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Slow Recovery Prompts Businesses to Rethink Their Future in Downtown San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) -- As San Francisco slowly reopens, a trickle of patrons have found their way back to places like Wayfare Tavern, a British pub-style restaurant on Sacramento Street in the Financial District. Indoor dining there reopened at 50 percent capacity in early March but general manager Tony Marcell said business remains slow.

"I describe it as slowly watching paint dry. It's slowly happening. It's nothing major, there's no significant movements. It's usually, you know, a couple more heads at a time," Marcell said.

Wayfare Tavern was able to scrape by during the pandemic by dropping from 100 employees to 14.

Laurie Thomas is a small-business owner and the executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association. Thomas owns Terzo and Rose's Cafe in Cow Hollow. She says PPP loans got her through but, when office workers left the city, they took their spending with them.

"We're seeing some optimism, the vaccines are helping but we're a long way from (being) out of the woods. We need workers back in the downtown area," Thomas said.

Salesforce recently announced it will allow employees to start returning to the office in May but it also recently announced that the 9-to-5 workday is dead. The company expects most employees will only be in the office one to three days a week. As more firms embrace this type of flexible model the longer it will take downtown San Francisco to recover.

"It might not be as busy on Mondays and Fridays. Hopefully it's busy Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays," Marcell said.

"All these things will take quite a while and we'll have to exercise some patience. I think it took us a while to shut down and it'll take us as long or maybe longer to ramp back up slowly," said Rodney Fong, president and CEO of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce.

Fong has been tracking the precipitous drop in foot traffic, small businesses that have reopened as well as public transportation traffic since 2019. All are down by around 50 percent. Fong sees the vacancies, boarded-up buildings and migration away from the downtown core as an opportunity to bring the old San Francisco back.

"I'm a strong believer that there's an opportunity for a small business renaissance to happen in San Francisco," he said.

"I do think we need to rethink downtown. Can we make it more of a tourism destination?" Thomas wondered.

"I don't know how it reinvents itself but I don't believe these buildings will stay empty forever," Marcell said.

For many small business owners like Marcell and Thomas,surviving means adapt or die. They say reimagining downtown might be the only way San Francisco stands a chance.

Mayor Breed is pushing to prioritize small businesses. She's challenging San Franciscans to buy from local businesses for 30 days straight. She also introduced the Small Business Recovery Act that would streamline the permitting process and create a 30-day turnaround to conduct business in hard-hit areas like Union Square, downtown and SoMa.

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