By Debra Russell and Jessica Tousignant
The lockdown was a necessary step in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, but we couldn’t predict what it would mean for businesses. Restaurant owners didn’t know what to expect.
We were so grateful when Seattleites stepped up and supported us by ordering food for takeout. You were patient and generous as we built an entirely new business model. It was a bumpy transition, but you reminded us that we’re all in this together. Even now, your takeout orders are keeping many of us afloat.
But we can’t forget that our members who are hanging on are the lucky ones. One of the most frustrating aspects of the current economic downturn is that we don’t have enough data to understand exactly how bad things really are. It’s unclear how many neighborhood businesses have closed permanently since March.
The clearest overview of the economic impact on businesses nationwide arrived in a recent report from Yelp, which showed that of all the businesses that closed since March , about 61 percent have now closed permanently. That’s 97,966 businesses wiped out nationwide. Due to the customer-driven nature of Yelp’s reporting, this almost certainly represents an undercount—and in Washington, the numbers are likely even worse.
When ordinary people don’t have enough money to spend at local businesses, those businesses don’t make enough money to stay open.
The Yelp data confirms what we have suspected to be true: We’ve already lost half the businesses that had to temporarily close for lockdown, and the rest are imperiled. A majority of Seattle’s neighborhood restaurants will likely close by the end of the year.
Let’s be clear: this isn’t on our customers. They’ve done more than their part to keep us afloat. But the people and organizations who are supposed to use their resources and visibility to stand up for and protect small business have been entirely absent.
Local leaders claimed we should wait for the federal government to lead the way in the economic response to the pandemic. But the US Senate adjourned for vacation until September 8 without any agreement on a new stimulus plan. Since the additional $600-per-week unemployment benefits written into the last stimulus package were allowed to expire, some of our members report business has dropped by as much as 25 percent. When ordinary people don’t have enough money to spend at local businesses, those businesses don’t make enough money to stay open.
For years, powerful business interests like chambers of commerce, the Washington Hospitality Association, and others have used small businesses as a political football. Today, small businesses are shuttering around Seattle, people are losing their jobs, and these same organizations have quietly looked the other way.
The federal government told states and cities that they’re on their own, and local leaders have failed to step up to fill the void. Mayor Jenny Durkan, for instance, vetoed the expenditure of emergency funds—as though this economic collapse isn’t the biggest emergency most Seattleites have ever seen. (The city council subsequently overturned that veto, but Durkan’s budget would reallocate the money for other purposes.)