The other day I bought an 8-ounce pump bottle of Purell hand sanitizer at Bartell’s. After more than a year of being unable to find the coveted goo — at least that was my experience — there it was.
This was a sign that America and Seattle are coming out of the pandemic. More concrete evidence comes from a busier Pike Place Market. Normality won’t come immediately or, for some, easily. But it is coming.
New York City is reopening in two weeks — with bars, restaurants, stores and offices at 100% capacity — along with New York state, New Jersey and Connecticut. Goldman Sachs announced this week it is asking most employees to return to offices by late June.
Los Angeles County has moved to the least restrictive tier of California’s pandemic reopening system. The Golden State intends to fully reopen on June 15 provided the vaccine supply is stable and hospitalization rates are low. Some safety rules will remain.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended all local restrictions, although not without controversy.
In Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday paused reopening, but didn’t push any counties back to a more restrictive condition. He’ll reevaluate the situation in two weeks. Amazon expects its employees to “return to an office-centric culture as our baseline” by the fall.
Expect other companies to follow Amazon. Only in offices can people effectively collaborate, perform business development and pass on the corporate culture.
Different states and cities, different timing. But we are headed out. With this emergence, into an environment with pent-up demand, robust federal stimulus and easy money from the Federal Reserve, the economy is set to boom.
While the 2020 shutdown was necessary, it carried an enormous economic price. Initially, unemployment spiked to a level not seen since the Great Depression, then gradually declined.
In Seattle, while much work could be done remotely, other critical sectors were savaged, especially restaurants, tourism, cruises, conventions and lodging.
According to a tally by the Downtown Seattle Association, 275 street-level businesses closed permanently in the city, including 193 in downtown alone. Hotel occupancy rates fell to the single digits.
But green shoots have already emerged. Some businesses stayed open or announced plans to open in the face of the pandemic: 180 street-level locations, including 119 downtown.
Hotel occupancy is now around 30% and CBRE Hotels Research expects it to average 44.2% this year. That’s still down from the pre-pandemic 74%, but a definite improvement from 2020. Tourists are coming back: Daily visitor numbers are up 36% since February. About 20% of workers are in the office.
Apartment rents and even condos have firmed up in the central core. The swanky First Light condo tower is coming out of the ground at Third Avenue and Virginia.
Normality depends on vaccines. According to a tally by The New York Times, 32% of Americans have been fully vaccinated and 45% have had at least one dose. As of Friday, King County reports that 46% of residents are fully vaccinated.
Obviously we have a way to go.
If I were king, I would require vaccination in order to maintain a driver’s license — the only way to get Americans’ attention is to threaten their ability to drive. Short of that, elected officials are using every bully pulpit they have to encourage getting the shots.
Yet vaccinations slowed in mid-April while a rare side effect of Johnson & Johnson’s version was investigated and the pace hasn’t recovered its previous momentum.
As with everything else in our divided nation, vaccines have become politicized. A March poll by PBS, NPR and Marist found that 41% of Republicans don’t plan to get vaccinated. But the problem isn’t confined to the right or the anti-vaxxers.
A University of North Carolina poll showed that a third of people describing themselves as “very liberal” were “very concerned” about catching the virus compared to a quarter of liberals and moderates.
In other words, some aren’t ready to let go of the fear.
Emma Green wrote in The Atlantic, “Even as scientific knowledge of COVID-19 has increased, some progressives have continued to embrace policies and behaviors that aren’t supported by evidence, such as banning access to playgrounds, closing beaches, and refusing to reopen schools for in-person learning.”
Jon Scholes, president and chief executive of the DSA, told me, “It’s time for the state to set a reopening date if we continue to make progress. This removes uncertainty from the economy and businesses. And officials need to emphasize the broader public health message: The vaccine is the way out of this. If we continue to hedge, we undermine the message. We have vaccinations that work. Get one.”
The Washington Hospitality Association is also calling for Inslee to set a reopening date of June 15.
Indeed, COVID-19 is likely something we will have to live with and guard against, like measles. But deaths are way down in the United States and hospitals are not facing the prospect of being overwhelmed, as was the situation in spring 2020. Perfect safety is impossible.
That much was made clear to me reading Lapham’s Quarterly “Epidemic” issue this past year. The thick chronicle of centuries of deadly diseases put our own pandemic in perspective.
The Black Death of the 14th century killed one-third or more of Europe’s population. Baby boomers of my age and younger American generations have no memory of fear caused by polio or smallpox.
But life goes on. And the emerging evidence confirms my early skepticism about the COVID-19 hot takes with headlines saying, “The pandemic will change [fill in the blank] forever.” Most of all, don’t bet against great cities.
Whether Seattle wants to reclaim its place is less certain than emerging from the latest plague. Not only COVID-19 but crime and a breakdown in homeless services badly damaged businesses, while a City Council majority with other priorities looked on.
Said DSA’s Scholes, “Cities are desirable. But you have to get the fundamentals right. That includes a responsible approach to public safety and how to deal with people on the streets who are in desperate situations.”