by Ben Adlin
As more South Seattle small businesses reopen amid the ongoing pandemic, a new program led by a local chamber of commerce wants to ensure that customers and employees feel as safe as possible.
The Seattle Southside Chamber of Commerce last week announced the launch of the “Southside Promise” campaign, an effort to equip local businesses with information and guidance to safely reopen. The program, a partnership with the City of Tukwila, provides face masks and other personal protective equipment and offers a reopening toolkit — essentially an in-depth slideshow presentation — aimed at helping businesses navigate the sometimes dizzying process of reopening.
“The goal of the campaign is to assist in the smooth re-opening of Southside businesses and then to draw tourists and members of our community to those newly re-opened businesses,” the chamber said in a press release, “all while remaining committed to public health.”
King County businesses are currently operating under Phase 2 of the state’s phased reopening plan, which allows most types of businesses here to reopen provided they follow social-distancing practices, require masks, and observe other safety guidelines.
Andrea H. Reay, the chamber’s president and CEO, said in an interview with the Emerald that the group’s members, especially small businesses, have frequently reached out for help with the process. Large businesses are typically able to hire expert consultants or outside contractors for help, she said, but smaller shops have been overwhelmed, said Reay: “If you’re a small business, you’re a mom-and-pop shop, where do you start?”
The Southside Chamber has already distributed more than 4 million face masks to Puget Sound area businesses through its Southside Mitigation and Recovery Taskforce, or SMART, a partnership between public and private entities in King and Pierce counties. Southside Promise builds on that previous experience by offering businesses a comprehensive guide to reopening, specifically tailored to common business settings such as restaurants, retail stores, and office buildings.
The downloadable guides, which compile information from a handful of public health sources and are designed to help businesses comply with local regulations, are available for free to members of the Southside Chamber. Non-members will need to pay $350, which Reay said is meant to encourage businesses to join the organization. Memberships are free to businesses with four or fewer employees.
Kits containing reusable cloth masks, disposable masks, and hand sanitizer, meanwhile — dubbed Safe Start kits — continue to be available to any area businesses for no charge, Reay said. “We know the access to the PPE is hard for small businesses, and it’s expensive, so this is a way we’re able to get face masks and hand sanitizer into the hands of small businesses quickly.”
Reay described the chamber’s role during COVID-19 so far as primarily an “information laundering service,” helping member businesses stay informed and adapt to the pandemic. During the early months of the outbreak, she said, companies were scrambling for help applying for financial aid through programs like the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). More recent conversations have focused on how to get back to business while protecting public health.
“We need to try to distill all of this information that’s coming from OSHA, the CDC, the governor’s office, and we need to put it in practical, easy-to-follow checklists and steps,” Reay said. The Southside Promise reopening guides attempt to do just that, with step-by-step advice on issues such as proper sanitation and how to communicate with customers and employees.
In addition to providing answers to individual businesses, the program aims to help assure customers and community members that companies are taking necessary steps to keep their neighbors safe.
“Part of the promise is the education and the awareness that if we’re going to come out of this successful together — economically successful, health-wise — we do need to make a promise to each other to do our best,” Reay said. “When a business makes the promise, they’re making a commitment to do their best.”
In a statement last week, Tukwila Mayor Allan Ekberg said the city was excited to partner with the Southside Promise initiative. “Businesses throughout the region are hurting due to COVID-19 and its associated economic impacts,” he said. “I want to thank the Chamber for their leadership and assistance during these challenging times.”
While the toolkits are designed as an all-in-one resource for businesses, Reay warned that policies are shifting quickly as the pandemic develops. “You plot out a course that you think is most likely to happen, but honestly no one knows,” she said. “What we’ve been trying to communicate to our businesses is just to be as flexible and resilient as possible.”
Reay encouraged businesses to keep a close eye on announcements and said the chamber would work to update the toolkit — as well as businesses directly — to keep information current. “Because the situation is so dynamic,” she said, “it’s really important for businesses to be connected.”
Reay also stressed that businesses should communicate clearly with customers and employees about any operational changes. “It’s not enough just to put up a sign. You have to invest and put in the training with employees,” she said.
The chamber recently hosted a webinar focused on de-escalation training, for example, to help businesses cope with customers who become belligerent or threatening when asked to put on a face mask. “That was feedback we were getting a lot,” Reay said. “Everybody in our community is on edge.”
By helping businesses and their customers follow best practices, however, Reay believes it’s possible to reinvigorate the economy while protecting community health and safety.
“Economic development is a team sport,” she said, “and we want to be able to effectively and efficiently help our community recover as strong as possible. That’s going to take all of us pulling in the same direction, and we hope that the Southside Promise is an opportunity to be able to do that.”
Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based journalist.
Featured image by Susan Fried.