At the beginning of the pandemic, downtown Vancouver was a ghost town of boarded up shops, restaurants and hotels.

When the partial lockdown was lifted last June, businesses re-opened and people returned to the streets. But downtown foot traffic still dropped significantly in 2020.

A new report from the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association says downtown pedestrian numbers dropped 49 per cent in 2020 compared to 2019. Downtown BIA president Charles Gauthier attributes that drop to a seismic shift: a majority of office tower staff are choosing to or being ordered to work from home.

“Obviously there is a trickle down effect as a result of that, people aren’t downtown, going to the restaurants, they’re not shopping,” said Gauthier. “So we have literally sucked out the vibrancy that we would see in the downtown area.”

Downtown Vancouver’s recovery is largely dependent on office workers returning to their desks when the pandemic is over. But not all of them will.

“It’s not about if people will work from home, they will in numbers we’ve never seen before. I think we have now turned a corner on that,” said city planning consultant Brent Toderian. “Businesses have invested in the infrastructure and the technology and the culture change to do it."

If even half of the people currently working from home make telecommuting permanent, it could have a drastic and damaging impact on Vancouver’s downtown.

“If people aren’t coming there to work in as big a numbers, that means there’s less support for restaurants, for retailers for services, etcetera. And that’s how a downtown can really get hit,” said Toderian.

Gauthier is more bullish on downtown Vancouver’s future, but believes it will take years to re-build.

“We need to get people vaccinated, we need to get people confidant about coming back and congregating with others,” he said.