Downtown Albany businesses struggle as more people work from home

It has been 871 days since New York sent all non-essential workers home to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Each of those days has been a struggle for survival for businesses in downtown Albany.

COVID-19 is no longer what is keeping people at home – and the new wave of working from home threatens the future of traders who depend on state and private sector office workers.

13 Investigates’ Stella Porter spoke to several downtown businesses about their new normal.

13 Investigators began asking questions after a frustrated Facebook post from a business owner at One Commerce Plaza. He told 13 Investigates that his business in downtown Albany and in business districts across America faced a mountain of uncertainty.

Gone is the smell of fresh newspaper, hurried footsteps, hurried voices – the old rush familiar at Emil’s Newsroom Convenience Store.

“We see our customers every day, the same customers, and they become our personal friends, you know?” said Antoine Farina.

Farina’s family store is a stop for busy morning commuters. His family has been feeding this quintessentially American morning rush for 50 years.

“In 1972, they found the opportunity in this impressive state office building where they started as a newspaper and magazine store,” Farina explained.

His grandfather Emil first ran the business, still at his location at One Commerce Plaza. It is a short walk from the Capitol and houses a handful of state offices.

Years ago, Anthony’s father took over. And now it should be Anthony’s turn.

“I have always seen myself leading our family business which has always been successful. It always kept our family afloat. It’s not looking so hot going forward,” he said.

As the morning rush came to a halt in 2020, thanks to COVID, so did business.

The faces that made the morning at Emil’s make their own breakfast, skip the lotto tickets and work virtually.

“When you haven’t seen them for a few years, they become strangers and that’s sad for me,” Farina said.

New York is no longer locked down, but not all workers have returned to the office — not by a long shot. Farina guesses that he and his father are missing about half of their customers.

“The problem is that our overhead is one hundred percent, so 50% of the customer base won’t be enough,” he said.

We don’t know if, or when, the morning rush will return. Farina worries that he is the last generation to own the family business.

“I don’t know, if this is the future of 50% work from home, it’s going to kill us. I am stressed. I’m nervous about my future. I have two children, maybe I will look for a job soon,” he said.

The absence of office workers is felt across the block.

Other businesses in the city center are asking the same question: are customers coming back?

“If we could get an answer from anyone, anyone, who knows, is there an end date?” asked MaryEllen Dibiase. She, her husband and their son own Café One Eleven, next door to Emil’s.

She has served people during their working day for the past 22 years.

“We may be egging you on, but we’re still discussing your life, it’s not just hello and goodbye,” she said.

Dibiase says that without the generosity of its owner, Café One Eleven probably would have had to close.

The other location of Café One Eleven near a private business park has the same problems. This place opened during the pandemic, and Dibiase says it was scary at first when there was hardly any foot traffic.

She and Farina are clear that they don’t want to isolate the state employees who make up a large part of their clientele.

Both say they understand the benefits of working from home. However, Farina says the current situation goes beyond a loss of face-to-face interaction or her future. He says we’ve lost something uniquely American.

“I don’t think America was built for everyone to be able to work from home,” he said.

What awaits these business owners? 13 investigators have spoken to the city of Albany and an expert, who say the days of 100% in-person work may be over. However, they have some suggestions for how companies can face the future of work. This part of the 13 Investigates report airs Thursday on NewsChannel 13 and on WNYT.com.

David H. Henry