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'It was just a total ghost town' | Uptown businesses hope to survive as companies push back return to office dates

Businesses both below and above ground in Uptown continue to hurt as companies change course due to the delta variant.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The rising number of COVID-19 cases and talks of more precautions are worrying some business owners. It's especially concerning to those who have largely been forgotten, physically out of plain sight below and above the streets of Uptown. 

Before the pandemic, office workers would line up down the hallway outside Johnny Burrito. 

"This has been the toughest time I've ever had in 23 years, I can tell ya that," said owner Johnny Bitter. 

His business has called the ground floor of Two Wells Fargo Center home for more than two decades. 

He survived the 2008 financial crisis, but the pandemic hit harder. 

"We have been limping along for a year and a half to try to get through this thing," he said. 

Some familiar faces are starting to trickle in. The lunchtime crowd is an actual crowd these days but it only lasts for a short window of time, far shorter than it used to before the world stopped in its tracks. 

"Without the office workers here, none of us are going to do very well," Bitter added. 

His burrito shop is pulling in about 50% of the customers it was before the pandemic hit, Bitter said. 

RELATED: Charlotte businesses and events take COVID-19 safety precautions into their own hands

It's promising, but then again, companies have started to push back their return-to-office dates because of the rising cases and rapid spread of the delta variant. 

"Here we were just getting where we could kind of see maybe the end is here and near -- and now it's all going back the other way again," Bitter said. 

Down the hall, Kelly Mai is worried, too. 

"It's really hard," she said. 

She owns Halfpenny's Café where she serves breakfast, lunch sandwiches, coffee and ice cream. 

"It's getting a little bit better, but it's still hard," she said, becoming overwhelmed by emotions. 

She's passionate about her small business. It's been her dream to do something where she serves the community, conversates with regulars, and makes people happy. 

She's optimistic and hopeful, just like Bitter, but she knows what she can't handle. 

"I don't think I'm able to afford another pandemic like the past year," she said as she started to get choked up. 

For her, only 5% of her pre-COVID business is buying her food and drinks, she said. 

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Down the hall, business is only a third of what it was before the country shut down at Flower Plus. 

"There's months where it was just a total ghost town down here," owner Joel Houston said. "We've missed everyone uptown."

His business was thankful for call-in orders and deliveries out of Uptown, but cancelled events and weddings packed a punch for their company. 

All three small businesses notice more people trickling in, but business fluctuates more than it did before. 

They are three open businesses of only a few left operating in parts of the Overstreet Mall and College Street Shops. 

A lack of Uptown workers means the halls of the convenient mall filled with shops and eateries is empty. Dozens of businesses are closed with lights off and gates closing their entrances. 

The ones that have survived said they do it day by day and know things will get better eventually, but just wonder when. 

"I just keep my fingers crossed now," Mai said. 

Contact Hunter Sáenz at hsaenz@wcnc.com and follow him on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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