Seattle implemented extreme measures during the 1918 global influenza pandemic.
For weeks, many businesses were closed, large gatherings banned, crowding discouraged, masks required for riding streetcars — and stiff fines imposed for spitting on the sidewalk.
According to a study by the University of Michigan, this helped Seattle have a lower death rate than many other American cities. After mild subsequent waves of flu here, the city reopened and continued growing through the 1920s (interrupted by the 1919 General Strike, which paralyzed Seattle for five days but fizzled).
This offers a hopeful historical precedent for the city as the possibility of a very gradual reopening emerges. Gov. Jay Inslee said this week that some activities, such as certain elective surgeries and some construction, may be allowed to resume soon. But other activities may be banned even after the expiration of the May 4 stay-home order.
As the biggest economic, research and cultural engine of the region, Seattle’s fortunes will be an important marker as we enter a new phase — not yet normality, but beyond the initial shock of the COVID-19 pandemic. Much will depend on the availability of testing and tracking.
The 1918-1920 crisis is an imperfect guide.
Americans of that era didn’t expect the seeming risk-free existence we demand today. With families close and religion still a big part of life, death was not hidden away. My grandmother lost two of her four children when they were little boys.
Dreaded diseases such as smallpox and polio stalked the land. The world lacked the vaccines, antibiotics, ventilators and other weapons in the arsenal of 21st century medicine.
Also, the economy was not shut to the degree it is today. Shipbuilding and other important employers continued operating in Seattle. Railroads kept up their essential work of moving people and goods. This was true across the country.
The economy’s structure was very different, too. People lacked the ability to work from home in highly paid tech jobs or carry on virtual meetings via Webex while companies remained in business.
The biggest difference between 1918 and today is that now most of the economy was suddenly shut down. Apart from the South at the end of the Civil War, this is unprecedented in America. History will judge whether it was wise — I trust the science here — but what happens next is the great unknown.
Will the economy bounce back quickly? Or will we face a contraction and damage so deep that we enter a severe depression, as economist Nouriel Roubini predicted?
My friend (and Seattle native) Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes, “reporters wonder whether the trauma of social distancing and the rise of telework will finally empty out the ‘superstar’ cities and lead to a decentralization of the nation’s hypercentralized urban map. And sure, that might happen.”
But Muro’s research shows that “through crisis after crisis, the big tech hubs have continued to increase their share of the nation’s digital services employment. That’s because intense ‘agglomeration’ economies remain so important in tech.”
This disproportionate rebound happened here and in other superstar cities after the Great Recession, while much of America struggled to recover.
On the other hand, suburban apologist Joel Kotkin happily argues that densely populated cities need to be rethought.
“Just as progressives and environmentalists hoped the era of automotive dominance and suburban sprawl was coming to end, a globalized world that spreads pandemics quickly will push workers back into their cars and out to the hinterlands,” he writes.
But rigorous analyses don’t back up the idea that density is dangerous. For example, Staten Island, the least crowded borough in New York City, suffered the highest positive test rate for the virus in the city. Worldwide, cities such as Seoul and Hong Kong proved most effective in containing the pandemic. In these cases, with widespread testing and tracking, density proved an asset.
Similarly, a recent paper blaming New York’s subway for transmitting the virus doesn’t stand up to closer examination. Seoul has the world’s longest subway system. In Seattle and elsewhere, long after the pandemic passes, we’ll face the much deadlier long-term crisis of climate change. Transit and passenger trains are an important way to counter greenhouse-gas emissions.
Seattle’s path will be much rougher than a decade ago after the Great Recession. It’s difficult to imagine a new spectacular boom.
The $8 billion travel-tourism-convention sector has been decimated, with many hotels shut and occupancy levels in the single digits. Air travel has cratered, with ominous consequences for Boeing.
Restaurants are closed, including some of the premier sites that attract people from around the world. Some — even many — of these sites may never reopen. Retail, especially department stores, is facing similar headwinds.
A recent survey by the research firm Gartner indicated that 74% of the corporate respondents said they would permanently shift some employees to remote work. Combined with the hotel crisis, this is bad news for future office construction. Both were important sources of money to the city when Seattle was America’s crane capital.
Small businesses are in the crosshairs, with the initial federal rescue often bungled, gamed by large chains or inadequate. Seattle was blessed with so many unique, locally owned firms that are on life support. And don’t forget that most small firms depend on relationships with big business.
All of Seattle’s most treasured assets, from Pike Place Market to the Seattle Symphony, are facing long-term challenges because of the pandemic. Sports is another at-risk sector. After the virus burns out, will people come back?
I want to believe we’re social creatures, that we passionately love our city, that our political leaders would never be so foolish as to force through a tax on jobs when we face a depression. But still …
Seattle possesses formidable assets, from tech giants to world-renowned research outfits. We can be at the forefront of a new normality.
But the city that existed until March is gone forever. It’s up to us what comes next.
It sounds glib to quote Franklin Roosevelt as he took office during the depth of the Great Depression: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
But this was from a man struck down by polio, which terrorized generations. And with this leadership, we achieved freedom from fear. We must do so again.