Some downtown Austin businesses slowly reopen during COVID-19 pandemic


AUSTIN (KXAN) — COVID-19 cases are up statewide, but locally, numbers have been pretty consistent recently. Businesses in downtown Austin are finding ways to reopen safely.

For the first time in months, Ciara Rizzo, who works downtown, is back inside Royal Blue Grocery at 609 Congress Avenue.

“I’m starting my normal routine again,” Rizzo said.

The Congress Avenue location shut down in April and reopened Thursday. It was on the brink of closing for good, but federal and local dollars are keeping the doors opened. Since reopening, Royal Blue is seeing a steady flow of customers at a lower capacity.

“We are seeing some businesses opening back up, some offices becoming a little bit more occupied, and we’ve also seen more traffic at the hotels on the weekends,” said Craig Staley, an owner of Royal Blue Grocery.

A quick snapshot of weekend foot traffic shows just how much things have slowed on Congress Avenue.

(Courtesy: Downtown Austin Alliance)

The Downtown Austin Alliance sees that changing with its Roadmap to Recovery program. The roadmap is scheduled to go through spring of next year and consists of four phases, including discovery, visioning, mapping and action. The discovery phase, which the agency is currently in, will incorporate methods like focus groups, workshops and interviews to understand how COVID-19 has affected Austinites.

“So we will be realigning each of our phases accordingly to try to take advantage of the successes we see and learn from the failures,” said Michele Van Hyfte, Vice President of Urban Planning of Downtown Austin Alliance.

Research provided by the Alliance shows about 50% of storefront businesses are open. But with many working from home, there is more space in downtown offices. Residential rent prices dropped by 8%, according to Alliance data, since some renters aren’t renewing their leases. Retail, bars and restaurants are the hardest hit industries. Real estate is still thriving according to experts. Although construction has continued, the Alliance says we might see a slowdown in early 2021.

“Projects that were in the process of being financed or funded or were in the last stages of programming their design, they may take a pause and reevaluate the market,” said Van Hyfte.

Almost 1,500 Austin businesses closed due to the pandemic from March to July, according to a Yelp report. The city gave $16.5 million in grants to struggling businesses in August, but the benefits ranged anywhere from $40,000 to a few hundred dollars depending on the business.

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