Seattle small businesses pinched as virus keeps workers home

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In this March 6, 2020 photo, bus, bike, pedestrian and car traffic is light on Pike St. in downtown Seattle at 5:20 pm during the Friday evening commute. Many of the region's big employers, including Microsoft and Amazon, have started asking workers to stay home and work remotely, and while the closures may help prevent the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, it also throws restaurants, shops and hotels into uncertainty. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

SEATTLE, Wash. – The coronavirus outbreak has largely emptied Seattle's usually busy downtown streets after Amazon and other companies told tens of thousands of people to work from home. That means far fewer customers for restaurants, shops and other businesses.

The Seattle area is dealing with the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the country, with at least 24 deaths, and businesses are bracing for the cascading effect of losing customers for the foreseeable future. Hotel bookings dropped as big conventions, including the Emerald City Comic Con, were canceled or postponed.

“You can see it and feel it on the streets. You can see it in restaurants and hotel lobbies," said Jon Scholes, president and CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association.

Scholes said the downtown street outside his window was nearly completely empty late last week. He watched a normally crowded bus drive by with almost no passengers.

The Whole Foods Market in the heart of Amazon's Seattle campus also was barely filled with customers Monday morning, when lines of shoppers usually crowd checkout lines.

In addition to Amazon, other employers have told people to telecommute. Amazon, however, has said it will keep paying the hourly workers who staff many food, cleaning and other services on its campuses even while they are largely empty. The tech giant has become the poster child of rising rents and increasing income inequality in Seattle — but Amazon's tens of thousands of employees also make up a huge portion of customers for small shops and restaurants who rely on their business to stay afloat.

In Seattle’s famed Pike Place Market, foot traffic has slowed enough that sales have dropped about 30% from last year’s numbers at popular breakfast and lunch spot Bacco Cafe, owner Heong Park said.

Park’s two restaurants in the market — Bacco and Chan — are hurting. But Park is optimistic people will start emerging from their homes after getting over the initial shock of the virus spreading in their community.