After five years of watching customer lines snake out its door and down the block, Afro Deli & Grill finally expanded its street-level restaurant in downtown St. Paul last year.

Three months later, the pandemic hit.

Indoor dining plunged 80% as downtown lunch and dinner customers disappeared into the world of remote work. Just when COVID looked like it was under control this summer, the delta variant surged, dimming hopes for a brilliant fall recovery.

Only about 35% of downtown workers have returned to their offices, far short of the 62% the city of St. Paul had expected by Labor Day.

“It’s like taking two steps forward and one step back,” Afro Deli co-owner and CEO Abdirahman Kahin said.”Maybe a month ago business was becoming normal. But now we see it slow down because companiesasked their people to stay home again. Even in just the last few days, we see less and less people in St. Paul.”

Afro Deli’s journey embodies the ups and downs suffered by many downtown St. Paul businesses in the wake of COVID. More than 53 downtown bars, coffee shops, restaurants and theaters shut permanently or temporarily because of the pandemic, according to the St. Paul Downtown Alliance.

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