More than 1.1 million Americans died from the coronavirus pandemic, including nearly 16,000 in Washington. A total 6.9 million died worldwide. It’s a butcher’s bill that will be studied and debated for decades, on the order of the 1918 influenza.
Now, as COVID-19 pulls back and normality tries to reassert itself, we’re gaining fresh insights into the effects of the pandemic on cities, including emptied offices, rising homelessness and a spike in crime, especially violent crime.
This, in turn, caused businesses dependent on office workers to close, while transit systems suffered. Sound Transit is already behind on key projects, and downtown light-rail stations have continuing problems with elevators and escalators, including those wrecked by vandalism.
Among the most recent reports is one from the Brookings Institution. As part of the Metro Monitor series, Joseph Parilla and Glencora Haskins examined the results of the crisis on inclusive growth in 192 U.S. metropolitan areas.
The study used 12 measures to reach its conclusions, including real GDP, average wages, jobs, median earnings, employment at young firms and several metrics of racial inclusion. Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue was very hard hit between 2019 and 2021 compared with its soaring performance in the 10 years beginning in 2009.
“Two findings stood out about Seattle,” Parilla told me this week by email. “Over the long-term, 2011-2021, the Seattle metro area experienced strong economic performance across most of our categories, with one exception …’Geographic Inclusion,’ where the region ranked 54
Parilla said that even though the economy expanded, middle-class incomes grew, and racial disparities were reduced, some low-income neighborhoods were left out.
“The second finding is about the last two years,” he said. “In a composite measure of ‘Inclusive Growth,’ Seattle ranked 3rd out of 192 metro areas … during the pre-pandemic period (2011-2019) but ranked 97th on that same metric during the pandemic period (2019-2021). This suggests that the pandemic hit the region harder economically than other metro areas.”
Remember, this covers the entire metropolitan area, including historically poorer-performing Pierce County, but a walk down Third Avenue in Seattle shows the damage was widespread.
Other Western cities that were downshifted during the worst of the pandemic were San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland.
The Brookings report separated the metros into four performance areas: resilient, emergent, tested and stagnant. Seattle was “tested.”
I would have used the word “wounded,” but Parilla explained, “Our sense was that this category of metro areas, which had strong performance in the decade between the Great Recession and the pandemic, was tested by the pandemic.”
The tested metros had the winds at their backs in most of the 2010s, “but then many of the impacts of the pandemic came to ground to create a unique test for them (remote work, downtown challenges, high cost of living, etc.).”
Some of the test scores are daunting.
Opportunity Insights, an analysis group based at Harvard and with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, found that in Seattle, as of Feb. 6, the number of small businesses open decreased by 6% compared with January 2020.
As of March 10 of this year, total job postings decreased by 41.4% compared to January 2020.
The most shocking news came from a New York Times story on homelessness elsewhere. But in passing, it asserted that 2,300 businesses had left downtown Seattle since early 2020.
This apparently came (uncredited) from another story in the Puget Sound Business Journal, which tracked change-of-address information from the U.S. Postal Service. It showed a net loss of 2,395 businesses, at least by this measure.
The limitation of the data is that it might include a business that moved down the street. But the story showed a net loss of 5,834 businesses in Seattle. Downtown Tacoma and Bellevue also posted net losses.
By contrast, the Downtown Seattle Association estimated that since March 2020, the central core saw 500 street-level businesses close while more than 300 opened (the survey was done on foot).
The association’s annual report showed the city center’s importance, with 89% of hotel rooms, 82% of office space and 52% of jobs in Seattle (although many continue to work remotely or are hybrid — 47% of workers are back in the office compared with early 2000). The residential population, at more than 104,000, is a 71% increase since 2010.
Every former superstar city is wrestling with the problems assessed in the Brookings report. On top of those, layoffs at tech companies pose an additional hurdle to recovery.
Mayor Karen Bass of Los Angeles told The New Yorker: “My responsibility and the responsibility of other elected officials is to restore people’s hope, address their despair and their fear, then I think people can see a light at the end of the tunnel.
“So I consider that my responsibility, but I paint L.A. in the exact opposite way. I think this is a city with tremendous resources, unbelievable knowledge and skills. And my job is to marshal all of that together. We can conquer all of these problems.”
It might as well have been Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell talking.
But recovery won’t be easy or fast.
“No one has a crystal ball on that question (including me),” Parilla told me, “but it’s likely to be determined by how Seattle’s large corporates evolve on hybrid work policies and how the region’s business, civic, and government leaders can rally around shared challenges like housing affordability and issues in downtown Seattle.”
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