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Downtown Louisville businesses struggle to survive as office workers continue remote work

Restaurants and coffee shops got a lot of business from Humana's 13,000 employees before the pandemic. But those employees are still working from home.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The coronavirus pandemic changed the way many of us have worked over the past year and a half, and it’s changed the way some companies operate forever.

When downtown Louisville employees left their offices to work from home, businesses like restaurants and coffee shops had to figure out how to keep customers coming.

Last week, Humana, one of Louisville's largest employers, announced it will delay the return of workers to its downtown office by at least a month. Employees were set to return in September, but that has now been pushed to October 18 because of the delta variant.

This delay is affecting more than just the company’s nearly 13,000 employees - it’s also affecting nearby businesses that relied on those workers for income.

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One of those businesses is MexA Tacos. Owner Lorena Casas opened her second location downtown in 2019 and was excited about expanding into a thriving area.

“I got a perfect location across from the convention center,” Casas said. “The convention center was booming.”

Those convention center visitors - plus the people working downtown - brought MexA Tacos a lot of business.  

“Before the pandemic, the business was great,” Casas said. “There were lines every time for lunch.”

But last March, Casas and other nearby restaurants had to make other plans as thousands of potential customers left their offices to work remotely. 

MexA Tacos closed its doors during the height of the pandemic, but not everyone did.

Sunergos Coffee stayed opened, without any of what shop manager Owen Grimsley called the "tripod" of their customer base: convention center visitors, Humana, and the courts.

RELATED: Tourists a sign of hope for Louisville downtown businesses

Loyal local customers kept the shop going and the courts and conventions eventually returned, so Sunergos was able to stay afloat with shortened operating hours.

“For the most part we’re sustaining ourselves with two-thirds of our customer base,” Grimsley said.

Unfortunately, MexA Tacos did not weather the storm. Casas decided to permanently close her downtown location two weeks ago. She hoped the long lines would return, but without a clear picture of when that would happen, she knew it wouldn’t be sustainable.

“It is heartbreaking,” Casas said. “After all the work that I put into that location.”

Casas said she will now focus solely on her St. Matthews location.

Contact reporter Rose McBride at rmcbride@whas11.com. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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