In March, as the number of coronavirus cases grew and outbreaks were reported throughout the Seattle area, Bill Montero and his family started feeling anxious about going to the grocery store or anywhere outside their home. Seeking fresh air and more open space, they first moved from their Shoreline townhouse to West Seattle. Then they packed their bags and headed to Seaside, a small city on the Oregon coast.
Montero has owned a home in Seaside for about 20 years, so the destination made sense to them. They could be close to the beach, in open spaces with fewer people. Most importantly, he noted, the incidence of the virus in the area was much lower than in Seattle.
“We felt much better,” Montero said from Seaside. “We are right by the ocean, tons of fresh air and a lot less people and traffic.”
As the Seattle area emerged as the nation’s first coronavirus epicenter in early March, thousands of Seattleites and other King County residents fled the region to vacation homes, relatives’ houses and out-of-state locales that boasted low density and virus rates.
Amid rising cases here, a significant number of people changed their moving plans or temporarily relocated because of the pandemic, a Seattle Times analysis of mail-forwarding requests to the U.S. Postal Service found.
The Seattle Times looked at requests filed by King County residents from March through June, broken down by original city of the requester and the state where the mail was sent. Because most requests were from Seattle, the data is broken down further for Seattle addresses to include cities with 11 or more requests.
Even with shelter-in-place orders, there were more requests in 2020 compared with the same time period in 2019. The increase was most pronounced in March; requests jumped 30%, to 31,504 requests from throughout King County.
Dozens of responses from current and former King County residents illustrate a wide range of reasons why they left during the early months of the pandemic: An employee at a large tech company was able to work remotely with few glitches, so he left his cramped studio for a house in Palm Springs, California. A contract worker’s projects were all canceled, so she moved to a cheaper apartment in Tacoma. A couple, worried about being away from their aging parents on the East Coast for an extended period of time, relocated to Boston.
The most popular out-of-state destinations — Portland, Los Angeles, San Francisco — remained at the top of the list both years. But in 2020, spots popular with snowbirds and tourists crept up higher. For Seattle residents, San Diego was the second most popular out-of-state city, while Scottsdale, Arizona; Las Vegas and Honolulu, Hawaii, broke into the top 20. New York moved further down the list.
The requests weren’t just from residents moving permanently or opting for a temporary setting — some came from retirees who would normally have returned to the Seattle area in spring but prolonged their stay at their winter residence. Gail Yates, a Seattle resident who has a home in Scottsdale, stayed in Arizona for two extra months.
“In the beginning there was confusion and questioning, but the clear message was to shelter in place when you’re over 65 and have underlying conditions, and I have asthma,” Yates said. “That was my personal concern.”
Within Washington, requests to forward mail to Puget Sound islands and the San Juan Islands soared. In spots like Lopez Island, which has about 2,000 year-round residents, the early months of the pandemic felt like summer, when the population surges, said Barbara Marrett of the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau.
Soon, the grocery store shelves were bare and some islanders were vocal in their concerns about others bringing the virus there, depleting medical resources. Fortunately, those concerns were largely unrealized; San Juan County has had 29 COVID-19 cases and no deaths.
“What was interesting was it happened really, really quickly,” Marrett said, “When the governor pretty much shut things down, people just raced here.”
On Camano Island, another island popular for vacation homes, the rush was delayed a few months, then the housing market exploded, according to Kerri Jones, a real estate agent and Camano Chamber of Commerce treasurer. The market has remained hot; Jones said this time last year there were 100 homes for sale, this year, there are fewer than 50.
“In May and June, all the people realized this wasn’t going to change any time soon,” she said. “People want to get away, and this is the place for them to do it.”
Not everyone welcomed visitors with open arms. Bend, Oregon, another popular spot for Seattleites, issued and then extended an order discouraging travel to the city to Oct. 26, to slow the spread of the virus and prevent its medical system from becoming overloaded. Cities throughout the U.S. enacted temporary bans on short-term rentals through platforms like Airbnb and VRBO. Hawaii has largely shut down tourism until mid-October, at the earliest.
Meanwhile, New York, which surpassed Seattle in cases in the spring and became a new epicenter, had one of the greatest drops in mail-forwarding requests from Seattleites from 2019 to 2020. Between March and June 2019, there were 307 requests to forward mail from Seattle to an address in New York City, Brooklyn or Jersey City. In the same time period of 2020, as the pandemic took hold of both areas, the number decreased to 119.
By the time Yates decided to return to Seattle from Scottsdale, Arizona had surpassed Washington by about 2,000 positive cases. Arizona now has more than twice the number of positive cases as Washington, with 218,000 as of late September. She’s noted that the Seattle residents she has encountered are far more compliant with face masks and social distancing than residents in Arizona.
“There was no question I made the right decision, and I think I got out just in time,” she said. “I feel safer here.”