Delta variant adds uncertainty to Seattle recovery
It’s a safe bet that the Delta variant won’t sink the economy – here or in most of the United States – as happened when the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the spring of 2020.
First, the worst damage to areas such as retail has already happened (nearly 500 street businesses have closed in downtown Seattle since January 2020). The survivors are strong and resilient (e.g. Pike Place Market; also 270 street-level businesses have opened downtown in the past year and a half).
Second, God willing, we won’t have another heinous act like the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, which led to massive civil unrest accompanying the pandemic. The delta-fueled surge won’t go side-by-side with the problems of Boeing’s 737 MAX, either.
Third, and most importantly, we have vaccines. So far, breakthrough infections have been rare for fully vaccinated people. It has given people confidence to travel again, which helps tourism recovery and exit. Cruise ships sail to Alaska. Airlines, hotels, restaurants and cultural events are recovering.
Masks and vaccines may be needed, but we’re unlikely to return to the worst of 2020.
All sure predictions beyond that are an invitation to come out on a limb with a crystal ball and wait for a sawing sound.
So what about a few markers to watch out for in the coming months:
Desks: It’s an argument that dates back to the early days of the pandemic and remote working. Will COVID-19 kill the traditional office or simply change it, leaving a hybrid of remote and office work? Or will the old office continue?
According to the Downtown Seattle Association tracking, about 25% of workers were in the central core office, as of July 18.. This compares to 76% on March 1, 2020.
Expect the Delta variant to slow down a return to the offices. Amazon and Microsoft will be influential here. Microsoft said last week it would require employees returning to the office to be vaccinated and pushed the date back by a month. Amazon announced Thursday that it was delaying the return of its tech and corporate workforce from September 7 to January 2022.
Online brokerage Redfin is indefinitely postponing the return of the office – at least as the delta variant plays out – and will require vaccines as well.
Ultimately, however, offices have advantages: business development is easier when you can meet clients face to face; corporate culture is easier to convey to the office; and they deliver superior creativity and productivity.
A larger ecosystem depends on offices. It goes from restaurants to public transport. Their fortunes will only reach their full potential when we get back to normal, including using employment centers.
Construction: Seattle spent much of the 2010s as the Crane Capital of America, a sign of the transformational building that has happened here. Will it continue?
Seattle has remained stable, according to Rider Levett Bucknall’s Crane Index at 43 cranes in the first quarter of this year, but behind Washington, DC, and tied with Los Angeles.
“Seattle’s crane count remains unchanged, with the residential sector accounting for the majority of cranes,” the report said. “Dozens of new projects are under construction, while more are nearing completion, ensuring a balanced construction forecast. To the north of the city, major public transport works are underway.
The residential growth of the downtown area compensates for the sluggishness of the offices. The core population reached over 98,000 on July 1, an annual increase of 4.4% and better than the citywide increase of 1.1%.
Construction employment in Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue was nearly 134,000 in June, more than before the pandemic.
Tourism and hospitality: This was one of the hardest hit areas during the pandemic, and as much as the mosses hate it, Seattle is a big tourist city. Will he come back?
Cruises to Alaska have resumed. More and more cruise passengers are demanding vaccines. According to the Visit Seattle shopping group, six lines have started selling their products. Norwegian Cruise Line will make its first cruise from the United States since the start of the pandemic, departing from Pier 66 on Saturday and is expected to continue until October.
Hotel occupancy here was in single digits last year. It reached 67.5% downtown and 69% in King County at the end of July. On July 23 and 24, a Friday and a Saturday, it reached 80% and more downtown.
Meanwhile, Visit Seattle hosted seven citywide convention site inspections and / or planning tours in July. According to the Downtown Seattle Association, the number of visitors had reached 85% of their pre-pandemic level.
But that was before the delta variant became widely known and constant reviews by authorities now dampen optimism about travel.
A farewell note: In the streets of the city center, I see more people and few wear masks. The Seattle Symphony is preparing to return to Benaroya Hall in the fall. The Mariners have 100% open seating at T-Mobile Park. Other restaurants are open. The Nordstrom flagship was busy when I visited this week.
Some other variables will also play into the recovery here beyond the delta. Among them are increasing crime and the hostility of the Seattle City Council majority to business.
Nothing is given. We will have to live with COVID-19. But please get vaccinated. It is our best weapon against this pandemic.