Seattle is not a “ghost town” but Capitol Hill’s booming food, drink, and nightlife economy is preparing to take a hit as the neighborhood’s small business owners are also trying their best to help keep their teams healthy and working.
To a large section of industry workers, tips play a significant role in their weekly pay. “We’re concerned if people decide not to go out” says Witness and Olmstead owner Gregg Holcomb, “the 2017 wildfires affected us and we made it through that, so I think we can handle this.”
Health officials Wednesday issued a new roster of recommendations for people in the Seattle area to help slow the spread of COVID-19. One recommendation suggested avoiding gatherings of more than 10 people. It is becoming increasingly clear that the effect will be felt throughout Capitol Hill’s local economy.
“It’s a slim margin” says Diana Adams of Vermillion, “but we plan on staying open and available.”
Robin Wehl, owner of Hello Robin, is already experiencing the effects after having lost two major sales because of canceled orders for company meetings that were changed to teleconferences.
Wehl is also noticing a lack of foot traffic in the evening and although she’s thoughtful of the effect on her business, “I’m concerned about our elderly community. I’ll be fine, my kids will be fine, but it’s those that are already sick or elderly that keeps me up at night”.
Employee health is also a priority. While paid sick leave is a requirement in Seattle, it takes significant employment history to gain those valuable days off to rest and keep infection rates low. An employee gains one hour of sick leave for every 40 hours worked. That’s 320 hours, or two months, to gain one paid, eight hour sick day.
You’ll have to work 10 months, at 40 hours a week, to gain one week of paid sick leave. Paid Sick Leave accrual time is required to be given to employees monthly, most appearing on paycheck stubs.
Wehl has had one employee call in sick which caused her to “scramble to find someone.” There is no way of knowing how those costs will add up.
Miki Sodos, owner of Cafe Pettirosso, says she has reached out to employees to share as much information as possible.
“We put out an email regarding tactics that we can use to combat the virus. We supplied them with multiple online sources from King County and Public Health,” she said. “We always want to make sure our guests feel safe and taken care of when they are here, especially in this situation. We have instructed our staff to regularly sanitize all surfaces, door handles, bathrooms, tables, and wait stations, as well as proper handwashing technique.”
None of the business owners CHS spoke with had heard of any possible cost absorption by their business insurance regarding a possible pandemic. Evan Silver, a real estate agent with State Farm, wasn’t sure what kind of insurance claim a business could make in regards to the coronavirus, but said that the issue is being discussed in the industry. “Unfortunately, communicable disease is not a covered peril for business income. We will of course be covering the wages for any employee that needs to take the time off for sick time,” says Sodos.
UPDATE 3/6/2020: Some better news for small business owners arrived Thursday with approval of a bipartisan $8.3 billion emergency spending package in Congress. President Donald Trump signed the bill Friday morning. Included in the bill is $1 billion in subsidies to support a $7 billion loan program for small businesses hit by the coronavirus outbreak.
Federal programs make two types of loans available to businesses impacted by natural disasters. There are loans for things like structural damage and losses. There are also loans for broader economic impacts that are often put to use by farmers and agricultural industries.
The new loan effort will focus on the economic element of the response to COVID-19. It includes some $20 million to administrate the program. China and Italy have also already made similar pledges of support for small businesses and restaurants hit hard by the spread of the virus.
Democrats who helped shape the bill are lauding its passage. “This package includes nearly $1 billion for local public health agencies. I am hopeful the United States Senate will act with urgency so that our outstanding public health experts in Washington have the resources and support they need to protect our community,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal said. “I am so grateful to our local agencies, first responders and frontline health workers for their tireless efforts to keep our region safe.”
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan voiced her praise for the financial support Thursday as Vice President Mike Pence visited Washington to address the coronavirus emergency. “This funding will be critical, and I will work with our Congressional delegation to ensure these funds are released as quickly as possible to stabilize our small businesses who are already skating on razor thin margins,” Durkan said in a statement.
Key for Seattle businesses hit hard by the outbreak and any downturns in revenue will be having enough cash — or enough credit — until the loan program is in place and the first low interest loans are written.
Personal responsibility will have to be part of overcoming the situation around COVID-19. In the face of a global pandemic, washing your hands can make a significant difference. When it comes to local business, they say their health code practices are making them “one of the safest places to be” according to Holcomb.
“We maintain a strict health code following the requirements set out by King County. We wear gloves and wash our hands on a regular basis.”
Business owners are doing a lot of emergency preparation work themselves, looking up information to share with employees.
Wehl of Hello Robin is using information from the cookie shop’s health insurance provider, Kaiser Permanente, to keep updated on best practices. “We’re washing our hands more than ever, wiping down high touch areas like countertops, door handles, and the iPad and changing bleach water more than what’s required.”
Seattle and King County Public Health officials are not currently suggesting school closures and officials haven’t yet required cancellation of large activities which is good news for Capitol Hill’s nightlife and restaurant industry.
“I’ve seen accounts on Ballard Facebook groups where a cafe wasn’t accepting cash because of coronavirus fears, that’s ridiculous and classist,” Adams said.
“It is Seattle Cocktail Week so we are preparing for a busy week at Rumba,” Travis Rosenthal tells CHS. “Summer is usually the busiest months for Rumba and Agua Verde Cafe, so if we sense sales are not picking up, we will just hire less summer help and keep our core staff busy.”
In the meantime, “our staff understand to call in sick if they aren’t feeling well,” Rosenthal said.
While staying home may be what’s necessary to help control infection rates, the effect on local business will be felt especially by hourly employees.
Capitol Hill’s District 3 representative Kshama Sawant has called on Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine to use emergency funds “so anyone with respiratory illness can visit a doctor without fear of medical bills.”
“Without Medicare for All, there is the serious danger that thousands of people in our community may contract coronavirus, but never have it diagnosed or receive care, because they cannot afford the doctor’s visit,” Sawant said.
While acknowledging that one city or county cannot provide medicare for all, Sawant’s proactive approach may reduce costs in the long run. “Saving lives is the paramount question always for those of us who are fighting for a just society,” she said. “But we have a completely inhumane and anarchic for-profit ‘health care’ system that creates billionaires and kills tens of thousands every year in the richest country.”
Meanwhile, Capitol Hill’s food, drink, and nightlife workers are talking. “We have our own messaging system” Holcomb tells CHS, “our employees know what’s going on.”
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