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As new COVID-19 restrictions bear down, surviving businesses draw on hard-earned lessons from the spring

By Paul Roberts, The Seattle Times on

Published in Business News

SEATTLE — Like many business owners in Washington state, sisters Tara Espinoza and Sabrina Rinderle, proprietors of Queen Anne Dispatch in Seattle, were neither surprised nor unprepared for Gov. Jay Inslee's second round of COVID-19 restrictions.

Since the first restrictions in March, Espinoza and Rinderle have largely reengineered their combination boutique and mail-services business. Staff is fully trained in safety protocols. Floors are marked for social distance and the inventory mix is more "grab-and-go."

The finances aren't great. Sales are a fraction of pre-March levels and this time there's no federal Paycheck Protection loan. But their landlord is working with them and, importantly, customers are no longer in shock. Unlike in March, when "nobody was coming in the doors," customers are more "comfortable with the safety precautions," said Espinoza. "They know what to expect."

Across Seattle and the state, employers, workers and consumers are plunging into the second round of restrictions better prepared in some ways than they were eight months ago.

Of course, there have already been some reprises of the panic buying that followed the first restrictions in March. Another wave of closures and layoffs is probable, only this time quite possibly without the first COVID-19 shutdown's billions of dollars in small business loans, enhanced unemployment benefits and other federal relief, or the millions in local philanthropic relief.

But in other ways, this time may prove less dire for those businesses that have survived. Since March, much of the economy has adapted to COVID-19. Consumers are hardened to the new realities. Many businesses have come up with new strategies that, despite lower expectations for revenue and profit, could help operators get through this latest shutdown.

 

Critical systems such as supply chains also have been upgraded as companies incorporate lessons and strategies from the pandemic.

At the other end of the business spectrum from Queen Anne Dispatch is e-commerce giant Amazon. It too has adapted, though unlike many companies its sales have ballooned as more consumers shop from home. Amazon has poured $7.5 billion into its distribution network since the start of the year, hoping to avoid a repeat of its scramble early in the pandemic to stock distribution centers with cleaning supplies and home office equipment.

The company faced an onslaught of criticism as the ensuing ripple effect of shipping delays reverberated throughout its ecosystem of third-party sellers, and fulfillment center employees said they feared catching COVID-19 at work.

Amazon beefed up COVID-19 precautions in its distribution centers, hired 250,000 workers to meet surging demand for online shopping and expanded the square footage of its logistics infrastructure by 50%, Chief Financial Officer Brian Olsavsky said during a third-quarter earnings call. By midsummer, Amazon's own distribution network delivered nearly two thirds of the packages purchased on its site, up from roughly half in 2019 and just 20% the year before.

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