WASHINGTON – It’s evening rush hour in the nation’s capital, and the McPherson Square Metro station on a September Tuesday is all but empty. Thousands once squeezed at this time onto the trains departing from the heart of downtown Washington, two blocks north of the White House. Now, the descending escalator steps carry only the shards of a broken bottle of Power Malt.
Above ground the scene is no less eerie: No honking horns or screams from sprinting commuters trying to flag down the Circulator bus. In what seven months ago would have seemed a suspension of the laws of physics and urban planning, jaywalking is possible at the corner of New York Avenue and 15th Street Northwest.
From Los Angeles and Chicago to Boston and New York, central business districts find themselves deserted in the seventh month of a pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 Americans and left millions unemployed. And as hopes of a quick recovery sputter, fear is rising that a long-term collapse of downtown economies could soon become irreversible.
In downtown Washington, formerly a textbook case of a reborn city center, the coronavirus has flatlined almost every measure of vitality. About 95 percent of downtown’s 167,000 office workers – a mix of federal employees, lawyers, lobbyists, consultants, advocates and journalists – were working from home this summer, according to a recent report from the DowntownDC Business Improvement District.
The neighborhood’s overall economic activity was less than 13 percent of what it was a year earlier. Hotels were only 8 percent full. About 1,000 people would enter the McPherson Square Metro station throughout the Tuesday after Labor Day, compared with 15,000 on a weekday before the pandemic.
“It’s been devastating,” said Gregory O’Dell, president and chief executive of Events DC, which manages the District’s downtown convention center – now home to hundreds of (currently empty) overflow hospital beds and a smattering of virtual events. “It’s just been surreal to see the impact.”
O’Dell, like other downtown leaders, thinks the road back to normalcy begins when people feel safe coming to work, standing in line for lunch or sitting in a packed theater. For most, that will mean a vaccine. And a vaccine, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield testified to Congress this month, is not likely to be widely available until late spring or summer of 2021.
Even then, there will be questions about whether employees habituated to working at home will want to come back to the high-rises and government buildings they vacated in March. And if inoculated office workers return en masse, the economic and cultural landscape that awaits them could be very different from the one they left behind.
The clogged bike lanes, crowded rooftop bars and $5 pour-over coffees that signified downtown Washington’s renewal are mostly gone.
Starbucks or Cosi can probably find the money to ride out the pandemic’s economic devastation. But the web of smaller, local merchants – restaurants, retailers, arts venues – that make downtown Washington a neighborhood rather than a 9-to-5 office park are struggling and, in some cases, failing.
“Those take decades to build up,” said Mark Ein, the D.C. investor and chairman of Kastle Systems, which has tracked trends in downtown activity across the country by measuring use of its office access cards. “If there is an extinction wave of those businesses, it could take an extremely long time to build back.”
Work may one day be what it was again downtown. It’s unclear whether life will.
Amid the $155 ties and $1,000 suits nobody is buying these days, Shafiq Halim is betting things will go back to the way they were. Halim believes in the promise of the country he fled to from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan 20 years ago.
“As long as you’re honest and a hard worker, you can make it happen,” he said.
The pandemic is testing that conviction. Halim had worked for a decade at Wm. Fox & Co., the high-end men’s clothing store on G Street NW, when the store closed this year. The owner, in his 80s, didn’t want to reopen, so Halim bought the business, banking on downtown’s revival.
“Eventually, things will be better,” he said. “That’s what I’m hoping.”
He reopened Sept. 2, and now – if he’s lucky – sees perhaps a customer a day. The lawyers and lobbyists who gave the store the bulk of its business are working from home. Halim plans on holding out until January but is unsure whether the business can survive longer without more customers or government aid.
On this day, a couple of business executives enter the store. Steven Peabody and Brian Easley are health technology executives from the Midwest, in town to meet with federal officials. The pair wandered downtown’s abandoned streets in astonishment before finding Halim open for business.
Easley had been traveling to Washington regularly for 40 years. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said.
A few blocks away, Shanara Gabrielle was crossing New York Avenue, but not on the way to or from work: She was taking a walk. “Normally, I wouldn’t come down here,” said Gabrielle, an actress and director who lives in Northeast Washington.
With the crowds gone, downtown is not much worse of a place for a socially distanced stroll than the Botanic Garden.
Before the pandemic, the job of a rush-hour traffic control officer in downtown Washington required the mental toughness and physical agility of a bullfighter. Today, the officers’ commanding presence and intersection acrobatics are in low demand.
“Basically, there’s no 4 o’clock traffic. We still have to be out here,” said an officer posted a block north of Lafayette Square, staring at the quiet streets through dark sunglasses. Occasionally the officer – who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he had not been authorized to talk to the media – would step into the street and hold up a hand to halt a car as a pedestrian crossed I Street NW. “Ain’t nothing I see really going on.”
On the steps of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, Geo-Geo (pronounced “Jo-Jo;” he avoids using a last name, he said, because it belongs to the man he was before he found Jesus) has been counting the sneezes he has witnessed since the pandemic’s start. So far his tally is 741, only 41 of which the sneezers bothered to cover.
Geo-Geo arrived in the District of Columbia from Las Vegas in December, making his home on the streets of downtown just a few months before the virus arrived. He wears a long, hanging face mask (more of a veil, he explained) made by hand from a canvas bag. As large, black pigeons swooped overhead, Geo-Geo said he has trouble envisioning a resumption of downtown’s previous life.
“I’m not a predictor, per se,” he said. “But I would say that much of this office space may become unusable.”
Neil Albert, president and executive director of the DowntownDC BID, doesn’t share Geo-Geo’s assessment. Albert believes downtown will come back. But he is less optimistic than he was a few months ago.
“I was hoping for a speedy recovery, meaning a year or two. I don’t know what I’d say now,” Albert said. “I think having a vaccine is a large part of what’s needed to restore people’s confidence and jump-start the economy.”
Even if a vaccine is successfully developed and widely available sometime next year, the revival of downtown’s bustling office culture is not assured. Polls show that many Americans will opt to return to their offices when it’s safe to do so.
But even a small number who continue working remotely could reshape downtown’s economy and real estate market, said John Falcicchio, chief of staff to D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and deputy mayor for planning and economic development.
“If 2 in 10 decide they don’t want to come back to the office, that’s a lot fewer people,” Falcicchio said.
Travel – both tourism and business – is also critical to downtown’s economy. Over the summer its 33 hotels brought in less than 15 percent of the money made during the same period in 2019, according to the DowntownDC BID.
“This is Depression-level stuff in our industry,” said John Boardman, executive secretary-treasurer for Unite Here Local 25, which represents hotel, restaurant and casino workers in the Washington region. More than 9 in 10 union members are still out of work, Boardman said. He wonders if business visitors, in particular, will ever stream into the nation’s capital at the levels they once did.
“Have we changed the way that we think about doing the things that we used to do? Do you need to go to a convention center in a city somewhere else to watch a doctor get up and give a presentation in a room full of 1,500 doctors?” Boardman said. “I don’t know the answer to that right now.”
It is difficult but not impossible to find a person in a dark suit on the streets of downtown Washington. At the height of Tuesday’s unrushed rush hour, one of them – James Hutton, assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs – stood at the corner of 14th and I Streets NW, waiting for a family member to pick him up.
Hutton said that in recent weeks there have been indications downtown Washington is stirring to life. Most of his employees are still working from home, he said. But he noted encouraging signs in the dining scene, if such was the appropriate term.
“Five Guys – you can actually eat in the restaurant. There’s a few others. Subway. Panera Bread, down there,” Hutton said through a blue surgical mask. “Every day there’s more activity. It’s incremental.”
He was standing in front of a Compass Coffee – one of the popular D.C. company’s two downtown locations that have reopened with limited hours. (Four others remain shuttered.) It had closed at 2 p.m. after serving between 50 and 100 customers, down from about 1,500 on a pre-pandemic weekday, according to founders Michael Haft and Harrison Suarez.
Haft and Suarez became friends over instant coffee while deployed as Marines to Afghanistan. But steering a small business through the pandemic is tough in ways they did not expect.
“There were definitely some hard days over there,” Suarez said. “But this level of uncertainty and chaos – it’s very challenging.”
The beloved local coffee purveyors can offer their own snapshot of what downtown’s recovery looks like right now. In March, Compass laid off 150 of its 189 employees.
Since then, the decimated workforce has grown – by eight people.