Banks may be essential businesses in Washington state, but that hasn’t stopped them from temporarily closing scores of Seattle-area branches as the coronavirus pandemic continues to upend an industry that  already was in the midst of a major change.

On Monday, Chase Bank confirmed it has closed 38 branches in the Puget Sound region since the start of the pandemic. Seattle-based WaFd Bank said it had closed eight Seattle-area locations, and U.S. Bank said 13 of its Seattle-area locations were closed. Wells Fargo has temporarily shuttered nine of 25 locations in King County, and Bank of America has closed 13 of roughly 40 King County locations, according to their websites.

Industry officials say the closures have been driven largely by concerns for employee and customer safety, as banks try to minimize the face-to-face interactions that can spread the novel coronavirus.

A WaFd spokesperson said its eight closed locations lacked drive-up or night-deposit capabilities, which, according to the bank’s website, made it difficult “to safely conduct transactions and maintain social distance between clients and our employees.” Chase Bank was also focused on branches with drive-thrus “to further encourage social distancing,” according to spokesperson Darcy Donahoe-Wilmot, who added that staff from closed locations were moving to open locations or working from home.

Many banks that continue to allow in-person activity in their branches have shifted to appointment-only operations and reduced hours, and most were actively encouraging customers to bank by phone or online.

There were other factors behind at least some of the closures. Chase is also dealing with staffing shortages, “primarily due to employees caring for family members and childcare issues” during the pandemic, Donahoe-Wilmot acknowledged.

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“Staffing has been a significant issue with a lot of banks with particularly childcare issues or … if they’ve got an illness or have a family member that they’re taking care of,” said Glen Simecek, president and CEO of the Washington Bankers Association.

Simecek said the closures also reflect customer traffic that is “down substantially” since the pandemic began. In some cases, closed branches were in commercial neighborhoods that had seen sharp drops in visitation or were located inside other businesses that have shut down. Many consumers, meanwhile, have been minimizing public interactions.

At Seattle-based HomeStreet Bank, which hasn’t closed any locations but has shifted to an appointment-only model, bank staff have been willing to meet customers at their cars when customers are too fearful come inside. “A lot of our customers are afraid to come into the branch and interact in a way that they had in the past,”  HomeStreet spokesperson Gerhard Erdelji said.

Although most banks have pushed online banking for years as a way to lower costs, the pandemic has accelerated those efforts.

“We have been making more of a concerted effort [to encourage online and mobile banking] since the shelter-in-place orders have been instituted in an effort to limit potential exposure,” HomeStreet’s Erdelji said.

How many customers return to physical branches after the pandemic is over isn’t clear, Simecek said.

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“This will be a bit of an experiment,” he said. “We’ll know a year or two from now, whether they return to the branches at the same rate that they used them before or if they prefer the online channel or some other mechanism to access their accounts.”

Simecek said that even before the coronavirus crisis, most banks had been considering how much emphasis to put on physical locations, which are often costly to procure and maintain.

“I think every retail bank has been looking at its model and evaluating what the future looks like,” he said. “And so this is just going to hasten those discussions.”

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