On a normal weekday in the South Lake Union neighborhood, Seattle’s busiest tech hub is bustling with foot, bike and car traffic as workers shuffle between buildings at Amazon, Facebook, Google and other companies.
On Thursday during peak lunchtime, streets and restaurants were eerily empty in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.
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With many thousands of workers from tech and elsewhere being instructed to work from home, the quiet extends throughout “Amazonia,” spanning dozens of blocks from the northern edge of downtown Seattle to the southern shore of Lake Union.
Lines at food trucks parked on the streets were nonexistent, and in normally crowded coffee shops, cafes and restaurants, empty tables were the order of the day.
“It’s a good spot when there’s humans down here. The lack of humans hurts,” said Nicholas Robinson, a manager at Brave Horse Tavern, as he sat in the mostly empty restaurant on his laptop.
Located on Terry Avenue North, surrounded by Amazon office buildings, Brave Horse is one of 12 restaurants owned by celebrated Seattle chef Tom Douglas that will close its doors for the next eight weeks.
Douglas’ team is taking the drastic step, impacting about 800 workers, to deal with a 90-percent decline in sales since the coronavirus outbreak. He vows to rehire all employees when the restaurants come back, The Seattle Times reported.
Douglas’ pain is being felt across the neighborhood and city. Business recommendations website Fresh Chalk reported Thursday that COVID-19 is “killing small businesses in Seattle.” A survey by the site found 80 percent of businesses have seen a drop in demand, and closure is looming for 35 percent.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced actions she was taking Thursday, including the creation of a $1.5 million fund to invest directly in small businesses that have been impacted.
“Our small businesses have been devastated in recent weeks, and we know the crisis will be felt for months,” Durkan said in outlining efforts to do “everything possible to keep them afloat during this unprecedented moment in history.”
In South Lake Union, small businesses ranging in size from five to 50 employees make up 85 percent of the businesses in the community and represent more than 7,500 employees, according to Danah Abarr, executive director of the SLU Chamber.
Businesses that rely on daily revenue that could be anywhere from $500 to $3,500 a day were reporting 80-90 percent declines in sales and are facing a huge financial burden.
“There is simply no way for a small business to weather this storm without immediate funding relief,” Abarr said, noting that many are anxiously awaiting the chance to apply for help through a $5 million Neighborhood Small Business Relief Fund set up by Amazon to help those around its offices.
“This crisis is literally shutting down our neighborhood and city,” she said.
The SLU Chamber is working on outreach campaigns to local residents to encourage supporting businesses through delivery services, gift cards and online purchases.
While the disappearance of some 50,000 Amazon employees is the most visible sign of the remote work policies that have been instituted, Abarr points out that other large and small employers in the area are following the same guidelines.
“The SLU Chamber works out of a local WeWork which houses hundreds of small companies and employees; the building is nearly empty as of late,” she said. “This is not an Amazon problem, it is a community wide problem as the majority of all our employees are now working from home.”
The struggle is an especially evident one for food purveyors who survive off lunch revenue from employees who flow out of office buildings.
On Boren Avenue North, two food trucks sat parked on Thursday in an area that normally attracts eight or 10.
Sofia Vargas manages and drives a day-to-day truck for Delfino’s Pizza, and she parks in the same spot once a week near Amazon, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. She said the drop off in business has been pretty severe.
“There’s a lot of missing trucks,” Vargas said. “We usually have people waiting and at least half of this will be filled up with tickets,” she said, pointing inside the truck’s kitchen.
“I think the eeriest part is just not seeing people on the streets,” she added.
Up the street at the Tha-U-Up food truck on Thomas Street, a worker named Jimmy was serving one customer in a spot where the lunch line usually stretches to the corner. Revenue was down more than 70 percent.
The truck had served about 13 people on Thursday, and construction workers building out the next Amazon offices and apartment buildings were still stopping by, free of the normal 15-minute wait for food.
“It’s definitely been scary,” Jimmy said. “It’s a ghost town.”
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