COVID-19 Diaries: Lessons from Seattle

What Can Be Learned from the Seattle Experience with COVID-19

I live in the bedroom community of Puyallup, Washington and commute to my hotel job in downtown Seattle. Unfortunately, that also means I have been following the outbreak of COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) from its very first diagnosis in the United States. I am writing this on Thursday, March 26, 2020 to give an account of the Seattle experience so far and to offer any insight as to what lessons can be learned and what this pandemic may look like for other parts of the country and the world.

As a reference, by the end of today, March 26, there are at least 81,321 Americans infected with the coronavirus and over 1,000 deaths from COVID-19. There are 3,207 cases in Washington state and 147 deaths, the bulk of which are in King County, the state’s largest population center and home to Seattle. The Seattle Times has archived the events of March 26 at this location.

The Break-out of COVID-19 in Washington state

The first case of COVID-19 was diagnosed on Jan. 21 in Everett in Snohomish County. The 35-year old victim had recently traveled from Wuhan, China, having arrived by flight on Jan. 15. Although the man was placed in quarantine there is evidence suggesting the virus spread throughout Everett for the next six weeks. On Feb. 28 an Everett high school student tested positive and it is believed that the strain is tied to the initial case.

Separately, in early February there was a suspected flu outbreak at the Life Care Center nursing home in Kirkland. The Washington Post detailed the unfortunate sequence of events in a lengthy expose. Although COVID-19 was already known nationally and internationally the nursing home did not identify the disease quickly, thus leading to further spread. The first nursing home resident was hospitalized on Feb. 19 and then another resident on Feb. 24. Two residents died on Feb. 26 from COVID-19, however their deaths were not properly identified and reported until Mar. 3. The first “official” cases from the nursing home were not announced until Feb. 29.

At the end of February other cases began to show up in the Puget Sound area, and it was determined that we had entered a new and dangerous phase, community spread.

How COVID-19 Impacted Seattle, From a Hospitality Perspective

Working at a downtown Seattle convention property I watched the economic devastation of COVID-19 unfold in slow motion. Initially, the hotel began to see cancellations from Asia as early as mid-January, with increasing numbers starting in February. This did not seem to have a huge impact at the time, but it was a cause of growing concern. In fact, a trade paper from Feb. 7 seemed to speculate that the impact would be felt mostly in Asia, along with international cities that have a large Asian tourism footprint. The idea of a global pandemic did not even seem to be a consideration.

As worldwide conditions began to worsen, and local concerns began to intensify, the hotel lost Amazon corporate travel due to a company-wide ban on Feb. 28. This decision was quickly followed by Microsoft, Facebook, Google and others. In tech-heavy Seattle many companies, those who were prepared, quickly followed suit in mandating that their employees telecommute from home. The corporate travel cancellations took an immediate hit on hotel occupancy, but it was just the beginning. On Feb. 29 Washington state logged its first death from COVID-19. The death was possibly a moment of reckoning for Washington state, but especially for the tourism industry.

Conventions began to cancel on an almost daily basis, with hundreds of hotel rooms cancelled per night. Convention attendees were generally not panicked at this time, but the moral and legal implications for convention organizers likely weighed heavily. The breaking point in many ways was on Mar. 6 when Emerald City Comic Con (ECCC) cancelled, or rather “postponed” their convention, only six days prior. The cancellation came after many large vendors had already pulled out, including DC Comics and Dark Horse Comics, along with many high-profile guests. After ECCC cancelled, the remaining conventions followed suit, and not just for March but well into April and May.

Meanwhile, the impact on restaurants and other retail was felt immediately, weeks before the Washington state “Stay  Healthy–Stay Home” order. Beginning the first week of March smaller restaurants began to close, one by one. On Mar. 11 local celebrity chef Tom Douglas announced that 12 out of 13 of his eateries would be shuttered following dinner service on Mar. 15. Tom Douglas employs an estimated 800 people, most of whom were told to file for unemployment without severance.

For Seattleites, the psychological blow of the Tom Douglas closures sent a shockwave throughout the hospitality and service industries. If Seattle’s most important culinary icon was unable to weather the storm, what change did the small guys have? I spoke to a server at Gameworks, I believe on Mar. 12. He said that all his roommates were Tom Douglas employees and all were furloughed. For those in hospitality, this was an immediate tragedy and any federal solution would be weeks away.

By Mar. 13 over 40 restaurants had been closed, some of them permanently, not just in downtown Seattle but in other neighborhoods and in the surrounding cities. On Mar. 15 Governor Inslee made an announcement that all restaurants and entertainment facilities were to be closed beginning on Mar. 17. At around this time, most retail stores shut down, along with museums and attractions, including the iconic Space Needle.

Finally, on Mar. 23 Inslee declared a “Stay Home—Stay Healthy” order restricting business throughout the state, although with a dizzying number of exceptions. The order gave a deadline of no later than midnight of Mar. 25 in order to comply.

Areas That Rely on Tourism Will Be Hit Harder Than Others

The first lesson to be learned from Seattle is that areas reliant on tourism will be hit much harder than others. Seattle has a diverse economy, but it is also heavily dependent on tourism and on convention traffic. As the conventions cancelled in Seattle, the rest of the city began to shut down almost immediately, well before any shutdown decisions had been considered. The convention cancellations impacted the hotel industry, restaurants and bars, museums, and all retail stores. The peak tourist season for Seattle is summertime of course, but any tourism boost seems almost wishful thinking at this point, with perhaps June or July as an optimistic target date for return to normalcy.

Amazingly, many cruise lines are still selling Alaska cruises, although cruise traffic of larger vessels (500 people or more) is banned in Canada until at least July 1. There is little doubt that the season will be delayed until July 1 at the earliest, although it increasingly seems that perhaps the entire season may end up being cancelled. To give an idea of how important the cruise industry is for Seattle, for the 2019 Alaska cruise season the city was anticipated to receive 1.2 million passengers with an economic impact of nearly $1 billion. As Seattle is an embark/debark city the financial impact is even larger. For every guest on a cruise, the guest will also typically purchase airport transportation (taxi/ride-share), hotel stays, restaurant meals, museum visits, souvenirs, and so much more.

Seattle Is Dependent on Amazon and Other Tech Firms

The next lesson to be learned, one that people like to ignore, is that Seattle is indisputably reliant on Amazon and Microsoft and other tech firms for its livelihood. I feel there is a nostalgia for the “old Seattle”, whose economy was built on Boeing and Starbucks and the fishing and maritime industries. Those are of course very important economic sectors, but the city screeched to a halt once the tech firms stayed home. The tech companies even agreed to pay for contractor wages (food service, security guards, janitorial staff), but the money spent was just a Band-Aid in the end.

Moving forward, I feel that Seattle will make finally make its peace with the tech companies and their downtown presence. Without Amazon and Microsoft, and the rest, there is no downtown Seattle. We complain about skyrocketing rents and unaffordable restaurants, but the alternative is much worse.

An estimate from 2019 indicates that Seattle’s population grows by 176,133 during the day. Each of these people contribute to the city’s economy in some way: they use public transportation; they buy their morning coffee; many of them will buy lunch, at least occasionally; after work, they will buy a drink at a pub or bar. These daytime commuters, largely from the tech industry, will likewise visit tourist attractions and museums. More importantly, they are the lifeblood for so many other companies, not just retail and restaurants, but any company big or small who does business with the tech firms.

Seattle Stayed Home, Early and With Enthusiasm

The final lesson that I feel can be learned from the Seattle experience is in fact a positive, and one that the whole world can learn from. Seattle companies, large and small, switched to telecommuting options very early in this crisis. Telecommuting dramatically reduced foot traffic downtown, along with public transportation use, and it made a dramatic impact on traffic patterns. Washington state also made an early decision to close public and private schools beginning on Mar. 17. These measures did not halt the spread of coronavirus but they surely slowed the spread considerably. The final results from Seattle, as far as “flattening the curve”, will unfold in the coming weeks and months but preliminary numbers from even Mar. 19 show promising results.

The change has been difficult in some cases, but the technology framework was in place, all that was needed was a push. After this crisis is behind us I predict that companies will be thinking long and hard of the wisdom of having employees in office as opposed to offering at least partial telecommuting options. This will help companies save on real estate and its associated costs, but it will also help with the the region’s long-term traffic problems and relieve stress for the many people who make the long commute to Seattle each day. The switch to telecommuting may also reduce the demand on downtown real estate, which I feel will also be a net positive, as it will help control costs and inflation.

Sources cited in this article:


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2 thoughts on “COVID-19 Diaries: Lessons from Seattle

  1. Thanks for a very interesting and informative article.

    “The peak tourist season for Seattle is summertime of course, but any tourism boost seems almost wishful thinking at this point, with perhaps June or July as an optimistic target date for return to normalcy.”

    As of today, May 24, what do you think the target date is for a return to normalcy?

    That phrase “return to normalcy” is fraught because we’ve grown up during the most comfortable time in human history (for the largest percentage of people living under a government … if they were white and male) in human history. I honestly can’t imagine how it’s going to be when the pandemic is over and 2/3 of all American adults are FLAT BROKE and in horrible credit card debt.

    • Hi Jeff!
      Thanks for the comment. I work at a convention hotel in downtown Seattle, and as of May 24 I was hoping to return to work possibly in September at the earliest. For me that would have meant a “return to normalcy” somewhat, because it would mean that conventions were happening again (more or less) and that the downtown Seattle economy would be up and running again. I think it’s a moving target, so every day I would probably give a different answer to your question. But yes, there may never be a return to normal, and especially with regard to travel. This headline from Feb. 24 seems like an entirely different world now, https://nypost.com/2020/02/24/man-spends-98-on-plane-ticket-just-to-get-chick-fil-a/.
      -Erik

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