Andy Lipscomb, owner of The Frankfurter hot dog stand near Pier 55 on the Seattle waterfront, has put a red circle around April 1 on his mental calendar.

Facing another spare summer following the announcement this month that the large-ship cruise season is likely toast for the second consecutive year, Lipscomb says he hopes for a fast start to what little tourist season there will be in 2021.

“We’ll know something by April 1,” Lipscomb said. “We will not know until the middle of March when spring break starts. That’ll be the biggest telltale sign.”

Like a punch-drunk heavyweight who’s surprised he’s still standing in the ninth round, many waterfront and downtown businesses that survived 2020 are optimistic they can get through a lean 2021 even without large-cruise passengers, thanks to the hard-earned lessons of Year One.

This comes after a surprisingly robust December and January, when customers found their way to the waterfront at a time when they usually stay away in droves.

“I had travelers from out of state over Christmastime. I was surprised at how many families were up here from Texas or Tennessee or Florida or wherever that were starting to travel already,” Lipscomb said. January also was unusually warm, driving more traffic to the water’s edge. “So I think people are ready to try to push through this. And the more vaccines come out, the more it’s going to open up everywhere.”

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The large-cruise season out of the Port of Seattle was largely shut down when Canada continued its ban on foreign cruise ships through the end of the year due to continuing issues with COVID-19, especially here in the United States, where more than 475,000 people have died. A U.S. law requires all foreign-flagged passenger ships to land in a foreign port at least once while sailing between two U.S. destinations. So vessels out of Seattle bound for Alaska must stop at Victoria, B.C., because most cruise ships using U.S. ports are registered in countries that are more tax-friendly.

Smaller companies like UnCruise Adventures (which has an office at Fishermen’s Terminal) that host trips with 100 or fewer passengers still are allowed in Canadian ports under that country’s decision. But that’s a small portion of what had been a thriving cruise industry in Seattle.

More than 1.2 million cruise ship passengers passed through Seattle in 2019, a record we seemed set to surpass in 2020 as efforts to expand cruise ship access continue. You know the rest of the story.

After seeing more than 41.9 total visitors and 21.9 million overnight visitors in 2019, King County had just 21.7 million and 10.6 million during 2020 — roughly 50% across the board — according to Visit Seattle’s preliminary statistics, which will be finalized in April. Tourism receipts dropped from $8.1 billion in 2019 to $3.5 billion in 2020.

Those numbers were a deeper shade of red on the waterfront, where 6.3 million people made a purchase in 2019. Those visitor figures dropped by at least 75% last year, according to preliminary numbers compiled by the Seattle Historic Waterfront Association.

Bob Donegan, a Waterfront Association board member and the president of Ivar’s Seafood Restaurants, said no business escaped last year’s perfect storm of problems, which also included the loss of 300,000 downtown workers; ongoing redevelopment that has cost parking; and the collapse of Pier 58, the public pier known as Waterfront Park. The company closed its Acres of Clams restaurant in September and the Pier 54 Ivar’s Fish Bar was the poorest-performing store of the 25 that remained open in the chain last year, with sales off more than 40%.

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Pedestrians walk past Ivar’s Fish Bar, located at 1001 Alaskan Way, on the Seattle waterfront. In 2020, the restaurant was the poorest-performing of the 25 Ivar’s chain stores that remained open, with sales off more than 40%. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times, 2019)
Pedestrians walk past Ivar’s Fish Bar, located at 1001 Alaskan Way, on the Seattle waterfront. In 2020, the restaurant was the poorest-performing of the 25 Ivar’s chain stores that remained open, with sales off more than 40%. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times, 2019)

“That’s not sustainable. They need rent relief,” Donegan said of the Waterfront Association’s more than 40 member businesses. “They need tax relief. They need everything. People can’t see a 75% drop in their revenue and survive.

“The sad thing is the organizations that will make it are the big, national chain organizations. What makes downtown Seattle, regional Seattle, the Seattle waterfront different is the goofy little local places. That’s what people like about being here and [those are] the ones that are going to have a hard time surviving, I believe.”

Those that have survived have done so using unconventional means to get by. Some have cut employees or reduced hours. Others have pivoted to new products or services to help fill in income losses. For many, it’s been just enough.

“We’re doing OK; we’re staying afloat,” said Jason Brown, an employee at Old Seattle Paperworks at Pike Place Market. “We have limited hours. We’re not open the full time like we used to be.” He said some neighboring businesses have been closed since March. Others have had to deal with the yo-yo effect of strict regulations. “I used to work in a restaurant. It’s just up, down, up, down, up, down. We couldn’t do that.”

Down the hall, Golden Age Collectables was so busy that an employee at the door was using a handheld tally counter to keep track of occupancy. It still wasn’t as crowded as any afternoon in 2019, though.

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“Cruise ships have always been a big part of our business,” said Tony Morigi, who has managed the store for 26 years. “We get lots of people from all over the country and all over the world that come in on the cruise lines, and it’s going to be a big hit this year.”

Morigi said the store is in a “hold-steady pattern” and has refocused on local customers as much as possible. Though the bottom line is at stake, Morigi, like some of his fellow businesspeople in the area, sees some sanity in the decision.

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“Do I think there should be more tourists right now? Probably not,” he said. “We’ll be OK. We’re going to get through this. It’s just going to be tough in the meantime.”

Remaining business owners hope the reopening of the Seattle Aquarium, the Great Wheel and Argosy Cruises, combined with another round or two of government assistance, will carry them through. But not everyone has made it. Anecdotal evidence shows a fair percentage of businesses have closed permanently or are on the verge of doing so.

Amy Klingler closed her tourist-centered Pier 55 boutique BeJeweled last August when it became clear there would be few visitors from farther away than Western Washington’s surrounding counties. Selling other products, going online and government assistance were really not good options for what was the only woman-owned business on the waterfront.

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“As much as I have always wanted to grow a local clientele, the actual Alaskan Way waterfront services tourists,” Klingler said. “And the locals that do come down are still in a tourist capacity. They’re either bringing family members who are visiting them or they’re being tourists for the day, touring the waterfront for an anniversary dinner or a birthday dinner.”

And they’re not really interested in a Seattle-themed gift like someone from another state or country might be. Klingler said news that the large-cruise season probably won’t happen means more trouble for small-business owners in the area.

“The deck is always going to be stacked against small businesses, and especially small businesses owned by women and people of color,” she said.

Donegan and his fellow business owners hope the federal government will grant an exception to the Passenger Vessel Services Act of 1886, or some other workaround, as Alaska’s U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan have called for. But until the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reverses its thinking on cruise ships, that move would likely get little support from their fellow members of Congress.

Donegan is all for whatever solution will allow even a partial cruise season this summer. He sees signs of trouble everywhere.

I walk around town all the time to watch what’s going on, and when I walked through the Market last week, for the first time in 30 years there was no line at Mee Sum Pastry,” Donegan said. “So I was able to walk right up and buy five buns. So I guess it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good, but those poor people, they should have 30 people waiting in line.”

Editor’s note: The story has been updated to clarify that Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan have called for “some … mechanism to allow Alaska cruises,” not necessarily an exemption to the Passenger Vessel Services Act.