INDIANAPOLIS — Photos of large empty parking lots next to many major downtown Indianapolis businesses are a graphic reminder of the economic toll the pandemic is taking on the city's core.
Acres of asphalt which would normally be covered with vehicles on a weekday resemble what one might see on a Sunday morning.
Firms such as Eli Lilly and Company, Anthem Insurance, One America and Indiana Farm Bureau have a majority of their employees working from home, and seven months into the pandemic, it's not clear when they will return to their offices.
How many people are we talking about? Jennifer Hanson, Senior Director of Communications for Downtown Indy, Inc., says no more than 20% of the usual downtown workforce of 150,000 is currently coming to the center city to work. Couple that with a loss of most convention business, tourism and major sporting events, and it's easy to see why restaurants such as Sahm's Tavern have decided to close their doors for good.
Tony Felts, Director of Public Relations at Anthem Insurance, says the "vast majority" of the company's 5,000 Indiana associates continue to work from home. "Our top priority is our associates' health and safety," said Felts."There is no set timeline, but our return to the office will be done in phases, taking into consideration input from Anthem's clinical teams and guidance from federal, state and local health authorities."
At Indiana Farm Bureau Insurance, about 600 employees worked at the company's headquarters on the southeast side of downtown prior to the pandemic outbreak in March, according to Suzanne Henderson, Director of Public Relations and Communications. The current number is 50 to 75, and most of those people are not required to be in the building full-time.
Looking at the surface parking lot from College Avenue, just a few vehicles sit near the entrance. "A recent employee survey demonstrated an interest of a small portion of our employee base desiring to return to the headquarter building voluntarily," said Henderson. "Many such employees will work flexible schedules to support a combination of in-office and remote work beginning October 12. We are fortunate that our facility can support the return of an increasing number of employees while maintaining a safe and socially distanced environment."
The Farm Bureau building, as well as local offices statewide, are equipped with extensive social distancing rules and signage, safety and sanitation guidelines, according to Henderson. "Our leadership has not yet determined when we will reintegrate additional employees, but our number one priority has remained the safety of our employees and agents."
"We continue to look for guidance from the CDC, as well as state and local governments, to guide our decision making. We look forward to safely bringing back more employees who will be eager to get back to supporting the local Indianapolis economy," said Henderson.
Eli Lilly and Company faces a different challenge. The pharmaceutical giant has to keep its manufacturing and research operations going. That's about 4,000 employees, according to J. Scott MacGregor, Corporate Communications Director. He says the majority of Lilly's 7,000 office-based employees are working from home. There is no specific return date.
"Over the course of the pandemic, we’ve proven that we can deliver on our purpose to make life better for patients regardless of our physical locations," said MacGregor. "And as a global business with operations in 125 countries, we’re used to working in separate locations and across geographic boundaries. Long-term, we’re exploring how to enable more flexibility in work locations and finding new ways to collaborate, which may include more remote work."
At One America Insurance, which is based in downtown's second tallest building, only about 60 employees are in their normal workplace, according to Director of Public Relations, Lou Ann Baker. That leaves more than 1,500 working from home. "We are working well with our remote productivity and serving the needs of our customers and distribution partners, and we’ll continue to monitor the situation," said Baker.
Sahm's, the same company that recently closed its tavern near the One America Building, also shut down its cafeteria inside the building. With so few One America employees on-site, Sahm's could no longer keep the business afloat.
Just up Illinois Street from downtown, the parking lot across the street from the International Medical Group (IMG) Building had just two cars in it at midday recently. The lot is usually full, so much so that drivers must sometimes use an overflow lot. With so many people working from home, the lot currently sees little use.
Duos Kitchen, the popular lunchtime restaurant which was located in the IMG Building, drew many of its customers from within the building. Duos closed late last month.
It's not clear when downtown workers will return to their offices. COVID-19 numbers are still high in Indiana and corporations are keeping employees at home as a safety measure.
The city has taken steps with a million-dollar marketing effort announced in July to bring visitors downtown.
There is also the Downtown Recovery Committee, announced over the summer, which is looking for ways to improve downtown.
But with 80% of the downtown workforce staying home because of the pandemic, the road back may be a long one.