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Seattle businesses scramble to cancel, postpone events for 'social distancing'

Organizers at the Seattle Convention Center said they will feel the impacts of canceling events "for years to come."

SEATTLE — Venues in downtown Seattle are scrambling to cancel and reschedule concerts and events after officials announced new social distancing measures to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Officials called the move an ‘unprecedented action’ – banning large gatherings of 250 people across King, Snohomish and Pierce counties, which have been hardest hit by the virus so far.

King County took the extra step of limiting gatherings smaller than 250 unless they can show precautionary measures are being taken to limit infection.

Tiernan Gillan, who owns a gelato shop near Pike Place Market, said business has been incredibly slow lately and he only expects that to get worse with the new measures.

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“Not seen it this quiet,” he said. “Very slow. Not many people walking around, and the few that are a little hesitant.”

His neighbor across the street, the Showbox, wasn’t getting any busier. Organizers postponed the planned Third Eye Blind show scheduled for Wednesday night. Organizers do not yet have a rescheduled date.

“Your tickets for the show will still be honored at the rescheduled date,” a Showbox representative said. “If you're unable to attend the new date, you may also get a refund at your point of purchase.”

“March for us historically is a very busy month,” said Gillan. “Emerald City Comic-Con is a huge draw, spring break is a huge draw – that’s not happening anymore so we’re down.”

He's already cut hours to meet reduced need.

At Benaroya Hall, the Seattle Symphony was rehearsing when officials announced the new measures. They immediately halted rehearsal, and are postponing future public concerts and events through March

“As you can imagine, it’s not easy to maintain a six-foot separation in an orchestra onstage,” said Krishna Thiagarajan, CEO of Seattle Symphony and Benaroya Hall. “People are breathing together, there’s all sorts of other things going on, so we just decided at this point it’s the right thing to do.”

View a full list of postponed or canceled events at Benaroya Hall here.

Thiagarajan said ticket holders will be allowed to apply the value of tickets to future symphony performances, hold the value on their account, or donate their tickets back. They asked customers to avoid asking for refunds, which will strain their operating budget – as costs remain, even when public events are halted.

A few blocks away, there was a surreal stillness at the Washington State Convention Center.

“We’ve already had about $20 million of national conventions cancel during the month of March, and another expected barrage of cancellations, $30-40 million in April,” said Tom Norwalk, President and CEO of Visit Seattle. “We’re worried also about May.”

He said millions of people pass through the convention center every year. 40-50 national conventions visit the center, often bringing anywhere from 2,500 to 8,000 people each. That’s on top of the many smaller gatherings.

Bookings are often done on a seven to eight-year cycle, Norwalk said, so rescheduling could push events years out.

“We’ll feel it for years to come,” he said. “We’ve got a big job just to get through the next several months … what makes this so different and unique is there’s no end in sight.”

Gillan hopes one does appear – as his business and his neighbors wait for their customers to return.

“Getting kind of real, yeah,” said Gillan.