Business owner says downtown Seattle hurting long before COVID-19 and riots

SEATTLE – Owning a business in downtown Seattle may require resilience, especially during these times of added stress the coronavirus pandemic, and most recently, riots have brought on.

COVID-19 has taken a toll on many local businesses, as King County has yet to move into Phase 2 of the Safe Start Washington plan. Though some recent protests against racism and police brutality have been peaceful, other protests turned into riots in Seattle.

Some downtown store owners said the activity is deterring customers. Other store owners said the impacts they are feeling started well before the health crisis.

Several panels of plywood are mostly seen covering the exterior of shops downtown. People who live and work in the area said they believe until businesses, cruises and sporting events reopen again, downtown will feel and look vacant for a long time.

“It’s really quiet. It’s really eerie,” said Nathan Motulsky, a downtown Seattle resident. “With all the windows boarded up it just feels not like a neighborhood. Just kind of like a ghost town sometimes.”

“With the COVID situation and the protests, there’s definitely less people downtown right now,” said Amber Nicholson, a downtown Seattle resident. “It’s different, it’s definitely not as exciting to be down here.”

The lack of excitement and people are two things business owners said they noticed before the coronavirus outbreak.

“It becomes mind numbing, quite frankly,” said Joey Rodolfo, owner of Buki.

Rodolfo said downtown tourism has struggled for a while. He said he believes people are afraid because of the long list of violent crimes in the area, including a January shootout near 3rd Avenue and Pine Street that killed one person and injured several others in January 2020.

“Just a real bad taste for people to come down here—deal with panhandlers, deal with everything that’s going on. And so, for us as retailers down here, we’ve been hanging on. And then COVID hits, and so we shut down,” said Rodolfo.

If the shutdown wasn’t bad enough, Rodolfo said recent riots that resulted in vandalism and looting made things worse. His store was ransacked – costing him thousands in lost merchandise, registers and equipment.

Rodolfo's shop, like many others in the area, had to be boarded up after the damages.

“It’s 3rd Avenue, 4th Avenue, you go down 5th Avenue and 6th Avenue here — it’s a sea of particleboard,” said Rodolfo.

“We went from being a beautiful city to now being panels and panels of particleboard and plywood. So, plywood is the new normal here. Boarding your windows is the new normal."

It’s a "new normal" that many said they don’t want to see any longer. However, the question now is will the good from the "old normal" ever return?

“Are we going to make it through? I know we’re going to make it through. But how we get out of it is what I can’t tell you. Nobody knows,” said Rodolfo.

King County is currently in Phase 1.5 of the Safe Start Washington Plan. Some business owners said while they’re waiting to move into the next step, they’re also waiting for window repair to fully reopen their stores. However, store owners mentioned they don’t know when those repairs will happen because there is a high demand for glass.