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Amazon’s Work From Home Policy Extended to October Could Spell Disaster for Nearby Restaurants

The area near the campus may be largely empty for months

A view of the Amazon Spheres in Downtown Seattle
Amazon recently told corporate employees that they could work from home, if able, until Oct. 2.

As restaurants in Washington wait to hear what Gov. Jay Inslee might say soon about reopening guidelines, Amazon has now become a big X-factor on its own. On Thursday, the company sent out a memo to its employees saying that they can work from home until October 2, if their roles allow them to do so. As a result, regardless of when dining rooms in the city reopen in some capacity, any restaurants or bars within the vicinity of its campus could face more daunting headwinds.

Back in early March, when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit the Seattle area, Amazon and Microsoft strongly recommended that all their employees work from home if they could — and it had an immediate impact on surrounding businesses. Restaurants and bars that serve those tech hubs lost the majority of their revenue within days, and many closed temporarily even before Inslee’s stay-at-home was first issued.

Despite takeout and delivery as current options, quite a few of those restaurants remain closed. Famed chef Tom Douglas’s empire, located mainly in Belltown and Downtown, has temporarily gone from 13 restaurants down to one, with a new takeout pizzeria in Ballard. Even though restaurateur Ethan Stowell received funds from the federal Payroll Protection Program, he told Eater Seattle recently that uncertainty over when downtown diners will return give him pause on reopening places such as Cortina.

Mama restaurant group owner Wassef Haroun runs Anar and Mamnoon Street, which are housed in Amazon buildings (Anar is temporarily closed, while Mamnoon Street is still available for takeout and delivery). Haroun received rent relief from the landlords that run the buildings for March and April, but the future is unclear. He tells Eater Seattle that Amazon’s new policy at least gives a realistic picture as to what the landscape will look like this summer, so he can prepare for all contingencies. “Anar will take the longest to boot strap, but Mamnoon Street is built for takeout and, as long as we don’t take on any big costs, we can probably get by,” he says, adding that he’s looking to expand the delivery range of his locations. “It’s a painful process, but I think this was Amazon’s way of giving everyone a heads up on what’s to come.”

As the coronavirus crisis has laid bare, from an economic standpoint, Seattle’s codependency with large corporations put small businesses that rely on those entities in a precarious position. That, combined with lack of clarity on rent relief and a general unease across the country on whether dine-in service can responsibly resume anytime soon, means many restaurants near Amazon will face a long, uphill battle to reopen, unless lawmakers or private entities step in to help.

Back in March, Amazon announced a fund to assist small businesses around its Downtown and South Lake Union campuses, with $10 million now distributed to qualified applicants. It followed a separate $2.5 million fund intended to help workers affected by coronavirus impacts, including those who can’t take sick leave, people without health insurance, and health care workers, as well as rent relief for tenants in Amazon buildings through April. But all that is unlikely to keep workers or businesses afloat for five whole months. One South Lake Union Chinese restaurant, Zheng Cafe, tells Eater Seattle it received $2,500 from the Amazon fund, along with another grant, but says that money could only really cover past due business expenses, as it worked on a plan to reopen.

It’s also worth noting that this new Amazon policy comes as the company’s workers, and others at the frontlines of the pandemic, including those at Amazon-owned Whole Foods, organize a nationwide May Day strike. The action is meant to protest a lack of protections and benefits during the pandemic. Amazon recently fired warehouse worker Christian Smalls after he organized a protest demanding that the company sanitize the facility after several workers became sick (in a statement, the company counters that Smalls was fired for “violating social distancing guidelines” after having “contact with a diagnosed associate,” his coworker at the warehouse). The novel coronavirus has spread to more than 70 Amazon warehouses across the country, and at least one worker has already died from COVID-19.