Seattle is canceled.
The Emerald City — a hub of arts, culture, business and tourism — has effectively shuttered as the infectious coronavirus rips through the region and government officials rush to keep people safe.
Bustling areas of the city are vacant as large numbers of people work from home in an attempt to avoid contracting and spreading the disease. As awareness of the virus in King County grew from the end of February, public transit emptied out and restaurants announced they would shut their doors for a period in an attempt to wait out the downturn.
On March 13, Gov. Jay Inslee ordered all K-12 schools to close, displacing thousands of students and forcing their families to manage child care and teachers to provide lesson plans for the weeks that classrooms are shut.
Stadiums in Seattle’s SODO neighborhood are dead zones, putting hundreds of people who operate concession stands and other amenities out of work. Seattleites no longer have a professional basketball team and don’t yet have hockey, but can’t distract themselves with season opening and closing games — the National Basketball Association, National Collegiate Athletic Association, National Hockey League and Major League Baseball announced they, too, will suspend operations due to the virus.
Keeping people away from each other is critical to arresting the virus and protecting public health, Inslee said at a press conference March 11.
“This is an extremely dangerous event we are facing, but we are not helpless,” Inslee said. “We have the ability to seize our own destiny and the safety of loved ones by doing what is necessary and effective.”
That was the day that the state prohibited social gatherings of more than 250 people, and King County residents discovered that even smaller groups were prohibited unless specific conditions, approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), were met.
“We fully recognize the disruption this will cause in people’s lives,” said Jeffrey Duchin, the public health officer for Seattle & King County Public Health. “This is an unprecedented health emergency.”
According to the World Health Organization, countries had reported 184,976 confirmed cases and 7,529 deaths from coronavirus as of March 17. Those numbers span 158 countries as well as China, where the disease originated.
The organization officially declared coronavirus a global pandemic, but a controllable one.
“A shift from containment to mitigation would be wrong and dangerous,” the group said in an update.
That’s hard to do in the United States, which has lagged behind other nations in testing people who are potentially infected. Only 13,620 people had been tested as of March 12, according to numbers compiled by the CDC. South Korea tests 20,000 people a day.
Efforts to roll out testing were slow, halted by government inaction. On March 13, President Donald Trump declared the coronavirus a national emergency, followed by a parade of businessmen from companies that will be rolling out government-approved tests to increase capacity.
In the meantime, life in Seattle has slowed to a halt, creating economic knock-on effects that take people already at the edge and shove them off.
A wave of cancellations of major events, sports games, cultural performances and the early part of the cruise ship season has meant venues without revenue, businesses without customers and people without jobs.
“Anecdotally, we’re seeing a 40 to 60 percent drop off for restaurants. In the Chinatown International District, it’s even more significant,” said Markham McIntyre, executive vice president of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.
“We don’t know the breadth of the economic impact,” McIntyre said. “We do know as the outbreak spreads, so too does the impact.”
The Chamber is working with an economist to try to put numbers to the phenomenon, but it will take time — officials say the coronavirus response could last months.
That will mean Seattle will have to find a new way of doing business, said Jeffrey Shulman, a professor in the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business and host of the Seattle Growth podcast.
“The economic impact of the virus continuing to spread in this way would be disastrous,” Shulman said.
Government intervention is also difficult to predict.
As fewer customers come in, businesses cut employee hours or lay them off altogether. If the slowdown continues, businesses that have to pay taxes and cover their mortgages could close.
To help employees, government protections are needed to keep them housed, Shulman said. Mayor Jenny Durkan announced a moratorium on residential evictions, although tenants are still expected to pay rent.
Saving small businesses requires a different approach, including lowering taxes or creating an anti-eviction policy for businesses or a loan program, Shulman said.
A small business relief program is in the works.
Durkan announced a $1.5 million fund to invest in small businesses impacted by the COVID-19 disease, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Small businesses can receive up to $10,000 to “mitigate revenue lost by COVID-19.” Durkan also made funds available to help households purchase groceries.
“So many of these businesses are woven into the fabric of our neighborhoods, and they serve as trusted community meeting places,” Durkan said in a press release. “While the City and State have taken some initial actions to help support workers, we are evaluating robust actions that we can take at the City level, understanding we will need to scale our response exponentially with resources from the state and federal government.”
A national emergency, like that declared by Trump on March 13, would also free up additional resources for businesses and people, Durkan said in a press release. The declaration means $50 billion to help address the crisis, although it likely won’t be enough to stabilize the nation. Washington and several other states have gone on lockdown, shutting restaurants and bars for everything besides take out and delivery as well as banning large gatherings.
People in the region are hunkering down, hoping that frontline health care workers at hospitals don’t get overwhelmed as they have in northern Italy and other places where the disease has run rampant.
There is little to do now but wait.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
Read more in the Mar. 18 - 24, 2020 issue.