Seattle feels like 'ghost town,' business owners say as they face life in coronavirus hot spot

As the death toll in Washington climbed, Seattle's mayor declared a civil emergency and businesses braced for economic fallout.

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By Alicia Victoria Lozano

SEATTLE — It's not her birthday for another month, but Ruby Francisco has been singing "Happy Birthday" a lot lately.

She does it every time she washes her hands.

"That's what they said to do," said Francisco, who owns a jewelry store here. "I tell my grandchildren to sing when they wash their hands so they do it right."

This is life in the age of the coronavirus: sifting through rumors, feverishly following updates and doing whatever it takes to avoid the virus, which has infected more than 89,000 people worldwide and killed more than 3,100 of them.

In Seattle, bracing for the coronavirus also means preparing for what could be a devastating economic impact. Business owners and residents have already seen a drop-off in tourists in areas of the city that heavily depend on foot traffic.

"It's like a ghost town," Francisco said about the famous Pike Place Market where she has her shop.

Nine people in the United Stated have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus — all of them in Washington, which has reported 31 cases of the disease. Eight of the deaths were in an area of King County about 20 minutes from downtown Seattle, and one was in neighboring Snohomish County.

"This is a very fluid, fast-moving situation as we aggressively respond to this outbreak," Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer for Seattle and King County Public Health, said in a statement.

King County health officials said the concern is particularly high for people who are 60 and older or who have compromised immune systems. Children do not appear particularly susceptible to the virus, which originated in mainland China.

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As the death toll climbed Tuesday, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, a Democrat, proclaimed a civil emergency. The declaration allows her to bypass regulations to increase city spending, contracting and borrowing to address the growing public health threat. It will also allow her office to close facilities and cancel events to prevent the virus from spreading further.

Public spaces in Seattle are increasingly quiet amid a coronavirus outbreak in nearby Kirkland, business owners say.Alicia Lozano

"We know that our city will need additional resources from our state and federal government," she tweeted. "We are looking to our partners to increase the availability of testing in a way that does not overwhelm the health care system, but meets the growing need."

She also asked residents to do their part by practicing good hygiene and making contingency plans at home and work.

Community members say that the move suggests that local leaders are taking the threat seriously but that it also points to hard times ahead for businesses dependent on tourism and pedestrians.

"It's our public duty to help people who are vulnerable," Tiia-Mai Redditt of Seattle said Tuesday while shopping for hand sanitizer at a Target. The store had been sold out for days, an employee said, and Redditt worried about a friend with a lung condition. She had already tried a nearby Whole Foods and a Trader Joe's.

"I've never seen downtown so empty," she said, referring to the streets, not just the shelves.

Across the street at Pike Place Market, Francisco wiped down the countertop at her jewelry store, Ruby's Seattle Gift Gallery. She usually keeps two doors open for customers. On Tuesday, one stayed closed because she was worried about germs.

"It's so scary," she said. "I'm going to start praying not just for a cure, but for the families in mourning right now."

Francisco's store has been in the same small corner for 43 years, she said. Before that, her mother owned a novelty shop in another spot of the usually bustling shopping area. Millions of people visit Pike Place Market annually.

But the stalls are empty this week. Vendors aren't flinging fish to one another; instead, they're checking their phones or reading a book.

Public spaces in Seattle are increasingly quiet amid a coronavirus outbreak in nearby Kirkland, business owners say.Alicia Lozano

Down a normally crowded hallway, Market Magic & Novelty Shop also remained quiet. A family bought a small keepsake and then walked out. No one came in after.

"We're rethinking our business model, that's for sure," owner Sheila Lyon said. "People are scared. They don't want to be in public spaces."

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Since the coronavirus outbreak began, Lyon has been losing money most days. So has Francisco.

Lyon and her husband make up a little money on the weekends, but every day seems to bring fewer and fewer customers. As a result, Lyon, who has owned her business for 47 years, is turning to social media to entice customers. But even that comes with a caveat, she said.

"Our wholesaler gets his supplies from China," she said. "He told me he only has six months' worth of products left."

A lone pair of gloves inside a Kirkland Walgreens, less than a mile from nursing home where at least 6 people have died from COVID-19.Alicia Lozano

Lyon is worried about how the emergency declaration will affect her bottom line. King County has already canceled big events scheduled for this week, such as the Womxn's Day Speaker Series and the Cultural Crossroads Festival.

Across Lake Washington in Bellevue and Redmond, Microsoft canceled its Most Valuable Professional Summit. It will be held online, instead.

This is all bad news for business owners.

"We rely on them," Lyon said of the events.

Francisco, meanwhile, is rethinking a coming birthday cruise to Mexico. She feels lucky to have avoided infection while traveling to Egypt in December and wonders whether it's worth risking exposure to the coronavirus.

In Seattle, she's already avoiding many public places. She skips her morning jogs and warns her son to avoid the bus.

Like many other Americans, Francisco searched all weekend for hand sanitizer and masks. Costco, Target and Walgreens were all sold out, she said. Standing behind her counter at Pike Place Market, Francisco fought the urge to hug the first customer she'd had in hours.

"I like to hug," she said. "But, no offense, I just don't want to now."