Office workers are still not back. For small businesses that depend on their foot traffic, they can’t come back early enough



For many Colorado businesses, remote working seems to be here to stay at least a little longer. That’s not good news for cafes, sandwich shops, after-work bars and other small downtown businesses that depend on regular pedestrian traffic on weekdays to pay their bills.

The morning rush for Ng started around 6:30 a.m., but Ng has not experienced a morning rush since the pandemic began in March of last year. He also doesn’t see a lunch rush. He used to sell burritos, sandwiches and pastries on a regular basis, but he had to cut his menu down considerably. All the food was going to be wasted, he said.

Most of the time it closes at 11 a.m.

“There is hardly anyone here during lunch hour; the building is pretty much empty, ”he said.

Kevin J. Beaty / Denverite
Chien Ng runs Curious Coffee Co. in the lobby of the office building 303 E. 17th Ave. from Denver. September 22, 2021.

Remote working has many advantages for some employees, and

The switch to telecommuting is a welcome change for many people. Office workers like flexibility and not having to travel. This makes it easier to design child care services and saves money on things like parking and dining out. There is a lot to love about working from home.

But the continued abandonment of the office has been difficult for small business owners like Ng who need these people to stay afloat. Some companies have already given up. And many others don’t know how long they can survive if people don’t return to the office soon.

Ng received a loan from the federal government’s pandemic assistance program early on. But that money ran out some time ago, and he mainly lives off his savings, he said.

Business plans to return to the office have been repeatedly delayed. The property management of the Ng building originally believed that more people would return after the July 4 vacation.

When that didn’t happen, people were supposed to come back after Labor Day, Ng said. But he still hasn’t seen a change.

Judging by his conversations with the clients who still flock, he’s not sure it will ever really go back to the way it used to be. Many building workers – including journalists, architects and government workers, to name a few – just don’t come back full-time.

Even though office life does eventually return to pre-pandemic normal, Ng doesn’t see this helping his business for a while.

“Business will not return to normal or be able to generate income for at least a year and a half to two years… I say 2023,” Ng said..

Vienna Cleaners in the North Capitol Hill neighborhood of Denver on September 21, 2021.Kevin J. Beaty / Denverite
Vienna Cleaners in the North Capitol Hill neighborhood of Denver on September 21, 2021.

Between new variations and hot, smoky weather, the envisioned post-vaccine return to downtown Denver never really materialized.

There are high hopes the vaccine will hasten a return to some semblance of normalcy for city centers across the country. But according to data from the Downtown Denver Partnership, there were actually fewer people coming to downtown in August compared to July.

The group blames the hot, smoky weather, and the Delta variant, for the drop in foot traffic. The report found that there had been a slight increase in the number of people returning to the office after Labor Day. Yet it is far from pre-pandemic levels.

Jenny Scaff runs Vienna Drycleaners a few blocks from Ng’s apartment building. It is a family operation. His sister owns it. They have been in business for about 30 years, but recently closed their original location. Scaff says it’s been slow for a while.

“When the pandemic started, it was a good time to say that we were done with this store, this place,” said Scaff.

They weren’t sure if they could get there and closed the remaining store for about six months. Things have picked up recently – but Scaff says the hours are still being reduced. The store is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays. It was from 7 a.m. to 6.30 p.m.

Like Ng, Scaff says the lack of office workers is the biggest problem.

Vienna Cleaners in the North Capitol Hill neighborhood of Denver on September 21, 2021.Kevin J. Beaty / Denverite
Vienna Cleaners in the North Capitol Hill neighborhood of Denver on September 21, 2021.

“They don’t clean their suits and wash their shirts… or not that often,” Scaff said.

She doesn’t know what’s next for the family business – and downtown in general.

“Especially if the offices don’t reopen, I don’t know what might happen,” Scaff said.

But there was one bright spot for his business – a wedding boom that started this summer, Scaff said.

Kelly Wilson is there to collect her husband’s tuxedo.

We’ve had a bunch of weddings this fall, so it’s a constant rehearsal, ”Wilson said.

Scaff says she feels optimistic despite the challenges.

“We’re trying, we’ve got to make it work… so that’s what we’re doing,” Scaff said.


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