A quiet downtown Salt Lake City worries owners of restaurants and businesses

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Holiday lights at City Creek Center in Salt Lake City. After eight months of pandemic turmoil, downtown merchants now face a crucial holiday season.

Debi Raskey’s little gift store on Main Street is just the sort of downtown business that benefits from casual holiday shoppers.

They wander into Edinburgh Castle Scottish Imports at 124 S. Main to peruse selections of tartan ties, kilts and other Celtic goods. And, one by one, those seasonal purchases add up, Raskey said, to what are peak sales for the year.

But with the coronavirus now raging, “it’s just very quiet and that concerns me,” Raskey said this week as she looked toward her shop window in downtown Salt Lake City. “You don’t see hardly anybody walking around. … I won’t get the wanderers this year.”

Already weary after eight months of pandemic turmoil, downtown merchants now face a crucial holiday season. Health concerns. Diminished crowds. Cautious spending and the ongoing shift to online shopping. It could be a dire winter.

The trends have downtown boosters urging residents across Utah, southern Idaho and Wyoming to preserve family traditions that typically bring them to Salt Lake City during the holidays, emphasizing the Christmas lights at Temple Square and other spots along with physically distanced restaurant dining.

They’re using federal pandemic-relief cash to subsidize customer discounts and lure more visitors. Social media, radio and outdoor advertising campaigns are planned with nostalgic themes and archival images of downtown’s lit-up look in Yuletides past.

“The holiday season is going to look different than it has in other years,” said Dee Brewer, executive director of the Downtown Alliance, representing merchants in the city center. “But there is still an opportunity to enjoy downtown.”

Viewing Christmas lights “is an outdoor activity that can be done safely,” Brewer said, “so we hope that will be on everybody’s list.”

If enough people come, that may ease financial stresses for the nearly 250 shops, restaurants and other outlets populating the urban core. If not, some will likely close, taking elements of what makes downtown unique with them.

“This is a serious threat to the culture of our city,” said Kristen Lavelett, executive director of Local First Utah, which advocates for small independent businesses. “It’s also a serious threat to our economic vitality and that diversity of businesses.”

A rough year

Holiday retail activity is wildly unpredictable this year. And any other time, downtown Salt Lake City merchants would draw customers from three overlapping groups, all now depleted:

• Office workers out for lunch or shopping before they head home. Three out of every four downtown workers are still dialing in remotely, according to the latest reports from the Downtown Alliance.

• Patrons of the arts and sports, which usually bring people downtown in droves. Families coming to see “The Nutcracker” or catch a Utah Jazz game then also buy dinner or drinks or saunter through nearby stores. With events decimated, downtown venues have sold only a fraction of their typical 3 million tickets yearly. The Jazz will have limited fans and Salt Lake County recently closed its venues, including Main Street’s Eccles Theater.

• Those attending conventions or business meetings. In a normal year, thousands of these travelers book rooms, buy meals, shop and catch shows, often at company expense. Occupancy in hotels that make up the city’s convention district are now at about half its 2019 levels, data shows.

Other customers venturing into the city’s heart are also doing more “precision” shopping instead of improvising, often reducing their total spending. “The visitor comes for a specific purpose.” Brewer said. “They purchase and they leave.”

Add a general drop in consumer confidence due to the economic slowdown tied to the pandemic and Salt Lake City’s downtown could face some daunting winter months.

Adam Tye, who co-owns Diabolical Records at 238 S. Edison St. with his wife, Alana, said he’s noticed many regulars are now running short on cash. This is after closing at the start of the outbreak and lagging foot traffic since reopening, meaning fewer store visitors flicking through bins of vintage and hard-to-find music on vinyl.

“It’s been rough,” Tye said, noting that the lack of summer and fall sales has made it harder for him to afford new inventory in time to appeal to holiday customers.

Despite similar challenges, managers at City Creek Center say retailers in the downtown shopping center are seeing sales meet or exceed their modified expectations.

The mall’s stores are trying to adjust to shoppers’ needs during the pandemic, offering curbside or in-store pickup, according to Linda Wardell, general manager at City Creek. Some are opening earlier or taking shoppers only by private appointment, while others will have virtual queuing via mobile phone to limit store occupancy.

“We hope to let everyone know we are committed to safety,” Wardell said.

The Gateway, on the west edge of downtown, also has a holiday light show, giant Christmas tree and other festive displays. Managers are trying to capitalize on the open-air mall’s outdoor spaces for social distancing.

Outlasting the pandemic

Along with retailers and hospitality, the central business district is home to a wide array of hair and nail salons, barbershops and tattoo parlors. These businesses have seen their clienteles slashed by closures, health worries and tightening budgets.

Devan Pearson, owner of The Bureau Barber and Shop, at 281 S. Weechquootee Place near Gallivan Center, said he’s seen a decline in people who pop in as a result of bar hopping.

“That’s huge for us,” said Pearson.

He’s grateful loyal customers are still coming in, he added, but many now seem to be waiting six weeks to book their private appointments instead of three.

“It’s more economics than anything else,” Pearson said.

Few sectors in the urban core have been beaten up worse than its restaurants and taverns. Roughly 141 eateries located downtown were open as of mid-October, up from 75 in mid-May — and many of them rely on a robust holiday season.

Restaurants and bars are operating with 6-foot social distancing rules, limiting numbers of people they can serve. That’s become an added worry as colder weather limits their use of outdoor patios and sidewalk spaces for dining.

Utahns seem to have responded well to the shift to curbside food delivery at many restaurants, according to Melva Sine, CEO of the Utah Restaurant Association, but those purchases have not been enough to soothe their hurting bottom lines.

“We thought this pandemic would last two or three months,” Sine said. “We’re going into nine months. Who can last nine months?”

As the crisis drags on, she said, “you see restaurants closing daily. And these places are often the cornerstone of every community, where people gather.”

Restaurant and bar owner Matt Crandall said his two Main Street establishments are running at about 30% of their normal business. “Not where we want to be,” he said.

White Horse Spirits & Kitchen and Whiskey Street Cocktails & Dining both offer dining in addition to alcohol service and that, Crandall said, has offset some of the effects of the state’s pandemic order that bars stop serving booze at 10 p.m.

Temporary street closures along Main Street in September and October also helped, he said, by opening up more outdoor space. “People felt safe outside,” Crandall said, “and it was definitely beneficial for downtown.”

But with lighter crowds and muted revelry, the 2020 holidays won’t ring up sales at past years’ levels, he predicted. He’s kept his places open on Christmas Day before, for example, “but I don’t think we’re going to do it this year,” he said. “We’re gonna stay hunkered down.”