Monday morning was unusually quiet at the Starbucks at 5th Avenue and Columbia Street in downtown Seattle. Hours before, the massive F5 headquarters building across the street had been closed for the day for cleaning after an employee was exposed to the coronavirus but tested negative for the COVID-19 illness.
“It’s really, really slow,” said a barista at the Starbucks. “Business is noticeably down.”
It was a small but stark example of how the coronavirus outbreak is affecting the local business community.
With the coronavirus death toll now at six deaths in King County and estimates that as many as 570 area residents have contracted the disease, some area employers that were discussing contingency plans last week were scrambling to address exposure among their workers or launching programs to help them avoid it.
On Monday, outdoor outfitter REI closed its corporate campuses in Kent, Georgetown and Bellevue/Eastgate for two days after being “notified of two incidents of potential employee exposure” to coronavirus, said REI spokesperson Halley Knigge. Roughly 1,800 REI employees will work remotely while the campuses are subject to “a thorough deep cleaning,” Knigge said.
Even firms that have not reported cases of workers exposed to the coronavirus were rolling out measures aimed at reducing the risk of exposure and allaying employee anxieties.
T-Mobile, which had around 6,200 employees at its Bellevue headquarters as of late 2018, has restricted some business travel and is encouraging workers to look into “alternative work options if they aren’t feeling well,” a company spokesperson said. Genie, a global manufacturer of construction lifts that has around 1,200 workers at its Redmond operations, has suspended all business travel to China, Hong Kong, Italy, Macao, South Korea and Italy and is conducting business meetings via teleconferencing.
Facebook, which has 5,000 Seattle-area employees, was temporarily allowing only visitors with company business to enter its campuses and was conducting some candidate interviews via videoconferencing, a spokesperson said. FlowPlay, a Seattle-based gaming company with 60 employees, was encouraging telecommuting, paying for parking downtown for employees who didn’t want to ride public transit and even buying each employee a 30-day supply of freeze-dried rations, said CEO Derrick Morton.
It’s unclear how costly these measures will be.
Some companies, such as REI, FlowPlay and Genie, had already been using virtual meetings or encouraging telecommuting as a way to hold down costs and spare their employees long commutes.
At other companies, reducing on-site staff could affect internal business operations or interfere with relationships with vendors and other outside companies. And as companies shutter offices or encourage more telecommuting, the effects will almost certainly ripple out to smaller neighborhood businesses — “the grocery stores and the restaurants that are relying on that lunch traffic” from those larger firms, said Anneliese Vance-Sherman, regional labor economist with the state employment security department.
Another ripple effect will be felt as firms cancel travel and related activities. F5, for example, postponed a meeting Tuesday with analysts and investors in New York City as well as its annual user conference, set for March 16-19 in Orlando, Florida. “We believe that hosting a large group event drawing participants from many regions is not appropriate at this time,” the company said in a statement.
Late Monday, a spokesperson for Visit Seattle said there had been no reported cancellations at the Washington State Convention Center, but was unable to confirm the situation at other regional conference facilities, such as Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue.
It’s also unclear how effective companies’ measures will be in protecting workers. Many companies said they would adjust their strategies based on their own changing circumstances as well as any changes in guidance from government health agencies, such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Some companies also recognized that the risks they were trying to protect their employees from weren’t only physical, but psychological.
“I think the biggest impact is just ‘mind share,’ ” said FlowPlay’s Morton. “It’s going to be difficult for people to focus as well as it might otherwise have been because this is going to be on their minds. People who have their kids at school … are probably checking in with the kids a lot more. These things are difficult to measure — but it’s going to happen.”
This article as been updated with information from Visit Seattle.