SEATTLE – Lesli Conti slides a tray of lemon tarts from her convection oven and sets them on the counter for the customers she suspects won’t be coming through the door today.
It’s 2 p.m. on a Friday, prime afternoon coffee-and-snacks time for the tens of thousands of Amazon workers who would ordinarily be streaming into Conti’s Café Suisse, across the street from the world headquarters of the online retailer. But based on credit card receipts, her sales are down 50% from a normal day, when regulars stop in for café mochas, muffins and croissants imported from France.
“I think we are in the shock phase right now, and we have to get used to the new normal,” she says as she places blueberries atop the still-warm tarts and the smell of pastry fills the small room decorated with Swiss cowbells and maps.
Outside, the streets would normally be swarming with Amazonians, their yellow ID badges swinging from blue lanyards, picking up snacks from the parked food trucks, getting hair cuts, buying flowers, hailing Ubers and hopping onto shuttle buses.
This is not a normal day.
This is Day 2 of a new coronavirus policy across Seattle and King County, where public health officials have recommended that people work from home if possible. They are also recommending that people with pre-existing conditions – such as heart or lung disease or diabetes – and anyone over the age of 60 avoid large crowds at concerts, sporting events and social gatherings.
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Public health officials said stopping the spread of the coronavirus will take more than masks and hand-washing. Keeping people apart will play a major role in “flattening the curve” of the infections, they say.
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The impact of the “social distancing” recommendations was immediate. Amazon has about 50,000 workers in the Seattle area, and Microsoft, Twitter and other tech companies with offices in Seattle all immediately adopted the county’s recommendations.
Rush-hour traffic dropped off dramatically, followed by restaurants trimming their hours, hotels dropping room prices as guests canceled and tourists avoiding hot spots such as the Seattle Public Market. Store shelves have been emptied of cold medicines, hand sanitizer and toilet paper.
Some schools have already closed, even though young people seem to be at less risk from the virus, which causes the illness known formally as COVID-19. Starting Monday, all schools in the Northshore School District, north of Seattle, will hold classes remotely, as will be classes at the University of Washington, which serves nearly 60,000 students.
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The first case of coronavirus in the United States was found Jan. 19 in a man living just north of Seattle, who developed symptoms after visiting family in Wuhan, China, where the outbreak was first reported. As of Sunday, there were 515 confirmed U.S. cases, according to a Johns Hopkins coronavirus dashboard.
More than 100 cases are in the state of Washington, 71 in King County alone. Of the 17 deaths reported in King County, 14 are associated with Life Care Center, county officials said.
Seattle a city on edge
Across the city, there’s a growing fear of both the illness and the steps being taken to fight it.
Business owners worry health officials are scaring the public, aided by a media all-too-happy to highlight deaths and repeat scary-looking images of people in face masks walking the streets. Voters worry the federal government is in over its head. And tourists are wondering if they’re doing the right thing, regardless if they’re canceling their plans or maintaining them.
This isn’t like a hurricane or a snowstorm – natural disasters that you can watch unfold on radar or as the skies darken. Nor is it like a mass shooting, which takes place in a short time and then is conclusively over.
Instead, it’s a slow-moving and largely invisible situation requiring people to put a great deal of trust in their government at a time when trust in government has fallen to near-historic lows. Most people don’t even know anyone who is sick, and many residents say the measures seem overblown.
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“I don’t know if it’s going to be terrible – I’m trying to balance what I hear with what I’m seeing in town,” Conti says. “I don’t trust that the federal government knows what it’s doing, but I do trust the state. It’s not Wuhan 2.0 here, you know?”
State and county officials have been trying to reassure residents that their plans are reasonable and measured, and have also reminded everyone that diseases like this spread without regard for race. Some Asian businesses say they’ve been criticized by would-be clients over a perceived connection to Wuhan.
“This is a challenging time for our region and our community,” county health officials said in a statement last week. “We detected the first cases here, and we are among the first to roll out these strategies to try to reduce the spread. It’s crucial that we stand ready to support one another, show compassion and find ways that we can all help to reduce the impacts to our community.”
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The impact of what’s happening in King County may have broader consequences, too – it’s home to 10 of the country’s largest companies, from Amazon and Microsoft to Costco, Starbucks and lumber supplier Weyerhaeuser. Other major employers include Boeing, which employs about 65,000, and the University of Washington.
South of Seattle, one of the most visible consequences of the growing infection was the decision by county officials to buy an 85-bed Econolodge motel to use as an emergency quarantine site. Local officials in Kent, the town where the hotel sits, have filed an emergency restraining order to prevent it from opening.
Across the street from the hotel, the bowling balls are still rolling down the hardwood at Kent Bowl. Like many business owners, the bowling alley’s managers worry officials’ efforts to control the spread of coronavirus will hurt their bottom line.
So far, customers are still coming in, including the seniors who pay $8 to play three games during morning sessions starting at 9 a.m. The bowling alley is licensed to hold more than 300 customers, putting it squarely on the list of large public venues such as theaters and malls that might be forced to shut if the outbreak worsens.
“If it hits the movie theaters and then the state comes for us, what can we do? Any way you look at it, it’s not good for us,” says co-owner Robert Tegtmeyer, 51. “It’s scary for everybody.”
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Tegtmeyer says he’s worried about who is going to be quarantined at the converted hotel, and whether health officials will be locking those people up, or allowing them to move freely around the community, potentially spreading the infection in places it wasn’t already present.
‘We need to keep some perspective’
Public health officials say COVID-19 infections appear to kill people at a higher rate than the flu, which last year led to the deaths of about 34,200 Americans. While accurate statistics don’t yet exist, the World Health Organization says 20% of people who contract COVID-19 require hospitalization, and that the mortality rate so far appears to be 3-4%, although that’s based on incomplete numbers and may ultimately be far lower. The 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that killed at least 50 million people worldwide had a death rate of about 2.5%, according to officials.
Last week, President Donald Trump tried to calm nerves while touring the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, but he simultaneously slammed Washington state’s Democratic governor as a “snake” because the two have been political rivals.
The president also signed a $8.3 billion emergency spending plan to help with coronavirus efforts, spurred in part by the Washington state deaths, but has been widely criticized by health officials for downplaying the risk.
“I’m not a Pollyanna. I just think we need to keep some perspective,” Conti says of the possible severity. “But I don’t want to be like the president, with my head in the sand.”
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In Kirkland, Wash, the Life Care Center is the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. At least 11 people living at the facility have died from the disease, and federal authorities have begun assisting with care and infection control there.
Friday, a visibly frustrated Charlie Campbell, 61, told reporters that his elderly father appears to have coronavirus after a brief stay there.
Campbell says his father recently had a stroke, was hospitalized nearby and then was transferred to Life Care Center for recovery. Campbell says his father was about to be transferred to a different hospital, where he expected him to be tested. Like many people with family members at Life Care, Campbell says he’d struggled to get clear information from either his father or the staff: “It’s real hard to communicate with him through a pane of glass.”
Daily life goes on for many
While Campbell fretted about his father in Kirkland, eleven miles southwest in Seattle, tourists and workers are crowding into the Pike Place Market, where the fishmongers of Seattle Fish Market are still tossing around salmon, the food samples are free and the flowers grown in the nearby Snoqualmie Valley are in full bloom and ready for sale.
Marketplace managers have opened up sinks as public hand-washing stations, and the few people wearing face masks received wide berths from other tourists.
“Everybody is just going the best they can – we’re not too worried about it yet,” says Nikkie Cha, 25, of Blong’s Gardens, which grows butter-yellow daffodils and other flowers in Fall City, Washington. “I still want to talk to people for customer service, just not to get too close.”
Alongside her worked dozens of other growers from the same region, mostly Hmong farmers whose families settled in the area starting in the 1980s. A few wore masks as they worked, pulling cut flowers from buckets to make colorful bouquets.
After carefully selecting and wrapping a dozen pink tulips, Cha handed the bundle to customer Jacob McLean, 24, who says he’s not worried about being in public right now. The risk, he says, seems low. And then he adds, “But I’m being very careful with my hands.”
Tourist Jazmine Adame, 27 says she’s not worried, either, despite the government warning to avoid crowds. Adame, a health care administrator from California who was visiting her cousin who lives near Seattle, said she had no concerns about being in the public market with so many people. “It’s what we do every day,” she says. “Wash our hands and wear gloves.”
Back in Kent, county workers immediately painted over the EconoLodge sign after taking possession of the building, and an American flag waved in the light morning breeze next to the blacked-out sign as a worker with a clipboard walked through the parking lot. It wasn’t immediately clear whether county officials had moved in any people to be quarantined
Earlier, across the street, Tegtmeyer picked up a pack of face masks stashed behind the bowling alley counter. He bought them weeks ago, he said, to do some touch-up painting, and customers have remarking on them as they come in to bowl.
“They were kind of a joke at first,” he said. “I guess it’s not really funny now.”