Sound Off: Brace for big changes after pandemic is behind us

  • Friday, January 15, 2021 1:30pm
  • Opinion

Now that vaccines are available, we hope our lives will return to the way they were before the coronavirus pandemic blanketed the globe. That is not likely to occur.

Last March our booming economy was clobbered by COVID-19. A worldwide pandemic ensued. There was no vaccine to counter it and even though vaccines were developed at “warp speed” lots of things changed and have become embedded in our daily lives.

Futurist Bernard Marr, columnist in Forbes, believes employers quickly adapted to a remote workforce. While less than ideal, working from home shows promise and appears to be here to stay.

Business, education and government need to re-imagine their own work spaces as well as provide the proper support for people working from home. They must have the right office equipment and technical support to work comfortably from their residences.

So, what happens to all of the office space in cities such as Seattle? As of January 2019, there were 60 construction cranes in Seattle, more than any other American city.

In September, Seattle Times business writer Katherine Khashimova Long reported: “the vacant space amounts to more than 700 football fields, by one estimate — acres of desks, with knickknacks and mementos that few but cleaning staff, maintenance crews and interior landscapers have seen for nigh on six months.”

Long added demand for dense, city-center corporate campuses from giants like Amazon, Facebook and Google led to a decade of breakneck office development here. Occupied office space in Seattle has grown 34 percent since 2010, according to the Downtown Seattle Association. “Now, those towers sit hollow. Roughly 90 percent of the 47 million square feet of leased Seattle office space is currently vacated as a result of the pandemic.”

At least 66 downtown businesses had already closed permanently by fall, according to the Downtown Seattle Association. Work-from-home isn’t entirely to blame.

Restaurants and retail were shuttered until they met county reopening standards. The collapse of the convention and cruising industries also played a role.

With remote work prevalent, people’s shopping habits changed. Statista.com estimates in 2019, U.S. online retail sales of physical goods amounted to $343.15 billion and are projected to reach $476.5 billion in 2024.

On-line grocery shopping surged. Kroger, parent of Fred Meyer, experienced a 127 percent second quarter rush in its digital sales as shoppers ordered online and either had groceries delivered straight to their homes or they drove to a store where packages were loaded directly into their vehicles.

“We hired over 40,000 associates to take care of that over 10 percent growth in demand,” Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen told Yahoo Finance.

Walmart and Amazon, the world’s top two private employers with a combined workforce of 3 million people, also experienced triple-digit growth in digital food ordering during COVID-19. The jump underscores consumers growing comfort with online grocery shopping.

While profits and employment swelled for big companies, small businesses particularly restaurants and pubs, continued to be hard hit. They cut workers and struggled to comply with shifting government edicts.

Yelp closure data shows that businesses providing home, local and professional services have been able to withstand the effects of the pandemic but restaurants and retail continue to struggle and total closures nationwide are increasing.

The National Restaurant Association reported last February more than 15 million people, representing 10 percent of America’s workforce, worked in restaurants. By July, 7 million were jobless as new restrictions on indoor dining and cold weather set in. NRA is projecting a $250 billion total loss in 2020.

Now, the overriding questions are what work will be available for people displaced by COVID and will there be sufficient capital and incentives for small business to rebuild and reopen?

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization.

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