Last week, Amazon told its 50,000 Seattle-based employees to work from home for the rest of March amid the coronavirus outbreak that has infected more than 100,000 people globally and killed at least 23 people in Washington state alone.
This week, Amazon said it was establishing a $5 million fund to help Seattle small businesses — like bars, restaurants, and food trucks — offset the sales they’ve lost from that work-from-home decree and help them pay employees.
The company announced Tuesday that small businesses located in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood, home of Amazon’s first headquarters, and the Regrade neighborhood, where Amazon’s new office towers are based, can apply for a grant from Amazon — not a loan — meaning that it doesn’t have to be repaid. Amazon will prioritize grants for businesses that rely on foot traffic to attract customers and that can provide information showing how much revenue they expect to lose this month. Amazon says it will disperse the grants in April, and will provide more information on its company blog in the coming days about how to apply.
Amazon’s move comes as other tech giants are considering how to support the individuals and businesses caught in the ripple effect of the coronavirus health crisis. Sharing economy startups like Uber, DoorDash, Lyft, Postmates, and Instacart are reportedly in discussions on setting up a joint fund to, among other things, provide payments to drivers who have contracted the virus or been quarantined. Reports of the talks came days after Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) wrote to the companies’ CEOs urging them to help their drivers and delivery people.
Amazon’s relationship with Seattle is complicated. The company has been based there since Jeff Bezos first started selling books online in 1995, and the company’s success and hiring growth has helped Seattle become one of the biggest hubs for tech companies in the country. At the same time, that growth in high-paying jobs — along with the real estate boom and homelessness crisis that accompanied it — has made Amazon a target among some politicians, activists, and long-time residents who believe Amazon hasn’t done enough to aid the people and businesses of Seattle that have been left behind along the way.
The friction came to a head in 2018, when Amazon paused construction on new downtown office towers in protest of a new type of payroll tax the City Council was trying to pass to pay for homelessness services and affordable housing. The legislation passed, but was quickly repealed. And this past fall, Amazon poured nearly $1.5 million into Seattle City Council races, in an effort to defeat the local, progressive politicians who support such a tax. It didn’t work.
But Amazon also has spent considerable energy to make the areas around both its old headquarters in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood — and its new headquarters in the Regrade neighborhood — vibrant and attractive locations for small businesses. The new relief fund, with an initial $5 million allocation, seems like a relatively inexpensive bet to try to keep it that way.