Washington leaders made a weighty decision to combat coronavirus by shutting down a large portion of the state’s economy, by suspending large gatherings in the Puget Sound region and imposing other safety measures last week.
There was no choice. This was the regional equivalent of a self-employed person deciding they must stop working until their health improves, even though it means lost income. It is short-term pain for longer-term success and survival.
Uncertainty is the norm until more extensive testing provides a clearer picture of the infection’s spread and treatments are available. Economists are in the dark, hopeful that economic growth resumes after a few months, but unsure of the outlook and impacts until they learn more about the spread and see monthly tallies of tax collections.
Caring for health and safety remains the top priority. The loss of our friends, family and neighbors to COVID-19 and its impact on the health-care system will be the greatest tragedy of this pandemic.
Simultaneously, the Greater Seattle area, the state and nation must work to overcome the economic shock. Optimistically, transmission rates will level off or slow within months, potentially by early summer.
Financial aid is needed for those harmed by the economic sacrifice. Targeted support is particularly needed for workers and small businesses that don’t have resources to weather this storm.
Congressional leaders including U.S. Sen. Patty Murray were right to pursue emergency paid sick leave, authorized at the federal level. Additional support for nutrition and unemployment programs are going to be necessary.
An array of small-business supports are being offered, including extensions of state and Seattle tax and utility payments. After President Donald Trump shamefully waffled about the severity of the crisis, he then ordered $50 billion of low-interest Small Business Administration loans and declared an emergency Friday. Seattle is offering $1.5 million worth of direct grants to small businesses that will help some but cover just a small fraction of losses.
Expectations of relief should be tempered because it’s impossible to offset all impacts of what will be a national crisis.
Regional and state leaders should also be planning how to resume growth and avoid long-term harm from the Seattle area being the U.S. outbreak’s epicenter.
The Puget Sound region is well positioned to rebound. Its economy is anchored by global companies with resources to get through a downturn. They are also proving to be tremendous neighbors, with first Microsoft, then Amazon and others pledging to keep paying hourly employees as activities are suspended. Their support of thousands of workers means the state has more resources to help those displaced from smaller companies.
How much other regions of Washington suffer is an open question. As the most trade-dependent state, with 40% of jobs tied to international commerce, it’s especially vulnerable to a prolonged global disruption and recession. Trade with China was already affected by the trade war and suspension of Boeing’s 737 MAX production.
Retail, hospitality and tourism businesses are especially hard hit. They were already under pressure, particularly in downtown Seattle, from high costs, industry shifts and unchecked criminal activity. Foreign tourism, particularly from China, is at a standstill and conventions that would have brought more than $30 million of spending in March and April are canceled.
Seattle will need to double down on restoring the vibrancy of downtown and other retail businesses. They are essential to quality of life and reviving a tourism industry that last year drew 41.9 million visitors who spent $8.1 billion in visitor spending and supported 80,317 jobs.
Another serious concern is the state’s diverse agriculture industry with harvest season beginning with asparagus next month in the Columbia Basin.
There is no avoiding the economic harm this pandemic will cause.
But the Puget Sound region, the state and the nation are strong and resilient. They can and must continue finding ways to blunt the immediate economic pain, get through the illness and prepare for a return to health and prosperity.