Kody Karschnik walks through the darkened office at Sleep Number Corp., laptop in hand, passing a sea of empty cubicles locked in a pandemic time warp.

Desk calendars are paused on March. On one desk, an open bag of potato chips. On another, tinseled remnants from a colleague’s baby shower. And, yes, dead plants.

Like everyone at Sleep Number, Karschnik worked from home when the coronavirus outbreak hit this spring. But now, the engineer spends about half of each week in the company’s testing lab, making him a rare figure in downtown Minneapolis, where only about one in 10 workers regularly work in their offices these days.

“When you see someone downtown, all of a sudden you are one of the few people in the office,” Karschnik said. “Even if you didn’t know them before, you wave, you introduce yourself.”

In pre-pandemic times, workers flooded back to offices after Labor Day, with children back in school and summer vacations a recent memory. But this autumn, downtown offices are still mostly empty seven months after Minnesotans were put under emergency orders and told to stay home to slow the coronavirus’ spread.

A vast ecosystem of businesses and people who support office workers remains disrupted. For the people who come into their offices, the experience is strange on many levels. “It’s just so quiet,” said Emily Olinger, who works for a small nonprofit and was enjoying a recent lunch outside U.S. Bank Plaza. “The food trucks were always here and it was packed with people.”

Getting back to the way things were has turned into a chicken-and-egg problem.

“Tenants in the office towers don’t want to come back if there isn’t any place for their employees to go,” said Deb Kolar, the general manager of IDS Center, the 57-story tower that is the biggest office building in the state. “But if they don’t come back there isn’t going to be anywhere for their employees to go.”

But healthy downtowns in Minneapolis and St. Paul are essential to the state and region. The city centers draw not just hundreds of thousands of daily workers but also visitors to conventions, fans to sports events and patrons to the theater. People move downtown to be closer to work, top restaurants and entertainment.

Because companies have discovered they can still do business with a remote workforce, and employees appreciate the flexibility of working from home, the pandemic’s impact likely will linger in downtowns well after the risk of COVID-19 diminishes.

“Even when we’re back to ‘full return’ on the downtown workforce, it’s not going to be what it was before,” said Steve Cramer, who leads the Minneapolis Downtown Council. “Remote work is going to be a more accepted part of the regular workday experience.”

Kody Karschnik, an engineer in research and development at Sleep Number, walked through the darkened office on his floor, where another one of the handful of employees in the building was also working in an his office.

Kody Karschnik, an engineer in research and development at Sleep Number, walked through the darkened office on his floor, where another one of the handful of employees in the building was also working in an his office.

Volume is turned down

In the U.S., the only previous disruption to life in the core of major cities was the flight to suburbs, a slow-motion trend for businesses in the 1960s and 1970s. But since the 1990s, with dips in recessions, both downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul have seen increases in the number of office workers.

In February, about 218,000 people poured into downtown Minneapolis for work each morning, more than at any time in the city’s history, about 70% of them on buses and trains. Now, express bus ridership from the suburbs is down 91% and light rail trips off 71%.

“If you walk downtown right now, you don’t see many people,” said Adam Harrington, Metro Transit’s director of service development. “It’s quite a stark difference from the vibrancy of life in downtown as it was.”

In St. Paul, which in recent years has lost some of its office space to apartments and condominiums, about 10% of its 56,000 workers are back. “The volume is turned down everywhere,” said Joe Spencer, who leads the St. Paul Downtown Alliance. “We miss our people.”

Building owners and managers report that only about 12% of the office space in downtown Minneapolis is occupied. Pedestrian traffic on Nicollet Mall is less than a quarter of what it was before people went home to work, and only 43% of restaurants are open, according to research from the Downtown Council.

Skyway hours are limited. Benches around the fountain at IDS Center have been put into storage so people can’t congregate. Some convenience stores, restaurants and retail stores have cleaned off their shelves and turned out the lights.

Others have posted signs signaling future intentions, such as the Dunn Bros. in SPS Tower, which plans to open Monday, just from 7 a.m. to noon.

Song Tailoring and Alterations near LaSalle Plaza has taped dozens of colorful cloth masks to its glass storefront to entice passersby to stop in.

At the Grill and Greek Cafe in Northstar Center, prices have been lowered and the menu has been trimmed to gyros and kebabs.

“It’s been slow,” said manager Rogelio Rojas, who slashed his staffing and hours in half. “Sometimes 15 customers, sometimes 20. We were expecting people to come to work after Labor Day but they didn’t.”

The view through the floor-to-ceiling of windows at Robert Swanson’s Fixology store has been dismal. The electronics repair shop sits at a once-hopping intersection with popular fast-food eateries and the skyway to the Wells Fargo Bank building.

“It’s lonely,” Swanson said. “With multiple skyways closed down, it strangled a lot of business traffic. It’s discomfiting when you stop seeing people walking through that you’ve seen day after day. I’m hoping things pick back up, but I’m under no disillusion that they will.”

Two packages containing fudge - with sell-by dates in late April - were left behind on a employee’s desk in Sleep Number Corp.’s downtown Minneapolis headquarters.

Two packages containing fudge - with sell-by dates in late April - were left behind on a employee’s desk in Sleep Number Corp.’s downtown Minneapolis headquarters.

‘Different vibe’

Downtown Minneapolis has confronted a multilayered threat with the pandemic, its resulting layoffs and the civil unrest sparked by George Floyd’s death during an arrest by police.

Nordstrom Rack, though open, is still boarded up after looters bashed in windows and stole merchandise after a false rumor of police violence in late August.

Target’s nearby store was damaged and raided then as well, forcing the retailer to temporarily close its downtown store for a second time.

There’s a “different vibe” and “uncomfortable factor” simply because there are fewer people downtown, the Downtown Council’s Cramer said.

“Most companies just want to feel like they can have more confidence in the safety and security of downtown and how their employees perceive that by the time they really want to start really pushing people back into the office,” Cramer said.

During the first weeks of the pandemic, many employers set their sights on bringing workers back to the office in September.

But as summer wore on, the threat from the virus didn’t lessen enough for corporate leaders and employees to feel safe about returning.

Target, downtown Minneapolis’ largest employer, decided on a gradual approach for bringing its 8,500 workers back, keeping most at home through December.

Wells Fargo said it will maintain remote work at least through November, while U.S. Bank has kicked plans for a return out to next year.

Thrivent’s new $125 million headquarters was recently completed on time and within budget, but most of the 900 employees it expected to fill the space are still working virtually. The company plans a phased approach during “an appropriate time” to bring them back.

In St. Paul, Ecolab doesn’t plan to start bringing the bulk of its 1,580 workers back to downtown until Jan. 4 “at the earliest.”

The windows provide most of the light in the empty Sleep Number Corp. offices in downtown Minneapolis.

The windows provide most of the light in the empty Sleep Number Corp. offices in downtown Minneapolis.

Pushing through

With big companies holding off, the smaller firms that orbit them are trying to hold on.

“It’s no one’s fault downtown,” said Antonio Gambino, who went from selling up to 100 pizzas a day at each of his three Andrea Pizza locations to now selling as few as six. “I’ve been at my LaSalle location for 21 years. This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. We’ll continue to try to push through.”

Ecolab decided to redirect its annual employee giving fundraiser this year to help small businesses. Instead of holding a silent auction for gift baskets and tickets to theater and sporting events — which aren’t happening now — the company will auction off gift cards worth $25 to $125 to redeem at more than 100 St. Paul businesses.

“These gift cards we’re buying are for places that are open and ready for business, and ready for people to come into,” said Kris Taylor, Ecolab’s vice president of global community relations and the Ecolab Foundation.

Sleep Number’s light-filled headquarters in downtown Minneapolis once hummed with the energy of 650 workers moving among five floors.

Now the coffee area has been stripped of its shareable glass mugs, and the cozy chairs and informal huddle areas sit vacant. Lights are off on the upstairs cafeteria area with its wide-angle view of nearby skyscrapers. Trash bins are marked with blue masking tape.

Christine Ackerman, Sleep Number’s vice president of human resources, said the company has benefited from a flexible work philosophy it instituted after the company moved downtown from Plymouth three years ago. But it is committed to its downtown office, she said.

“We can’t wait to be back together in a way that’s familiar, which is close proximity — not always six feet apart and with a mask,” Ackerman said. “But that’s down the road.”