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Indianapolis downtown businesses hang by thread, hope for more COVID-19 relief

 INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — The streets of Indianapolis have been quiet for so long that many of us have forgotten how alive the downtown used to be.

On Thursday, Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett took steps, small steps, toward getting the city back up and running during the coronavirus pandemic, but also had a word of warning. 

Just two weeks until Christmas, Edward E Petri Co. Jewelers and other downtown businesses in past years were much busier. The jewelry store owner, Charlie Walker, said, “The downtown is already an eggshell. That’s all there is to it, and I think it is going to crack the shell.”

Thomas Cook, the mayor’s chief of staff, said Wednesday that the glue holding this fragile economy together — that’s the money from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act — is quickly running out.

Cook said, “We’re going to continue to talk to the City-County Council and to other industry leaders as to whether there is local assistance we can offer, although we are mindful of the fact this ultimately it’s a federally … it’s a federal government-sized problem that is going to require a federal government-sized solution.”

Almost all of the office buildings within walking distance of Charlie’s store are basically empty. The Salesforce Tower in ordinary times is occupied by 5,000 people. Small-business owners, particularly retail operators, live and die by the walk-in business. At noon Thursday, Monument Circle was all but empty.

Walker said, “We are missing the (Indianapolis) Symphony (Orchestra) so terribly. I mean, all the people that come down for the Yuletide celebration. That’s all gone.”

During the coronavirus pandemic, Greg Bires, the owner of Windsor Jewelry, says he’s been enforcing the state mask mandate and limiting the number of people inside the store, although customer limits have not been an issue lately. He and other business owners in downtown’s Mile Square have endured months of the pandemic economic shutdown. 

Bires said, “I also need, like every other business down here — be it a restaurant, bar, hotel — we need the convention traffic. We especially need the people that work in the offices. They support us significantly and, without them, it’s a real struggle.”

The city cites numbers showing almost a quarter of the restaurants in Indianapolis have closed since the start of the pandemic. 

Barbara Quandt, Indiana state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, keeps close tabs on the small-business owners. The outlook isn’t favorable. “Many are just barely hanging on. We have so many businesses that are basically just circling the drain, and they are one shutdown away from going out of business.”

The mayor’s office said that programs funded in Indianapolis through the federal CARES Act money will cease to operate at the end of the year unless Congress acts.

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