For many Seattle-area small businesses, recent looting damage only adds to challenges of reopening

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This article was originally published in The Seattle Times on June 8, 2020.

When looters broke into the Simply Seattle shop near Pike Place Market two weekends ago, owner Jamie Munson tried to take the long view.

None of his employees had been hurt. Insurance was likely to help with broken windows and smashed cash registers. And while the damage meant he couldn’t open the shop last Friday, when King County allowed retailers and others to partly reopen, Munson doubts the delay will matter much, given the heavy restrictions and tough economic climate businesses will probably face for months.

“Trust me, we’re anxious to get open, and we need to get open, because we’re hemorrhaging cash,” said Munson, whose four Seattle shops have been completely idle since March. Still, he added, “that first week is not going to make or break your year. It’s already broken.”

That sort of weary pragmatism seems common among the scores of Seattle-area businesses swept up in the incidents of destruction that followed recent protests over police violence.

By latest count, vandals and looters struck more than 100 stores, restaurants, and other businesses in Seattle’s downtown, Belltown, Capitol Hill, and Chinatown-International District neighborhoods, according to the Downtown Seattle Association. Dozens more were hit on the Eastside, including 43 in Bellevue Square and neighboring shopping areas, according to a spokesperson for owner Kemper Development. Stores were also damaged in Auburn, Renton, Tacoma and other Puget Sound-area communities.

Like Munson, many owners of the hardest-hit businesses have been quick to voice support for the protests and to recognize the damage was carried out by a small fraction of those on the streets.

“Every night, I pray I won’t wake up to more bad news,” added David Leong, whose International District eatery, Fortuna Cafe 2.0, was also damaged in the looting.

And even undamaged businesses can’t be sure whether ongoing protests will scare off consumers. Rebuilding “public confidence when it comes to public safety [in shopping areas] that’s a tough gig right now,” said Doug Lein, economic development manager for the city of Auburn, where many downtown businesses were only just unboarding their windows Monday, a week after looters struck the area. “I think every single city is struggling with it.”

Quite aside from the looting and vandalism, area businesses faced unprecedented challenges in recovering from COVID-19.

For starters, public-health regulations mean shops, restaurants and others will, quite literally, see only a fraction of pre-pandemic sales. Under King County’s just-approved “phase 1.5” reopening plan, for example, restaurants can operate at just 25% of their indoor capacity and 50% of outdoor capacity. Retailers, meanwhile, are limited to 15% of their building occupancy, and customers can stay inside no longer than 30 minutes.

Anticipating those restrictions, some businesses were already reconfiguring operations in ways that all but guarantee lower sales volumes and extra costs — “touchless” curbside pickup, for example, and wider aisles (and less in-store shelving and inventory) to allow for social distancing.

But the restrictions weren’t the only obstacles to a resumption of pre-pandemic sales. With hundreds of thousands of Seattle-area residents still out of work, recession fears were likely to curb expenditures. And even some still-employed consumers were likely to remain anxious about activities in crowded settings, despite the all-clear from public-health officials.

Case in point: the cruise industry, which last year funneled thousands of visitors to the Seattle area, will likely be a shadow of its former self in 2020.

“That’s scary to think about that it’s just gone,” said Simply Seattle’s Munson. Although he expects consumers will still want to travel this summer, even if it’s only a road trip, he wonders: “Are people going to road trip into cities, where they have a greater chance of contacting the virus … or are they going to travel to mountain towns and the forests and just get out?” Obviously, he hopes it’s both — but he’s still “bracing for at least a 50% drop in sales.” 

Those uncertainties, coupled with the potential for a second wave of COVID-19 cases and a second shutdown, had already led many businesses to significantly lower their goals for 2020 and adopt strategies centered less on profit than on survival.

“This whole year is shot,” said Leong, who says he was already planning to stick with takeout only at Fortuna and his other eatery, SpiceUp Szechuan Cuisine in Belltown, for several more months rather than risk a full-scale reopening. Like other local business owners he knows, Leong fears that “if I have to hire another four or five people, and my sales only go up 10% but my overhead just went up 60% … I’ll be gone in two weeks.”

On one level, the looting was only the latest in a long list of costs — from rising rents and labor costs to street crime and homelessness — that some business owners say are making it increasingly difficult to stay in downtown Seattle or other urban cores.

But after the one-two punch of COVID-19 and the protests, even some businesses that survived the shutdown might not be able to get through a summer that is likely to be lean.

Minimizing such outcomes will take a broad effort not only by affected business communities. Governments also need to help battered businesses cope with near-term effects of the vandalism as well as the longer-term uncertainties of reopening, said the City of Auburn’s Lein.

In the near term, Lein says, local governments can help businesses make the most of partial reopening — for example, making it easier for restaurants to maximize outdoor seating capacity by quickly issuing city permits for use of sidewalks and other public rights of way.

Longer term, governments can help businesses secure federal disaster funding, says Don Blakeney, vice president of advocacy and economic development at the Downtown Seattle Association.

But governments will also need to address the issues at the core of recent unrest, including police violence and tensions between business’s need for security and the public’s right to protest. “It’s going to be hard and complicated, and that’s OK,” Blakeney said. “I think we can have a hard conversation about institutional racism, police brutality and other issues that we have to address as a society while … also talking about recovering the economy.”

Munson, for example, thinks the looting, which he blames on “people who co-opted the protest,” is unlikely to happen again, and he isn’t worried continued demonstrations will hurt business.

He and other business owners have also been buoyed by the outpouring of support after the looting, when a mix of city workers, volunteers, and others showed up to begin putting things to rights.

“I have to say, I saw so many people coming together, Black, white, all colors, young and old, to clean and scrub and help each other — it was a reassuring sight,” said Leong. “People are resilient, especially business owners,” he added. “We can heal.”