By ALEXANDRA HILL
Capital News Service
LANSING — About 20,000 state government employees work in downtown Lansing, and downtown businesses struggled as they — as well as tourists and other visitors to the state capital — stayed away during the height of the pandemic.
State workers are gradually returning to the office, giving downtown business owners renewed hope after struggling financially for more than a year.
Half of the state’s roughly 50,000 employees worked remotely during the pandemic, including about 20,000 in downtown Lansing, according to the Department of Technology, Management and Budget. That left some small businesses, especially those on Washington Square in the heart of downtown, struggling.
“We couldn’t open on time because the health department wasn’t working, so we postponed the opening,” said Burcay Gunguler, the cofounder of Social Sloth Cafe & Bakery. “We lost money from there in the beginning.”
Gunguler and her husband opened the cafe Aug. 13, 2020. The couple initially expected most of their business would come from state workers.
“When we were looking for a place, we leased here because 22,000 people were working around,” Gunguler said, “but people are coming only once or twice a week, which is not really enough, of course.”
Return-to-work plans were developed late last year to address how state departments will screen employees for COVID-19 symptoms, implement mask requirements, sanitize facilities and stay socially distanced, Technology, Management and Budget press officer Caleb Buhs said.
“From the state’s perspective, there was obviously a public health emergency. so all decisions being made during 2020 and much of 2021 have been related to the safety of both our staff and the general public that visit our offices,” Buhs said.
“Going forward, it’s going to be based on operational needs,” he said.
State employees slowly began returning July 12, and more are expected to gradually come back to their offices, depending on each department’s return-to-work plans.
Buhs said about 48% of the state workforce remains remote.
“We understand that there is an economic impact in downtown Lansing, especially where much of state government is located,” Buhs said, “but our obligation is obviously to the taxpayer and making sure that we’re spending that money efficiently and effectively.”
Cathleen Edgerly, the executive director of Downtown Lansing Inc., which promotes downtown, said the local economy’s recovery will be gradual, and it will continue to take leadership, creativity and hard work in the next five to 10 years to rebuild.
“COVID has allowed us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hit the reset button — to dig deep and really look at who and what we want to be, what we deserve to be and offer as a downtown and as the state’s capital city,” Edgerly said. “Everyone has to come to the table to agree on a vision or direction for downtown.”
Awat Adil, the manager and co-owner of the New Daily Bagel & Deli, said his business stayed open with grants.
Adil’s family has owned the business, which opened in 1987, for the past 15 years.
“When the pandemic first started, we obviously had to shut down for about two months because of the governor’s order,” Adil said. “After we reopened, it was completely dead for like two years, and business-wise, it was terrible.”
Adil said the restaurant’s daily average of customers dropped about 75% compared to pre-pandemic. The only time there was foot traffic was when protesters or tourists came around.
Most of its employees are family members, Adil said, and during rough patches of the pandemic, the family was able to stick together and say, “If we didn’t make enough money this week, nobody gets paid this week.”
Adil said the last two months have been relatively good for downtown businesses for two reasons: Not only are state workers slowly coming back, but they have fewer places to choose from.
“Another reason I think we’re so busy is because literally half of downtown has been shut down,” Adil said. “I’m not sure what’s going to happen. We’re just going day by day.”