It was a metropolis without people. Seattle’s Pike Place Market, the great public attraction, was absent a public. No stampede of awe-smacked tourists for locals to avoid. A convention center with no conventioneers.
Office buildings and businesses downtown shuttered. Roads all but empty, with buses that passed ghostlike, carrying few — if any — passengers.
The silence of a slowed city.
People stayed home, watching the COVID case numbers rise and waiting for someone to say it was safe to come out. Over time, they did.
Restrictions were rolled back, then reimplemented, then slightly tweaked until Wednesday, when finally most of the state’s remaining coronavirus restrictions were lifted. Washington, the state first state slammed by COVID-19, was the first to shut down and among the last to reopen.
Washington has been inching toward reopening for some time.
Crowds at restaurants and bars made a reappearance with lines stretched along streets with those eager to make up for missed times. Traffic congestion brought a taste of normalcy for those commuting to offices full-time or working hybrid, perhaps to the chagrin of those who never got to stay home.
It’s why the significance of the milestone was not equally felt everywhere or for everyone. For some, reopening came before this past week. For others, normalcy is still a long way away.
A ‘rebirth’ for some grandmothers
A turning point in a year of loss and pain happened in May for the grandmothers from Women United, a group that serves and supports women who are raising their grandkids.
Alesia Cannady, a kinship caregiver and the founder of the group, said she and the other women struggled with depression due to the isolation.
Like most of society, they turned to Zoom video calls to stay connected. They sewed masks at home for others to pass the time.
“I felt like we were locked up and that there was no key to get out,” Cannady said. “And I’m the group leader, so I had to kind of keep lifting them up and out of the depression they were going in.”
But the vaccine meant they were able to celebrate the seventh anniversary of their engagement center and her granddaughter Aleiyah’s birthday in person and mask-free. For Cannady, it meant they all felt a little bit safer embracing their kids, singing, dancing and being in community.
She called it a “rebirth.” But it’s all still new territory.
While most of the grandmothers and guests at the gathering were well into their second dose of vaccine and following the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations on gathering post-vaccination, many were still hesitant to shed their masks.
One grandmother felt the pain of losing friends to COVID-19 early on. Many of their grandchildren are still too young to get vaccinated, and others didn’t completely trust that being vaccinated meant they would all be OK.
Still, the group was hopeful things could finally start getting back to normal — and that was reason enough for the grandmothers to throw their masks in the air in celebration.
A fresh start
Misael Garcia stood under a black umbrella as he dutifully scraped every last bit of ice cream from the bottom of the chilled container into a plastic cup.
Garcia works in construction but had long hoped to sell homemade artisanal ice cream. Once the number of COVID-19 cases began to drop, and he and his wife, Maria del Carmen, got vaccinated, they felt it was the right time for a new start.
Garcia rolls his vendor cart around Beacon Hill every weekend and sets up shop in the corner of a local Mexican market.
They make the ice cream from scratch. For now, just vanilla — but there is a tentative plan to add other flavors and food to their menu.
“We would really like to expand what we have here into a permanent spot if our little business grows,” Garcia said. They are testing the waters but already, he said they have received good reviews.
Now that the state is fully reopening, Garcia said there’s a noticeable increase in foot traffic and people who stop to mull a decision: a scoop of vanilla, or a tamarind drink with crushed ice?
A city ready for tourists
Another sign of nature healing: Tourists have returned.
But rebound is slow and Seattle trailed several of its competitor cities in hotel room occupancy this spring. Tourism officials hope to see that pick up this summer.
Before Gov. Jay Inslee proclaimed reopening in dramatic fashion with a “Washington Ready” flag atop the Space Needle on Thursday, Fortuna Ngai and Nora Kim were visiting last week from Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.
They had planned to spend their few days in the Seattle area hiking, but instead, they ended up in line to get into Capitol Hill’s Hula Hula karaoke bar to escape the heat wave.
“I feel safe because I’m vaccinated … we just wanted to explore,” Ngai said.
But the vaccine was no magical elixir for confidence.
“I’m not good at singing,” Ngai admitted.
Hula Hula was still limited to 50% capacity as regulars Alina Legaspy and Jason Thompson spoke excitedly about the bar’s full upcoming reopening.
“Every week it gets busier and busier,” Thompson said.
Singers still wore face masks and the music stopped at midnight. Still, the bar was raucous with cheers and off-key singing until closing time.
“It feels like nature is healing,” said Legaspy, who closed the night with a rendition of “Hollaback Girl.”
A stadium of returning fans
It was 20 minutes before kickoff at the Seattle Sounders’ last home match, but Kevin Crooks and Corey Cooley weren’t in their seats just yet.
Resting against a pillar in the Lumen Field concourse, across from Section 139 and below the scowling face of Sounders’ striker Raul Ruidiaz, the siblings took in the atmosphere. It was their first game in 15 months.
“We’re excited to see our team because we’ve got a good team right now,” Cooley said.
They were among the 25,603 fans in attendance last Saturday as the Sounders played to a 2-2 draw against the Vancouver Whitecaps. Sounders midfielder Josh Atencio said it was the largest crowd he’d ever played for.
“That crowd felt awesome to play in front of,” he said. “The first two games were also huge to me, I don’t know anything different so it’ll be interesting, and it’ll be amazing to play in front of a full capacity crowd for sure.”
The Sounders returned with limited capacity on April 16. They were the last professional Washington sports team to play before the shutdown. Fans will be welcomed back at full capacity — 68,000 seats — for their home match Wednesday.
But not everyone was quite as ecstatic a week ago as Atencio, Crooks and Cooley. Kristen and James Amspacher have been to six Sounders home games this season and are season-ticket holders. With a 5-year-old who is too young to be vaccinated against COVID-19, they’re a bit anxious about bigger crowds.
Seattle Storm star Breanna Stewart said the whole team had counted down the days for the full return of fans. They won last year’s title in the WNBA bubble in Bradenton, Florida.
“To be able to have courtside seats, to be able to have more fans in the arena, it’s exciting,” she said. “This is one of the reasons why we play, the engagement with the fans … it’s crazy that we haven’t had that in a year and a half, two years.”
Despite the lingering worries about safety amid the pandemic, many seemed thrilled to return to a sense of normalcy in their stadiums. The feeling was perhaps best explained by fan Damien Villegas.
“It’s great to be back,” he said. “I’m seeing all my friends, it feels great. I’m so excited.”
Staff reporters Daniel Wu and Christine Clarridge contributed to this report.