Elizabeth Williams has been in the food and restaurant business for 18 years. She owns Loredos Grill in Lower Queen Anne. She also co-runs a catering business called The Extra Ingredient Event Co. Just last month, Williams and her partner signed a five-year lease for a catering facility in Northlake Union.
That was bad timing, to say the least. The coronavirus, or COVID-19, outbreak in this region has dried up any catering business for the foreseeable future.
"It’s left us with a March full of holes in the business," Williams told The Stranger. "All of our corporate clients, school auctions, social events, and memorials—those clients have chosen to cancel."
Within the last week, Seattle has been hit hard and fast by COVID-19. As the threat grew more dire, local officials urged sick people and vulnerable populations to stay inside and recommended limiting public gatherings to 10 people. Just this past weekend, Gov. Jay Inslee said that he was looking into mandatory measures related to social distancing. The governor's office and the Washington State Department of Health have stayed mum about what those measures could be or when they could be announced.
While Chinatown and International District restaurants have reported a 40 to 60 percent drop in attendance, other restaurants have yet to see a big hit to clientele numbers. Still, they're preparing for if, or when, it happens. Many have already begun implementing new marketing strategies to quell the fears of paranoid customers or are urging people to at least order take-out.
"Our worst fears have not come true yet," Jeremy Hardy, a co-owner of Mioposto, told The Stranger. "But [coronavirus] certainly is here."
As soon as he saw the news out of Wuhan in early January, Hardy said he started "squirreling away every penny" he could. The worst that could happen is a full shutdown, like what's happening in Italy right now, and Hardy isn't sure how to prepare for that. All he can do is try to limit spending, take care of his staff, and get people to buy food.
Hardy's restaurants are situated in neighborhoods where many workers who are now working from home are located, he said, so numbers aren't low yet. However, none of his staff can work from home.
Hardy is shutting the restaurant down for an hour each day this week to do staff training on best practices—cleaning, washing hands, safety, etc. He thinks the staff probably knows the information by heart by now but the meetings have turned into a place for "people to air out their concerns and fears and talk about them."
Still, his servers can't do their jobs remotely, they can't even do them from six-feet away; they're not able to be socially distant like the DOH is recommending. Mioposto is offering its staff five paid sick days if anyone falls ill. They also pay for health insurance. If things get bad—or, worse—Hardy doesn't know what will happen.
"Restaurants are already suffering," Hardy said. "The challenge is really we have 110 employees and many of them have families and all of them have rent to pay. If we are not able to provide income that’s a huge problem."
In the meantime, Mioposto is going to start online takeout orders and curbside pick-up options. They had curbside pick-up 15 years ago in their Mount Baker location but that didn't work out after someone in the neighborhood complained about Mioposto using city curb space for its own gain. That should start this week unless the same software glitch that's been bugging them since last Thursday doesn't get solved. UPDATE: It got resolved! Curbside pick-up at Mioposto is a go.
Hardy has not heard anything from the Board of Health, from the city, or the state.
"I don’t know what the city can do," He said. "I wish I did. I think transparency from the federal government would be a start."
The city is trying to come up with a game plan to help small businesses. Bobby Lee, the director of the Office of Economic Development, told the Seattle City Council last week they were "trying to find ways to provide more relief in terms of licensing and tax, potentially" for small businesses. Today, Deputy Mayor Mike Fong told the council that could look like limiting B&O taxes for small businesses.
The city is expected to announce plans for small business relief sometime on Tuesday, according to a spokesperson with the mayor's office.
That could help businesses like Williams's.
She waived catering cancellation fees and offered rescheduling dates down the line in summer for her clients who canceled their March events. But, she doesn't know what will happen then. Her business is based on people gathering and, for now, because of fear surrounding COVID-19 and government suggestions on limiting public gatherings to 10 people or fewer, people aren't gathering.
"People are putting off their special occasions," Williams said. "They're in a holding pattern. They don't want to pick a wedding date, they just don't know."
The wait-and-see approach is tough for Williams, who is trying to figure out how she will pay the rent on her new 4,000-square-foot event space come April. According to her, the local food and restaurant industry has come together to brainstorm what they can do now and what they will do if things get worse.
"We’ve all begun discussing what kind of concessions maybe our landlords can make for us," Williams said. They're asking their landlords for discounted rent for three to six months. Her landlord was receptive to her request but hasn't said anything yet about whether it will happen. Amazon announced last week that it would subsidize one month's rent for the small businesses hosted in its buildings.
Restaurants all over are urging customers to visit. Tom Douglas Restaurants just sent out an email asking people to visit or eat out or take one of their new cooking classes. The Pink Door has done the same. Tamari Bar on Capitol Hill just started offering takeout. Its sister restaurant, Rondo, is offering 20% off takeout deliveries.
Blu Water Grill in Leschi is giving people free Emergen-C packets with any glass of water. It's a time to pivot to the consumer but also "engage people in conversation like, 'Hey we’re also doing these other preventative steps,'" Bart Evans, Blu Water Grill's owner, told The Stranger.
"It’s created anxiety in me," William said. "This is an industry that I’m in love with. I love planning events and executing events. For me, it creates a sort of void. You think how can you bounce back and make some money during this time and there’s no replacement for special occasions and there is nothing else. You can't transfer that industry to anything else."