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Remote learning at UW could spell trouble for U District businesses

With University of Washington classes going mostly online for the fall, restaurants and shops are bracing for a slowdown far worse than the great recession.

SEATTLE — With no students, no staff, and no big crowds on move-in day or during football games, businesses in Seattle's University District are worried they may not survive. 

The University of Washington will hold most classes online for the start of the 2020 school year, which means a continued stretch of low traffic around the UW campus.

"It's a 50,000 to 60,000-person campus, and when they're gone, it's a huge loss," said John Gunnar, owning partner of Portage Bay Cafe in the U District. 

UW students were sent home in the spring because of the coronavirus pandemic, and non-essential businesses shut down until Seattle entered a modified Phase 1 of Washington state’s "Safe Start" plan to reopen the economy in June. Since then, some restaurants told KING 5 business is down anywhere from 70 to 90 percent. 

Gunnar said Portage Bay Cafe had a record year in 2019. This year, they have added tables outside to help boost business, but Gunnar said because the neighborhood is not busy, they have cut back on days the restaurant is open as well as hours.

Portage Bay Cafe has been around for more than 20 years, and while some years are stronger than others, the restaurant has always seen positive growth. This year, however, Gunnar expects business to be about 30 percent of the sales from 2019. 

"I don't know," said Gunnar. "We're having meetings all the time about what we are going to do going into fall. Because as PPP runs out, the weather gets worse, you have to stay inside, you can't have your outside decks anymore, it's going to be huge. It's going to be huge for every restaurant.”

Speaking with restaurant owners and employees there is a consensus that many spots might not survive unless students return to campus soon. 

Gunnar believes businesses will need to rely on the kindness of others to make it through the fall. 

"Whether people are willing to come out or whether the government is willing to loan more money. All those things because I think it will be a vastly different field next year, especially with restaurants. It will be totally different from what you see today," said Gunnar.

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