Downtown crowd

More street traffic downtown would actually be a welcome sight.

It's finally here. After 15 months of shutdowns amid the coronavirus pandemic, of quarantine and masking up and streaming endlessly, Washington removed nearly all of its restrictions on social and economic activity today. As of 12:01am this morning, restaurants, bars, and all other businesses can return at full capacity, with the exception of indoor events in excess of 10,000 people. Restaurants can fill their dining rooms, provided they can find the staff. Bar crawls can drag on into the wee hours. Packed gyms, live music, shoulder-to-shoulder Nordstrom browsing—it's all happening.

To commemorate the occasion, governor Jay Inslee embarks on a three-city tour this morning, perhaps a bit chagrined that the state couldn't reopen sooner. Despite a vaccine lottery and other incentives to lure Washingtonians to get vaccinated, the state couldn't quite reach the 70 percent initiation carrot that the governor had dangled for an earlier return to normalcy. The restriction rollback also arrives without a coronavirus vaccine authorization for many children (Washington schools and child care centers will still have mask and distancing requirements), and a new Delta variant threatens to reverse the state's mask-lifting for vaccinated people.

But when Inslee hoists a somewhat aspirational "Washington Ready" flag above the Space Needle on Thursday, its message will at least hold true in Seattle. The city has experienced precipitous drops in coronavirus case tallies, hospitalizations, and deaths in recent weeks because it is exceedingly well-vaccinated. Mayor Jenny Durkan's office was not shy about proclaiming Seattle the first major metropolis in the U.S. to fully vaccinate 70 percent of its 12-and-up residents. And it's clear where Durkan wants her constituents to celebrate in the coming weeks: downtown.

In July, the city and partnering organizations will try to draw more visitors to the neighborhoods comprising Seattle's core with "Welcome Back Weeks." Downtown Seattle Association and Metropolitan Improvement District will hold outdoor concerts, park happy hours, scavenger hunts, and other programming throughout the summer. But from July 12–26, large-scale events in the Chinatown-International District, Pioneer Square, and Westlake will be the city's most full-throated attempt to support small businesses devastated by drops in street traffic during the pandemic.

On July 17 and 18, at Hing Hay Park in the Chinatown-International District, community martial arts demonstrations, lion dances, and a medley of cultural performances will surround a robust lineup of local performing artists, including Hollis, Chong the Nomad, Evan Flory Barnes, Totem Star, Bleachbear, Chrysalis Circus, and Massive Monkees. On July 24, Pioneer Square's Occidental Park will host performances by Shaina Shepherd, Shenandoah Davis, and The Black Tones. Finally, a day later, at Westlake Park, a "Halloween in July" event seeks to make up for lost time with trick-or-treating at local businesses and a costume contest. El Vez, Teatro Zinzanni, SANCA’s Circus Circus, and Lelavision will also perform.

The city's downtown recovery effort is hardly limited to these one-offs. Earlier this week, the mayor transmitted legislation to Seattle City Council that would allow businesses, artists, and others to use empty storefronts for more types of ventures over the next year. Medical offices, gyms, art installations, and bike parking could all inhabit currently vacant spaces downtown, of which there are many: About 450 street-level businesses have shuttered since the start of the pandemic, according to Downtown Seattle Association. "Our arts and cultural institutions, restaurants, and retailers have had a grueling 16 months," Downtown Seattle Association president and CEO Jon Scholes said in a statement. "We need to harness the momentum of our state reopening and pull these small businesses through to recovery.”

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