As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, daytime and after-work crowds remain sorely missed at the King’s Head Pub.
"Right now, our lunches are just an absolute struggle. We don’t have the foot traffic downtown, we don’t see the people that we need to downtown and the proof is in the numbers," said Chris Graves, who owns the pub at 120 King St. in the Exchange District, down the street from city hall.
Daytime sales have dropped about 75 per cent from pre-pandemic levels and the pub no longer posts happy hour specials since so few people are around to stop by after work, Graves said.
"We definitely need people to come back and work at the offices… We need it to survive. There’s no doubt about it," he said.
On Tuesday, the City of Winnipeg was urged to bring its own staff back to their downtown workplaces so they can spend money at businesses.
"In the short-term, we need to have bums in seats in downtown offices," Dayna Spiring, president and CEO of Economic Development Winnipeg, told council’s innovation and economic development committee.
City staff should return to such offices as much as possible to help small businesses recover from COVID-19 and set an example for other organizations, she said.
"While corporations may want to give their employees flexibility, they just need to understand the consequences of those choices," Spiring told the Free Press after her presentation. "I believe that, as leaders, we have a role to play in helping the small businesses in our downtown survive."
A recent Downtown Winnipeg BIZ report found storefront businesses in the area, such as restaurants and personal services, lost $139 million of revenue during the first 15 months of the pandemic.
Keith LaBossiere, CEO and managing partner of TDS Law, said about 200 staff returned to his company’s True North Square office on Sept. 13.
The key reason for the decision was to safely gather staff in a collaborative environment, while remote work could return if COVID-19 case numbers and restrictions change, he said.
Although not the top factor in the decision, LaBossiere said the impact on downtown was also considered in the choice to call workers back to the office.
"We wanted to be a part of what we saw as the transformation and revitalization of downtown and that’s hard to do if people actually aren’t downtown. We wanted to lead in that regard," he said.
Coun. Jeff Browaty, the innovation committee chairperson, said he agrees the city must work on targets for its own staff to return downtown.
"There are still a lot of city workers working remotely... I think government does have a role in terms of bringing employees back," said Browaty.
However, he cautioned the city must consider the effect on safety as Manitobans cope with the fourth wave of COVID-19.
About 17 per cent, or 1,800 of the city’s roughly 10,400 employees, have worked remotely at least part-time throughout the pandemic and no immediate changes are being considered to remote-work arrangements, the city confirmed in an emailed statement.
"As the COVID-19 landscape continues to evolve, we will ensure that any return to the workplace will be done gradually, and with the health and safety of our employees as a top priority," wrote spokesperson David Driedger.
Economic Development Winnipeg also urged the city to consider offering incentives to airlines to increase their investment in Winnipeg such as by adding new direct flights to assist in the recovery from COVID-19. Spiring suggested that could occur through a partnership with the province and airport.
"Investment follows connectivity. We can’t bring companies to Winnipeg if they can’t get here. And if it’s more than two flights to get here, they’re not coming," she said.
Browaty said he supports that idea, though any investment of tax dollars would need to be carefully considered.
"It has to be done thoughtfully... you don’t want to be spending public money just to put something out there that’s not going to be self-sustaining," he said.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.