After a year of remote life that emptied much of downtown Seattle, the summer appeared to bring signs of a return. Vaccine rates picked up, Pike Place Market filled with tourists and tech behemoths made plans for at least some of their employees to return to their cubicles.

Not so fast. 

As the delta variant of the coronavirus surges and public health officials again recommend wearing masks, question marks are back in the forecast for Seattle’s acres of office space.

Google and Apple, both with a presence in South Lake Union, delayed their planned returns to the office until October. For now, Amazon, the city’s largest private employer, has indicated plans to return to the office in September

The latest uncertainty once again upends plans to return to pre-pandemic office work, just as commercial real estate bellwethers indicated downtown’s office market was beginning to rebound — or at least escape the worst of last year’s freefall.

Still, commercial real estate brokers say they expect an eventual return to the office, even if a month or two later than expected.

“We do expect the physical return to the office that was beginning to pick up will slow again until more is known about the delta variant,” said Rod Kauffman, president of Building Owners and Managers Association Seattle King County. 

An estimated 40,000 office employees are regularly working downtown, compared with about 170,000 before the pandemic, according to cell phone data published by the Downtown Seattle Association.

That number has stayed relatively flat for more than a year, even as counts of visitors and foot traffic downtown have climbed. (DSA considers South Lake Union and other nearby neighborhoods part of downtown.)

A worker cleans a revolving door at the Columbia Center in downtown Seattle Thursday. An estimated 40,000 office employees are regularly working downtown, compared with about 170,000 before the pandemic, according to (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

The office vacancy rate in Seattle’s central business district is about 15%, almost double the rate in early 2020, according to data provided by the commercial real estate firm Kidder Mathews.

Including vacancies, upcoming vacancies and subleases, nearly 20% of downtown office space was available at the end of June, according to another firm, Savills.

“We are expecting the availability rate to gradually decline over the next few years, but tenants should be in the driver’s seat for the near future,” said Savills Executive Managing Director Eric Lonergan in an email. The firm expects a “full recovery” eventually, he said. 

Local brokers say interest in touring office space is picking up. Barring new lockdowns, they expect more employees could be working in offices after the school year starts in the fall.

“We are very busy with tours,” said Seattle office broker and Colliers Executive Vice President Greg Inglin.

Some companies, particularly tech firms, are adding space for new employees, Inglin said. Some that listed space for sublease last year are now deciding to hold onto it, he said. 

Office plans take shape months in advance, meaning employers are likely to forge ahead with negotiating leases even with delta variant uncertainty, Inglin said.

After a year of delays, “there’s some urgency to figure out their game plan,” he said.

Seattle’s abundance of tech companies could mean a weaker rebound in demand for office space than in some other cities.

One index measuring tours of office space shows interest has begun to climb back toward pre-pandemic levels — though more slowly in cities such as Seattle and San Francisco than in New York, where some Wall Street firms are eager for employees to return to the office full time.

The divide likely comes down to the share of “remote-friendly jobs,” according to VTS, which provides commercial real estate leasing software and generates the index. The company predicts demand for office space in Seattle and San Francisco will lag behind New York “well into the future.”

The early months of the pandemic decimated Seattle’s office market. The amount of vacant office space skyrocketed. More recently, that trend has slowed.

During the first half of last year, the amount of Seattle office space available for sublease more than doubled, according to the commercial real estate firm Colliers. During the same period this year, the amount of space available to sublease increased 5%.

Asking rents for Class A buildings in Seattle’s central business district ticked up 3.2% in the second quarter compared to the prior quarter, but were still down slightly from the same period a year earlier, according to Savills. 

“A lot of companies are practicing caution” bringing their employees back to the office while still holding onto space, Kauffman said. “Senior executives, especially in tech, want to bring people back.”

More on the COVID-19 pandemic

Most companies sticking with remote work for the long term have smaller numbers of employees, Lonergan said.

Floors of space are available for lease in some marquee downtown buildings such as Rainier Tower and 2+U, according to Colliers. Several floors are also available at Safeco Plaza, the office tower a Boston-based firm recently agreed to buy for $465 million.

While the level of remote work will vary by company, “what our clients are telling us is they’re still going to need and want office space,” said Seattle CBRE broker Steve Schwartz. “The office is going to be a place for collaboration and working together and probably less so for just heads-down work.”