Businesses learn lessons navigating pandemic, civil unrest

Posted at 12:38 PM, Sep 25, 2020

SEATTLE, Wash. -- Home to Pike Place Market, rainy days and views of the Puget Sound, Seattle is also one of the first places in the U.S. to initially face the coronavirus and the fallout that followed.

“We were the first city that really had to grapple with this,” said Don Blakeney, vice president of advocacy and economic development with the Downtown Seattle Association, a nonprofit representing about 2,000 businesses and residences.

When COVID-19 first appeared, they worried that years of investment in the downtown core could be in jeopardy.

“You saw overnight downtown clear out of employees,” Blakeney said.

That made for a tough spring there, but then summer got hot when protests sparked nationwide.

While the vast majority of protests across the country this past summer were peaceful, when they got out of control, some businesses paid the price. Damages from civil unrest became yet another blow to their bottom line, on top of the pandemic.

“Viruses don't cause that physical damage,” said Sean Kevelighan, CEO of the Insurance Information Institute.

Recently, the institute compared financial losses from civil unrest this year to similar events in the past.

The Institute found that, based on today’s dollars, the most expensive civil unrest event in the U.S. happened during the L.A. riots in 1992, costing $1.4 billion.

The rest of the top five were:
L.A. Civil unrest (1965) – $357 million
Detroit civil unrest (1967) – $322 million
Miami civil unrest (1980) – $204 million
Washington, D.C. civil unrest (1968) -- $179 million

So far, this year’s unrest adds up to just over $1 billion, but across multiple communities.

“This is a little bit different in that we're looking at many different cities that are having it at the same time,” Kevelighan said.

So where does that leave businesses trying to navigate 2020? Most have insurance that will cover physical damages caused by unrest, but there is no insuring for a pandemic.

In Seattle, a few lessons emerged, such as taking health recommendations seriously early on and not hurrying a return to normalcy.

“We haven't rushed it, but we've also seen that we need to be creative in the ways that we accommodate these small businesses,” Blakeney said.

They also looked to streamline permitting, in order to get creative with public spaces, so businesses can expand beyond their usual four walls: even with the coming winter, which they’re already planning for.

“How do you stay outside safely? You know, bring your own blanket, maybe some coverings, but it's largely, we're kind of learning as we have these new things that we're responding to,” Blakeney said.

They are lessons that may help in their resiliency and that of businesses in other cities on the road to recovery.