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the Seattle Times

Seattle in the Age of Coronavirus: Not Quite Empty, but Eerie

6:03 PM, Thursday: Traffic merging onto Interstate 90 during rush hour on Thursday. Seattle streets and interstates are quieter and less packed.

6:03 PM, Thursday: Traffic merging onto Interstate 90 during rush hour on Thursday. Seattle streets and interstates are quieter and less packed. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)

Seattle is not empty. But it is eerie.

There are cars on the road. But there is no traffic.

Restaurants are open. But there are few customers.

Planes are flying out of Sea-Tac, ferries are sailing into Colman Dock and buses are rolling along. None is full. Most aren’t close.

As, one by one, our civic institutions have shut down — schoolslibrariescourts, the Space Needle — life continues on here, at the forefront of a national emergency that has distorted the social fabric unlike anything in our lifetimes. But it is quieter. Lonelier. Distant.

What’s happened here will happen elsewhere. No hugs, no handshakes, people keeping a wary distance.

On Wednesday, Gov. Jay Inslee banned large gatherings. The next day, New York did the same. Others soon followed. On Thursday, Inslee closed some schools. On Friday, he closed all schools. At least a dozen more states did too.

At the Seattle Art Museum, Ivy Scott was the only person in a gallery of modern and contemporary pieces. She’d driven down from Vancouver, B.C., the night before for a Patti Smith concert at the Paramount. It was canceled.

“I was reading before I came down about how there’s sort of that feeling in the air here,” she said. Foreboding. Unsettling.

The museum, with dozens of galleries spread over four floors, can hold thousands. But it was limiting entry to 250 people at a time, to comply with the state’s ban on large gatherings. There was little danger of that. There were fewer than 100 people Thursday afternoon. Several hours later, the museum closed through the end of the month.

“It’s easy to be six feet apart in here,” Scott quipped in the empty gallery. Over her shoulder hung “Rummage,” a 1941 watercolor of Pike Place Market by Seattle artist Mark Tobey.

A busy, cubist composition, it “conjures the anxious frenzy of the crowded scene,” the curator’s notes say.

At Pike Place Market this week, there was anxiety, but there was no frenzy and few crowds.

Isaac Behar, a fish monger at Pure Food Fish, stood in front of a mountain of iced seafood. Salmon gleamed. Scallops glistened. People walked by. But only sporadically.

“It’s exceedingly slow,” Behar said. “Everybody can feel it, we’re getting by, but it’s just by the skin of our teeth.” They’ve started offering same-day delivery, for the first time, even though they’ll likely lose money on it. “Just so we can move some product,” Behar said.

Kim Kurtz drove to the market from Kirkland with her teenage son, whose school had been canceled. She figured it’d be empty and she’d take advantage, and support vendors in the process. She made her first-ever trip to the first Starbucks, where tourists are normally packed cheek by jowl, in a queue snaking out the door and along the sidewalk. There was no line.

She stopped at Sosio’s Produce, buying potatoes, onions and the season’s first artichokes. There were a couple other customers.

“I kind of thought it’d be fun coming down here,” Kurtz said. “But it’s just so empty. I kind of want to cry.”

South of downtown, it is the heart of the lunch rush at Salvadorean Bakery and Restaurant in White Center. Ana Castro, who owns the neighborhood institution with her sister, sits in the dining room. It is empty, save for one customer, an older man in a red Keep America Great hat.

People stopped coming a week or two ago, Castro said, after King County announced it would build an emergency quarantine site in White Center. It’s two miles from her bakery to the lot where the county has placed a few trailers for people who show coronavirus symptoms but don’t have a home to quarantine in. No patients have yet been placed there, the county said.

“But people, they hear White Center,” Castro said. “And they think they are going to get the virus if they come.”

Her sparkling display cases nearly overflowed with pastries: empanadas, pastelitos, cachitos.

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She’s cut down on hours for her 18 employees. She gestured to the empty room. “This bakery’s been here 24 years,” she said. She kept repeating the number — 24 years.

For so many, the boundaries of daily life have narrowed. Quotidian pleasures have disappeared. Trips to the bakery, nights at the movies and afternoons at the library — no more.

Richard Smith, 76, and his wife Lauralee, 68, are among the most vulnerable age group. They are obsessively monitoring news of the virus. They’ve cut down on leaving their Phinney Ridge home. Whenever they do, they don disposable fabric gloves that they throw away before returning. They no longer use cash.

“We’re self-isolating,” Smith said. When they do go out, “we just don’t talk to people. We don’t interact with things other people touch.”

They don’t feel trapped by the house, Smith said, but their human interactions have shifted almost exclusively online. They’re on Facebook, WhatsApp and messaging systems constantly. A retired Boeing software engineer, he worries about the elderly who are less technologically adept.

Smith has family in Mount Vernon. He doesn’t know when he’ll see them again.

“I don’t visit my relatives anymore and they don’t visit me,” he said. “We have all agreed we’ll see each other someday.”

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport has never looked emptier. Its five security checkpoints still have their endless mazes of stanchions and ropes. But they’re barren of people. There are, it almost seems, more TSA agents and airport staff than passengers.

“People are paranoid,” said Mohammad Sorush, a teller at the airport’s Currency Exchange. “They’re not sure if they leave if they can get back to the U.S.”

Pat Powers was at Sea-Tac to wave goodbye to his wife and daughter. She’s a high school senior in Bothell and they were flying to Eugene to look at the University of Oregon. He was comforted by the fact the flight was just an hour and it would be far from full.

“Everything is just moving so quickly,” Powers said. “I’m supportive of all the stuff they’re doing, but you’ve got to live your life, too.”

People, it seems, are desperate for connection to their lives before the virus. Before “social distancing.”

The Seattle Symphony, like dozens of other arts organizations, canceled all its upcoming performances. As a substitute, it is offering streaming broadcasts — first of past performances and, soon, of live soloists.

On Thursday night, its performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 drew more than 89,000 viewers on YouTube and Facebook.

“We unite in good times and bad to make music as a community, for our community,” Alexander White, associate principal trumpet, said. “So, to our friends in Seattle and our friends around the world, here is our gift to you in the language we know best: music.”

Viewers were practically rhapsodic in their thanks.

“It was a beautiful bright spot in a very stressful week,” one wrote. Thanks, another wrote, “for helping us find a little more peace right now.”

Manny Rodriguez, 31, hooked his phone up to speakers and watched from his apartment in Interbay. A guitarist who also works for an irrigation supply company, he’s had his own gigs canceled.

“It was great, it definitely helps to kind of brighten up things,” he said. “To go a couple months without any type of art or live music or gatherings is terrible.”

In some ways, life continues. Every night around 5 or 6, Capitol Hill’s Cal Anderson Park still turns into an impromptu off-leash dog area. Dozens of dogs chase balls, frolic and sniff, while their owners stay cautiously apart.

A block away, Hugh McGowan, 42, weighed his options and decided he’d keep going to his Capitol Hill gym, Rain City Fit. It’s been awfully empty, but the people who are there have been laser-focused on cleanliness. There’s hand sanitizer above the water fountains and spray bottles of bleach solution all over.

“Social interaction and physical activity are really vital parts of health,” McGowan, a nurse, said. “I want to have some semblance of life outside my apartment.”

Managing uncertainty, he figured, is a part of life. And these are uncertain times.

David Gutman

David Gutman

David Gutman is a Staff Reporter with The Seattle Times. Formerly, he wrote for the West Virginia Gazette and the Capital News Service in Maryland.

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