SEATTLE—The fish are still flying at the Pike Place Market, and, though workers say things seem a little slower than usual, this famous tourist hotspot remains in full operation despite government warnings about the coronavirus.
While workers gossiped about the lack of traffic on their morning commute, tourists wandered the narrow streets around the market, snapping selfies with buskers and the spreading displays of butter-yellow daffodils.
“We are concerned, but not enough to not come down and play,” said Dan Schindler, a ukelele player busking with his friend as the duo Bob and Weaver. “The urge to play it too strong.”
Pike Place Fish Market owner Sam Samson, 54, also downplayed the economic ripples of the coronavirus outbreak. Every one of his workers was on the job Thursday, selling crab legs, lobster tails and whole wild-caught Alaska salmon. They were also throwing two-foot-long salmon to each other, a display that still drew large crowds on Thursday morning.
“Look at all these smiles,” he said. ”Do I look worried to you? We work at a fish market. All we do is wash our hands.”
Added Samson: “One thing we don’t do is buy into that conversation – we acknowledge it, but we keep going.”
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Here at ground zero of the first and largest outbreak of the coronavirus in the United States, hardy residents in fleece and flannel are going about their daily lives as normally as possible.
Classes continue on the University of Washington’s campus. Children attend schools that have been deep-cleaned. Shoppers stock up on canned foods and paper towels, emptying pallets of toilet paper at their local Costco.
Fishmonger Nic Grimmer, 23, threw salmon across the counter for the tourists and bumped elbows with passing market workers and friends. Standing in rubber orange overalls, Grimmer maintained a steady patter for the passing crowds, offering to fillet any fish they wanted or pack seafood for airline travel.
“Can’t be too careful,” he said during a break. “Some lady just watched me wipe my forehead and she was like, ‘you’d better wash your hands.’”
The death toll here is sobering. Eleven of 12 deaths are in Washington state. Fifty-one of the confirmed cases are in King County, home to Seattle. Nearby Snohomish County had 18 cases and Grant County, in the central part of the state, reported its first case Thursday.
With public fear spreading, early signs of economic distress and disruption are beginning to surface. Stocks plunged more than 3% Thursday as investors anticipated the economic fallout from the coronavirus could be much worse than expected.
Here in Seattle, anxious restaurants and retail outlets operating on tight margins especially in the winter months coped with the uncertainty while bracing themselves for what could be lean days ahead.
Local health officials have urged people to work from home and avoid large gatherings. Crowds downtown have thinned and commutes can now be measured in minutes, instead of hours. Social distancing is in full effect.
Fewer haircuts and yoga classes
In Kirkland, a sleek hair salon with sparkling chandeliers less than a mile from the long-term care facility at the center of the outbreak is already feeling the pinch. Customers have been calling to cancel appointments, and regulars are not calling to make them, says Fatima Pahud, owner of La Belle Vie Salon.
“We have had a lot of cancellations,” says Pahud, who speculates that people are afraid to patronize businesses in this lakeside suburb now linked to the coronavirus. “People want to wait until it has settled down.”
For the last week at nearby Waynita Nails, far fewer customers have been dropping in for manicures and pedicures. Next door to La Belle Vie at yoga studio Bala Yoga, instructors have seen a falloff in attendance at classes. Owner Mike Baiocchi says customers have held onto their monthly and annual memberships. He’s creating an online platform to stream classes live and for free for members and Instagram followers.
“There have been less people just because everyone is frightened,” Pahud, 49, says. But if business falls off for an extended period of time, she worries how she will afford the rent on her salon.
Amanda Ballantyne, executive director of the Main Street Alliance, a public policy group for small business owners, lives in Seattle. She says what’s happening here foreshadows what could happen in other communities where the virus takes root.
Seattle not yet a ghost town
“It’s an unprecedented situation,” Ballantyne says. “And we think it could have dramatic impacts on our local economy.”
This tech boomtown is by no means a ghost town, at least not yet, said Jeffrey Shulman, a professor at the University of Washington, who teaches marketing in the business school and studies Amazon’s effects on the region. He is concerned about businesses in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood, which is home to the multiple highrises where many of Amazon’s 50,000 employees work.
Right now, he says stores and restaurants are only a little less crowded. But that will likely change as many of those workers begin to telecommute.
Amazon has always stood out as a tech employer because it chose to locate in the heart of a city and specifically limited the number of restaurants and coffee shops it located in its own buildings. The company wanted its employees to go out into the streets and spend money at local restaurants and cafes, so that it could be in a vibrant urban area and not a hermetically sealed business park.
Now many of those employees will be working from home until at least March 31.
At Amazon’s Seattle headquarters, a worker tested positive for Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. In a message to employees late Wednesday, Amazon recommended that all employees in the Seattle region work from home this month if they are able to do their jobs remotely. Also on Wednesday, Facebook, which has thousands of employees in the area, disclosed that a contractor working in one of company’s Seattle offices tested positive for the virus.
Microsoft, based in Redmond, Washington, urged its employees in the Seattle area and San Francisco to work from home through March 25 and said it would continue to pay its 4,500 hourly workers such as shuttle drivers and cafe staff even if they work fewer hours.
Missing Amazon and Facebook workers
Small businesses – from food trucks to florists and coffee shops – that depend heavily on foot traffic generated by large employers like Amazon and Facebook worry about the knock-on effect of emptying normally busy campuses.
Around the Amazon campus on Thursday afternoon, security guards patrolled concrete courtyards and walkways normally buzzing with workers. Tourists were also being turned away from the normally public areas of the Seattle Spheres, a complex of glass domes filled with plants and Amazon offices located between two of the company’s office towers.
A barista at a nearby Starbucks worried aloud to a customer about her hours potentially being cut over the coming weeks, and the barbers at Capelli’s Gentlemen’s Barbershop were half as busy as usual, said barber Nick Anselmo.
Amazon workers make up about 80% of the barber shop’s customers, Anselmo said, and while the next few days have plenty of scheduled appointments, he worried what will happen if the company maintains its remote-work policy for longer than a week or two.
“It all depends on what Amazon decides, really,” said Anselmo, 27.
Nearby at the popular lunch hangout Kati Vegan Thai, business slipped by 20% this week. Then it plunged by half on Thursday. Eight out of 10 customers are Amazon employees who come in groups of 10 and 20.
“We pretty much live off Amazon employees,” a server at the restaurant said. “We are worried, like really worried.”
Owner Fon Spaulding, 36, says she’s now going about the difficult task of reducing the hours of her employees. She only needs two servers, not three, and two or three workers in the kitchen, not five, but she worries how her staffers will make ends meet.
“I don’t worry for ourselves as the owners so much, but our employees need to pay their rent. I want to give them jobs and enough money to pay for everything, but unfortunately, I don’t know how that is going to work now,” she said.
No question times will be tough on the restaurants, coffee shops and dry cleaners that operate on skimpy margins, Shulman said. “To survive three weeks when you have tens of thousands of employees who aren’t coming in is going to be hard. They still have to pay their rent, and they still have to pay their employees.”
Asian American-owned businesses are facing an additional challenge: xenophobia. Tables have been a lot emptier at once bustling Chinese restaurants, with more servers on hand than customers, part of a trend seen nationally.
Seattle restaurant owner David Leong has prescribed himself kung fu to stay centered and ginseng tea to strengthen his immune system, plus a positive attitude. Leong just opened a new restaurant in Seattle’s International District a few months ago, Fortuna Café 2.0, and is working hard to stay positive and keep his staff there motivated.
His other restaurant, Spiceup Szechuan Cuisine, within walking distance of Amazon, has seen business fall off as well, but it bounced back a little Thursday.
“Of course with employees working from home – and sometimes home is an hour away – you’re not going to be taking a trek down to the neighborhood restaurant,” he said. “But we also have a lot of apartments nearby and very loyal customers.”
This week, Congress approved a funding package that expands a small-business loan program typically offered to companies in natural disasters. Ballantyne says affected communities need a stimulus package, too, to aid business owners experiencing the double whammy of the rapid decline in consumer demand and increased employee absences.
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“We need to go beyond small business loans here because this is a situation that it is unpredictable in how long it will last and it’s unpredictable in the amount of impact it will have,” Ballantyne said.
Molly Moon Neitzel, owner of Molly Moon’s Homemade Ice Cream, has been in business for 12 years. In recent days, she’s keeping a worried eye on unexpected dips in sales at her stores.
“Customer behavior is as erratic as the varying emotions about the virus throughout the city. Some people’s behavior hasn’t changed at all. Some people are more worried than others and are changing their behavior,” she says. “One day sales were down 41% and that is scary, but the next day sales bounced back. Three days ago sales were down 20%, which is worrisome. If we are off by 10% or more, something is really weird.”
Declines in foot traffic could not come at a worse time for Seattle-area businesses, Moon says.
“Seattle comes alive in the summer. It’s a totally different place. People dine out, drink out, dessert out. We live it up. We celebrate summer to the fullest extent,” she said.
Moon, who runs eight ice cream shops and is in construction on her ninth and largest, says she keeps 120 staffers year round even though “ice cream only makes money four months a year.”
She is calling on local officials to waive penalties and fees for late payment of business taxes by small businesses struggling to stay afloat during the crisis and to expand unemployment benefits for workers who are temporarily laid off by these businesses.
“It’s a little too soon to tell for our business,” she says. “But being down even 20% for a long period of time could be financially devastating.”