It’s a pretty safe bet that the delta variant won’t tank the economy — here or in most of America — as happened when the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the spring of 2020.
First, the worst damage done to sectors such as retailing has already happened (nearly 500 street-level businesses have closed in downtown Seattle since January 2020). The survivors are strong and resilient (for example, Pike Place Market; also 270 street-level businesses opened downtown over the past year and a half).
Second, God willing, we won’t have another heinous act like the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, which led to massive civil unrest accompanying the pandemic. The delta fueled surge also won’t go side-by-side with Boeing’s 737 MAX troubles.
Third, and most important, we have vaccines. So far, breakthrough infections are rare for fully vaccinated people. This has given people confidence to travel again, which is assisting a recovery of tourism and getting out. Cruise ships are sailing to Alaska. Airlines, hotels, restaurants and cultural events are recovering.
Masks and vaccines may be required, but it’s unlikely we’ll go back to the worst of 2020.
Any sure predictions beyond that are an invitation to go out on a limb with a crystal ball and wait for a sawing sound.
So how about a few markers to watch in the months ahead:
Offices: This has been an argument going back to the early days of the pandemic and remote work. Will COVID-19 kill the traditional office or merely alter it, leaving a hybrid of remote and in-office employment? Or will the old office endure?
According to tracking by the Downtown Seattle Association, about 25% of workers were in the office in the central core, as of July 18. That compares with 76% on March 1, 2020.
Expect the delta variant to slow a return to offices. Amazon and Microsoft will be influential here. Microsoft said this past week it will require employees returning to the office to be vaccinated, and pushed the date out by a month. Amazon announced Thursday it is pushing back its tech and corporate workforce’s return from Sept. 7 to January 2022.
Online brokerage Redfin is postponing an office return indefinitely — at least as the delta variant plays out — and then will also require vaccines.
Ultimately, though, offices have advantages: Business development is easier when you can meet face-to-face with clients; corporate culture is easier to pass on in the office; and they offer superior creativity and productivity.
A larger ecosystem depends on offices. This ranges from restaurants to transit. Their fortunes will only reach full potential when we return to normal, including using employment centers.
Construction: Seattle spent much of the 2010s as the crane capital of America, a sign of the transformational building happening here. Will that continue?
According to Rider Levett Bucknall’s Crane Index, Seattle remained steady at 43 cranes as of the first quarter of this year, but behind Washington, D.C., and tied with Los Angeles.
“Seattle’s crane count remains unchanged, with the residential sector accounting for the majority of cranes,” the report said. “Dozens of new projects are initiating construction, while others are nearing completion, ensuring a balanced construction forecast. North of the city, there is a significant amount of commuter transit work underway.”
Downtown residential growth is offsetting softness in offices. The core’s population hit more than 98,000 as of July 1, a 4.4% annual increase and better than the 1.1% citywide increase.
Construction employment in Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue was nearly 134,000 as of June, higher than before the pandemic hit.
Tourism and hospitality: This was one of the hardest-hit sectors during the pandemic, and as much as mossbacks hate it Seattle is a big tourism town. Will it return?
Cruises to Alaska have resumed. More cruise lines are requiring vaccines. According to the trade group Visit Seattle, six lines have begun revenue sailings. Norwegian Cruise Line will make its first sailing from the U.S. since the pandemic hit, departing Pier 66 on Saturday and is scheduled to continue through October.
Hotel occupancy here was in the single digits last year. It hit 67.5% downtown and 69% in King County as of late July. On July 23 and 24, a Friday and Saturday, it hit 80% and above downtown.
Meanwhile, Visit Seattle hosted seven citywide convention site inspections and/or planning visits in July. According to the Downtown Seattle Association, visitor counts had reached 85% of where they stood before the pandemic.
But this was before the delta variant became widely known and constant revisions by authorities are now hurting optimism about travel.
A parting observation: Out on the streets of downtown, I’m seeing more people and few are wearing masks. The Seattle Symphony is preparing to return to Benaroya Hall in the fall. The Mariners have opened to 100% seating capacity at T-Mobile Park. More restaurants are open. The flagship Nordstrom was busy when I went there this week.
Some other variables will also play into recovery here beyond delta. Among them are rising crime and the Seattle City Council majority’s hostility to business.
Nothing is a given. We will have to live with COVID-19. But please get vaccinated. It’s our best weapon against this pandemic.