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Downtown Albany businesses struggle while more people work from home

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

COVID-19 isn’t what’s keeping people home anymore—and the new wave of work-from-home is threatening the future of the merchants that rely on state and private-sector office workers.

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

13 Investigates started asking questions after a frustrated Facebook message from a business owner in One Commerce Plaza. He told 13 Investigates that his business in downtown Albany and business districts across America are facing a mountain of uncertainty.

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

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

Farina’s family store is one stop for busy morning commuters. His family has been feeding that uniquely American morning rush for 50 years.

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

His grandfather Emil first ran the business, still in its location at One Commerce Plaza. It’s steps from the Capitol and home to a handful of state offices.

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

“I always saw myself as running our family business that was always successful. That was always keeping our family afloat. It’s not looking so hot in the future,” he said.

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

The faces that made the morning at Emil’s are making their own breakfast, skipping the lotto tickets and working virtually.

“When you haven’t seen them in a couple years, it’s, they become strangers and it’s sad to 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 he and his father are missing about half of their customers.

“The problem is, our overhead is at a hundred percent, so 50% of the customer base isn’t going to cut it,” he said.

It’s uncertain if, or when, the morning rush will come back. Farina is worried he could be the last generation to own the family business.

“I don’t know, if this is the future of 50% work at home, it’s going to kill us. I’m nervous. I’m nervous about my future. I have two kids, I might be looking for a job soon,” he said.

The absence of office workers is felt on the whole block.

Other businesses downtown are asking the same question—are customers coming back?

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

She’s served people during their work day for the past 22 years.

“We might be making you an egg, but we’re still chit-chatting about how your life is, it’s not just a hello and goodbye,” she said.

Dibiase says without the generosity of her landlord, Café One Eleven likely would have had to close.

Café One Eleven’s other location near a private business park is having the same issues. That location 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 single out the state workers who make up much of their customer base.

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

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

What’s ahead for these business owners? 13 Investigates talked to the city of Albany, and an expert, who said the days of 100% in-person work could be over. However, they have some suggestions about how businesses can cope with the future of work. That part of 13 Investigates’ report airs Thursday on NewsChannel 13, and on WNYT.com.

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