153241
Franklin152224
Humboldt151626
Union149937
Sac147922
Mitchell146143
Guthrie142132
Chickasaw141618
Palo Alto134527
Clarke130226
Montgomery127940
Keokuk121332
Monroe118733
Howard118422
Ida109838
Davis105025
Greene103012
Pocahontas102623
Monona99034
Lucas98523
Adair97734
Worth9558
Osceola84717
Decatur76710
Fremont76511
Van Buren75221
Taylor73412
Wayne66323
Ringgold63027
Audubon60114
Unassigned5300
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