NOTE: This article is not medical or legal advice and should not be regarded as anything more than one writer’s informed opinion. Before making any travel plans right now, research any travel restrictions that may be in place, and read the latest guidance on the outbreak from the Washington State Department of Health.
Seattle and King County, Washington were home to the first confirmed case of coronavirus (Covid-19) in the United States. In just a few weeks, the virus has begun devastating daily life across the country, resulting in entire school districts being closed, the postponement of pro sports, the cancellation of concerts, conferences and festivals like SXSW, and the issuance of numerous advisories from officials telling folks to practice social distancing and avoid gathering in large groups.
If you have plans to visit sometime this year and you’re wondering whether it’s safe to travel to Seattle anytime soon, read on for the perspective of a local. We’ll discuss how coronavirus got to Seattle, the believed scope of its spread across the city, how Seattleites are reacting to living in the initial epicenter of the outbreak (the city is not a “ghost town,” as some outlets report), which local attractions are closed at this time, and why postponing your trip is probably the smart move.
How Did Coronavirus Get to Seattle?
First off, what is coronavirus and how can you protect yourself? Dr. Nadeen White, a travel blogger and physician, gives a nice explanation on her site. The short version is that it’s a virus affecting the respiratory system, spread by infected people when they cough or sneeze, or when they touch surfaces that are then touched by healthy people. That’s why washing your hands is so important. More than 100,000 people in dozens of countries worldwide have been infected, and a few thousand have died so far from what the World Health organization now declares a global pandemic.
How did coronavirus reach the USA and Seattle in particular? As reported by this article, a Seattle resident returned home from Wuhan, China on January 15. The individual brought back the virus from Wuhan, the worldwide center of the outbreak. Four days later, the man became sick and went to the hospital with a fever and cough.
When his positive coronavirus test came back the next day, officials quarantined him and everyone he’d been known to be in contact with. He recovered, and none of those other people developed the virus, so it seemed as though the outbreak might have been contained.
But apparently someone was missed. Maybe the man passed along the virus to someone on his flight home. Or someone at the airport. Or his Uber driver. Or someone in his neighborhood. We may never know. But somehow, the virus spread to the Life Care Center nursing home in nearby Kirkland. It wasn’t detected there until late February. Genetic analysis of the virus shows that it had been circulating throughout the King County area for more than a month before it showed up at Life Care Center.
Nearly all of the elderly patients at that facility ended up contracting covid-19, and many died. To date, this nursing home has been the most deadly localized outbreak of the virus in America, although scattered cases have continued to pop up in virtually every state.
Is It Safe to Travel to Seattle Now? How Widespread Is the Covid-19 Outbreak There?
First, two clarify two rumors: Coronavirus is not the flu – it appears to have a higher fatality rate. And it doesn’t just affect old people. While it’s true that elderly are most likely to die, young people have become very sick and required multiple weeks in bed to recover. And even those who never get sick from the virus can transmit it to others. Newsweek put it best in an article titled: Young and Unafraid of Coronavirus? Good for You. Now Stop Killing People.
At the moment, we currently have no idea just how widespread coronavirus is in Seattle, because even now, it’s almost impossible to get tested. Due to the scarcity of test kits, officials will only test people who are elderly/at-risk or whose symptoms are so severe that they require hospitalization. If a 45-year-old woman shows up to a hospital with obvious covid-19 symptoms, they will send her home and tell her to self-quarantine without even testing her. Really.
Because of that, it’s believed that the number of people infected in Seattle (and across the country, for that matter) is far greater than the number of officially diagnosed patients. Public health officials have estimated that 3000 or more people in Washington state could have the virus. Because it spreads so fast, that number could have increased several-fold by the time you read this.
Despite claims from the current administration that test kits are plentiful and everyone can get tested, nothing could be further from the truth. At some point in the future, we may eventually have a sufficient supply of test kits. But right now, the average joe simply cannot get tested for coronavirus. Here’s one of the many horror stories about a possibly infected woman who couldn’t get tested.
There was a recent viral story about a drive-through coronavirus testing facility in Seattle. But that facility is only for health care professionals. Normal folks cannot get tested there. Until we dramatically increase our testing capacity, the experts tell us this virus will continue to spread far and wide throughout the U.S. UPDATE: As of March 17, patients at the University of Washington medical center can now get tested at the drive-thru facility with approval from their doctor. Kaiser and other hospitals have also opened drive-thru testing facilities for those who meet the criteria.
The Bill Gates Foundation has also announced plans to make test available for King County residents, which would be fantastic. But there’s no word on when this program might start.
UPDATE: Washington is no longer the state with the most confirmed cases. As of March 26, New York state has by far the most infections. New Jersey, California, and Michigan have all passed Washington as well.
Are People Still Going Outside in Seattle? What’s Actually Happening Now in the City
You read all sorts of conflicting reports in the media. Some articles call Seattle a “ghost town.” Others say life goes on. The truth is somewhere in the middle.
Everyone who can work from home is doing so, especially workers at tech companies like Microsoft, Google, and Amazon. This has dramatically reduced Seattle’s notoriously bad traffic. Because so many people are staying home, bars, restaurants, and shops are seeing huge losses of foot traffic.
EDIT: Governor Jay Islee issued an order closing all bars and restaurants on March 15. They are still open for takeout orders. Gatherings of more than 50 people are not allowed, in accordance with the latest CDC recommendations.
But it’s not true that Seattle is a ghost town. Plenty of people are still going out. Lots of people have customer service jobs (grocery stores, gas stations, etc.) they need to work in person. Public transportation is still running. Uber and Lyft are still operating, although drivers are making very little money due to dramatically decreased demand.
Last weekend, I made a rare trip outside my house and saw large crowds at popular Capitol Hill bars and restaurants. Younger people, especially, seem intent on not having their lives disrupted too much. That may change if conditions worsen.
Personally, I’ve been staying inside as much as possible just to err on the safe side. I work from home and don’t need to leave the house much anyway, so really I’ve just been canceling a few social engagements and hobbies like playing in the local volleyball league, while continuing to go out once a week for groceries. Grocery stores have been very crowded, but the Safeway stores near my house have been well-stocked. No problems with running out of toilet paper or rice, like we’ve seen elsewhere across the country.
I’m trying to stay vigilant without being paranoid, which describes most of the people I encounter. We’ve scaled back our social interactions. I went out last weekend for a drink with a friend, but I’ll most likely be canceling similar plans for this weekend. I don’t have family in the area, and I’m not terrified of becoming infected, but we shouldn’t minimize the threat because a week of sore throat, cough, and breathing problems doesn’t sound like fun.
I also recognize my good fortune in being able to work online from my bedroom. Those who don’t have the ability to work from home are the ones who are really in a bind.
Should I Visit Seattle Now? What Attractions Are Closed and What Would My Trip Look Like?
Should you travel to Washington state right now? I would advise against it. It’s true that the estimate of local people infected is only a few thousand out of 4 million people in the metro area, which is still a very small percentage. So you don’t have to be paranoid about walking around in Seattle.
However, the bigger reason you should consider postponing your Seattle visit is because officials are telling us that traveling right now is the easiest way to spread the virus throughout the country. The medical professionals and infectious disease experts who’ve studied this their whole lives tell us the best way to stop spread of this virus is to avoid large groups and stay home whenever possible.
A secondary, and less important, reason to avoid Seattle at the moment is because things are closing. Several restaurants have closed due to lack of business (some temporarily, some permanently). Some museums and tourist attractions have reduced their hours or closed entirely.
It’s been hard to find a comprehensive list of museums and tourist attractions that have paused operations, but this page lists a few that have closed, including the Museum of Pop Culture and the Museum of Flight.
As of March 16, the Seattle Art Museum, the Space Needle, Pike Place, and other famous Seattle attractions are still open for visitors, though special events have been canceled.
UPDATE: The Space Needle is now closed. Most non-essential businesses in Seattle are now closed. The city is not under lockdown like San Francisco or New York City, but people are being encouraged to stay home unless absolutely necessary.
Though the dirt-cheap airfares may be tempting, if you come to Seattle now, you run the risk of finding tourist attractions closed and nightlife very lacking. It’s not going to be an ideal experience. If you carry on with a visit, take the necessary precautions to reduce your financial risk.
We have no idea how long the coronavirus pandemic will last. It could end up being several months. If you have plans to visit Seattle before May, it’s probably wise to postpone your visit until later in the year – especially since most airlines are currently offering changes with no fees. If your plans are later in the year, there’s no harm in sitting tight and waiting to see how everything plays out over the next few months.
Seattle is a wonderful city, so please visit at some point in the future when you feel comfortable doing so! Come back and enjoy our mountains, hiking trails, and cultural attractions after things settle down and the city and the country return to normal.
Would you visit Seattle right now? If you’re a local, what are your thoughts on life in Seattle during the coronavirus era? Leave a comment and let us know!