DULUTH – Ed Barbo noticed more office workers at the start of May.

Customers who hadn't needed new suits or dress shirts the past 13 months began showing up at his downtown shop, Ed Barbo's Columbia Clothing.

"Some put on a few pounds during the pandemic so they needed new clothes," Barbo said.

As vaccinations begin to allay COVID-19 fears and warmer weather beckons, many downtown businesses here are planning returns to on-site work.

A recent survey conducted by Duluth's Greater Downtown Council and the city showed that nearly half of responding employers already have all staff back working on-site and a quarter are using a hybrid model. Ten percent of survey takers planned June returns.

Downtown Council President Kristi Stokes said foot traffic on downtown streets is picking up, and she expects that to continue as the summer tourist season brings in new special events.

As COVID-19 pandemic restrictions continue to loosen, "there is even greater optimism," she said.

By comparison, more downtown Minneapolis employers are developing hybrid work plans, according to a recent survey conducted by its downtown council.

Of the respondents, 80% said they would allow workers more flexibility and 60% said they will expect workers in the office at least three days a week, said Steve Cramer, council president.

Hucklebeary gift shop owner Emily Ekstrom has noticed such an uptick in walk-in customers that she's returning to full-time store hours five days a week starting June 1. During the height of the pandemic she reduced hours, added mail orders and allowed shopping by appointment. Her Superior Street store is across from a new taco restaurant and the Duluth Coffee Co., which has recently reopened after a long period of closure.

"The more neighbors who open, the more people come back downtown," she said. "I've learned I am not open enough for the amount of traffic."

About 300 employees are typically stationed in Minnesota Power's downtown offices. Almost all of them have worked remotely since the onset of the pandemic, said Nicole Johnson, chief administrative officer of Allete, Minnesota Power's parent company. In June, a quarter of workers have the option to return to offices, she said, with that number growing in July and August until September, when a hybrid model begins.

"Having done this for 15 months, we know the things we need to do in the office: the collaboration, creativity and team-building," Johnson said. But the company has also learned how efficiently many things can be done from home, and how employees appreciate the flexibility.

"The hybrid approach is a win-win," she said.

Essentia Health, another large organization with downtown workers, has gone a different way: 330 — or about 6% — of its downtown Duluth campus employees, are working remotely permanently.

"Our support services teams transitioned quickly to remote work during the pandemic, and we've found that its flexibility has positively impacted employee retention, recruitment and productivity," said Essentia spokesman Louis St. George.

As for Barbo, the clothing store owner, things are looking up after a "very tough year."

Shoppers are vaccinated and spending stimulus money at his 50-year-old business, he said, and getting back out in the world has been "mentally good for a lot of people."

Jana Hollingsworth • 218-508-2450