Coronavirus Chronicles

Amazon's Work from Home Policy Extension Heightens Downtown Distress

The tech giant's plan to stay remote through early 2021 will hit Seattle's core the hardest.

By Benjamin Cassidy July 16, 2020

Amazon Spheres

Hope someone's watering the plants.

If you've been holding out on investing in a standing desk or swivel-y office chair for your home office, now might be the time to change that.

Amazon has announced that its corporate employees can work remotely through January 8, 2021, GeekWire and others reported yesterday. Jeff Bezos's e-commerce giant isn't the first major company with local ties to embrace virtual clock-ins for the rest of 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic continues; Zillow CEO Rich Barton told his staff that they could keep sweatpants on through the end of the year as well. But Amazon, with its 50,000-plus Seattle employees and significant development in the city's core, will undoubtedly lead more employers to consider abandoning their digs well into the future.

Back in early March, Amazon and Microsoft introduced weekslong work-from-home policies while many in Seattle were still jockeying for elbow room on buses and lining sidewalks. But almost overnight, other companies in the downtown corridor followed suit. It wasn't a coincidence; Downtown Seattle Association president and CEO Jon Scholes later told me that our tech behemoths' decisions "clearly" influenced others. It wasn't trivial, either. Traffic dropped almost immediately, indicating that social distancing had taken root.

But while Amazon can survive remotely, many of the businesses around its Spheres cannot. They count on techies to stop in for bites and pints after, and even during, work hours. Amazon has tried to account for its absence—the company notes that it has disbursed more than $11 million in cash grants and free rent to area small businesses thus far—but it won't replace the foot traffic lost to virtual work. That Amazon's campus recently saw two Tom Douglas restaurants shutter isn't a good omen, either.

Other business-adjacent ecosystems, small business clusters that feed the city's vitality, will suffer too. Scholes has advised that the city's economic recovery will be a long, slow one. Whether downtown can afford it remains to be seen.

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