At River Lights Bookstore in Dubuque, the busiest time of day generally occurs between noon and 2 p.m.
Owner Sue Davis attributes the early-afternoon traffic to the store’s downtown location, which is surrounded by office buildings collectively housing thousands of workers. Davis has noticed that her bookstore generally fills up when the businesses empty out during the lunch hour.
That once-reliable boost hasn’t been there in 2020.
“We have definitely seen that lunchtime business decrease,” Davis said. “We’re not seeing the same traffic from the people who work downtown.”
Retail shops, restaurants and bars are dealing with similar struggles as the employee headcount in the downtown remains markedly lower nearly six months after the impacts of COVID-19 hit home in Dubuque.
Dubuque Bank & Trust and its parent company, Heartland Financial USA, collectively employ hundreds of workers who once reported to downtown offices before COVID-19.
Deb Deters, executive vice president and chief human resource officer for Heartland, estimated that less than 10% of these workers are coming into the office now. The remainder are doing their jobs remotely.
Deters noted that some employees are reporting to work at bank branch locations, where they continue to provide services for customers making in-person visits. But most employees will work from home for the foreseeable future.
“We did announce to our employees about a month ago that, for those who can work remotely, they will continue to work remotely through the end of the year and that we would then make another decision,” Deters said.
Many employers are taking a similar approach.
Prudential Retirement employs more than 400 workers at 500 Main St., according to the latest estimate issued by Greater Dubuque Development Corp.
However, company officials acknowledged that this facility remains largely empty in the midst of the pandemic.
“The vast majority of our employees, not just in Dubuque but in all markets, are still currently working remotely,” said Josh Stoffregen-Foye, vice president of global communications.
Stoffregen-Foye said the company has a return-to-work committee that is regularly assessing the possibility of bringing workers back to the office. However, nothing is imminent.
“There is nothing hard and fast about a re-entry time,” he said.
The uncertainty surrounding the return of downtown workers leaves businesses in a difficult spot.
Marty Hess, manager at The Wolfhound in downtown Dubuque, said the bar has seen a significant decline in its late-afternoon and weeknight business.
“We used to have a big happy hour crowd,” he said. “We just don’t have that anymore.”
For a business that opened in the spring of 2019, it has been a significant blow.
“We’re just trying to tread water for now, and we’re hoping for better times in the near future,” said Hess.
While the number of downtown workers has cratered in recent months, the opening of a new operations center in the Millwork District later this year should push those figures upward.
Dupaco Community Credit Union is building a new operations center in the former VOICES building at the corner of Jackson and East 10th streets.
Chief Marketing Officer David Klavitter said the building will be ready for workers in December. It will have enough room for 175 employees, but Klavitter acknowledged that there will be a lower headcount when workers first move into the structure.
After investing heavily in the downtown location, Klavitter said Dupaco remains committed to bringing workers together in a renovated space.
“Virtual interaction has sufficed during this time, but in the long term, we value having people together,” he said.
Davis, meanwhile, emphasized that the dearth of downtown business workers hasn’t spelled doom for River Lights Bookstore. She said she is “continually surprised” by how many customers continue to enter her doors, noting that downtown Dubuque remains an attraction capable of bringing in out-of-towners.
Davis doesn’t expect a large-scale return of downtown workers until the spring of 2021, and she acknowledged that the volume of office workers might never return to pre-COVID levels.
She continues to hold out hope that she soon will cross paths with those customers again.
“These people (who work downtown) are part of the neighborhood,” she said. “We miss seeing those friendly faces.”