Every day during a normal work week, thousands of Tacoma residents commute north to jobs in King County. But the last couple work weeks have been anything but normal.
The outbreak of the novel coronavirus has turned life upside down in the Puget Sound region, as Gov. Jay Inslee and health officials continue to take extraordinary measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new strain of coronavirus.
Still, even before the governor closed all schools and banned gatherings of more than 250 people statewide, small business owners in Tacoma’s Freighthouse Square already noticed an alarming drop in patrons.
“Right now the foot traffic you’re seeing here is unreal,” Brandon Thrasher said on a recent weekday around 7:30 a.m., what would typically be the morning rush of commuters passing through on their way to the northbound Sounder train.
Thrasher helps run his family’s small coffee stand located next to double doors that lead to the train’s platform. “Usually you’re going to see people going in and out of the Sounder consistently, constantly,” he said. “Right now there’s basically no one.”
Freighthouse Square, a historic market filled with retail shops and restaurants, attracts its share of nostalgic regulars who go out of their way to wander across the worn wooden floors. But it's clear that commuters, particularly those who pass through on the way to and from work in Seattle, generate a lot of income for these small business owners.
According to WorkForce Central, Pierce County’s workforce development organization, more than 100,000 Pierce County residents commute to King County for work. And during an average weekday, roughly 17,000 commuters board the Sounder at stations across the Tacoma-Seattle corridor. Tacoma, the county’s largest city, contributes a healthy percentage of those totals, though ridership data isn’t available by individual station.
Scott Thompson, a spokesman with Sound Transit, told KNKX Public Radio last week that the agency was experiencing a 10-20 percent drop in ridership system-wide. He says the trend is likely to continue, as Seattle’s biggest companies are urging their employees to work remotely.
Thrasher says that if the sharp decline in customers continues for a month — a likely possibility given the current social-distancing requirements — it could have lasting impacts on his family’s coffee stand. Two months, he added, could force them to shut down.
“Most pop and mom shops are going to feel the pain,” said Thrasher, whose family has owned their business for 11 years. “A lot of people are going to be in some very dire situations.”
Edela Hernandez says her Mexican restaurant also relies heavily on commuter customers. As long as commuting traffic is down, business is down, she says: “It’s what it is right now.”
Benita, owner of the gift shop Adorned Abode, says she’s prioritizing her customers’ health.
“I’ve been reminding people who come in my shop to wash their hands,” said Benita, who didn’t want to disclose her last name. “My hand sanitizer is so low, but I made some last night.”
Jamie McCormack owns Moon Shadow Collective, a metaphysical shop that offers reiki and chakra balancing as well as tarot card readings. Her business, just a few steps from Thrasher’s coffee stand, has been inside Freighthouse Square for about six months. She worries about the long-term impact of the lull in commuter foot traffic.
“What we’re doing right now is trying to come up with some virtual opportunities to connect with our clients,” McCormack said.
She recently arranged to stream a distance healing talk through Facebook. She can offer readings and classes online, too. But that can only take the business so far, especially if the retail side of the operation takes a hit.
“If enrollment goes way down, I give us a couple of months,” she said. “This could be pretty devastating for us.”
Despite the hardship, McCormack stressed, her top priority is the health and safety of her clients.
“I would rather meet you in three weeks when you’re well than have you feel compelled to come out and shop,” she said.