Philadelphia needs more workers to return to fully recover, says Center City District

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — The annual “State of Center City Philadelphia” report, released Thursday morning, shows the downtown core is recovering from COVID-19, with 80% of storefronts occupied and pedestrian traffic back to 86% of pre-pandemic levels.

But the report also warns Center City won’t make a full comeback until office workers return, and Center City District has some convincing to do to get employers on board, including city government.

CCD President Paul Levy estimates 50% of office workers are back, one or two days a week, which is an improvement, but for a full recovery, he says more people need to come back.

“The lack of people being in office buildings means the loss of jobs for janitors, the loss of jobs for security workers. It means restaurant and retail jobs are down, because those are the jobs that can be performed remotely,” Levy said.

Levy says every employer needs to make decisions that are best for its employees, but he does hope they consider the negative impact of continued remote work as well as the positive.

“In cities, we also have a broader civic responsibility, and so I think we have to be careful of another wave of digital suburbanization, which is like the ’60s and ’70s, when people moved out and left cities behind,” Levy said. “We can do that with Zoom.”

Coming into the office, he argues, is just the right thing to do. “It’s good for the economy of the city, and it’s good for the vitality of the city.”

But if Levy is looking for City Hall to set an example, he’s likely to be disappointed. Workers are coming back, little by little, but the City is still operating on last summer’s policy, with generous allowances for remote work.

And Mayor Jim Kenney is among those defending the use of zoom over in-person meetings.

“This is something that’s being increasingly used in many facets of business, education and life,” he said.

Last week, explaining why press briefings are still virtual, the mayor made in-person meetings sound onerous.

“They don’t have to trudge down to City Hall and take the transportation time away from their office,” he said.

Levy is working to convince employers that in-person work is better. “That collaborative process of being in the office is very important,” he said.

The administration is still using last summer’s return-to-work policy that allows up to three days of virtual work. It has no plan to require a full-time return to city offices. City council has no policy on in-person work, though employees are beginning to return to City Hall, little by little.

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