October 21, 2021

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Fit And Go Forward

Indoor dining can return in 2021 under WA COVID-19 plan

Restaurants could begin welcoming guests inside — up to 25 percent capacity — when their region reaches the second phase of Washington state’s new reopening plan, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Tuesday.

A prominent industry group quickly decried the region-based, two-phased plan without a formal end date as a “third, rebranded shutdown that also will not work.”

Currently, restaurants can seat five people at only outdoor tables. The new regulations permit six people and up to two households per table — outdoors only in Phase 1 and indoors at 25 percent capacity in Phase 2. Mask and distancing requirements remain.

The “Healthy Washington” plan groups counties into eight regions, based largely on existing emergency medical services. Pierce and Snohomish counties join King in the “Central” region.

Starting Jan. 11, all regions will begin their Phase 1 journey, where restrictions on certain activities generally mirror the state’s existing COVID-19 rules that include a ban on indoor dining and live entertainment.

To reach the new Phase 2, regions must meet four health trends determined by COVID-19 case data and hospitalizations. The state Department of Health will review local health data weekly. On Fridays, if a region meets all four requirements, it will move to Phase 2 the following Monday. From there, the metrics become somewhat flexible, but a region that fails in two of the four will revert to Phase 1.

Blake Lord-Wittig, the executive chef of Harmon Brewing Co. which last fall launched a pop-up called Spice Lab inside its Tacoma location, said his team would discuss the feasibility of 25 percent capacity. Having a large space helps, he told The News Tribune in a message Tuesday afternoon.

“I can see how a lot of other restaurants won’t be able to even try to reopen until at least 50 percent capacity,” he said. “It’s truly a difficult time and being adaptable is the key to success currently.”

INDOOR DINING REMAINS HIGH RISK IN WA

Washington Hospitality Association president Anthony Anton said in a statement that the industry wished for an end date to nearly a year of restrictions, a more detailed vaccine roll-out and targeted relief to keep “Main Street from collapsing.”

“To date, our industry has only seen what amounts to a million-dollar Band-Aid to a billion-dollar problem,” he said.

Inslee’s response to a question at Tuesday’s press conference comparing grocery stores to restaurants was firm.

“We’re in the business of saving lives, and we know that saving lives entails reducing risks,” and restaurants are “one of the riskiest environments,” he said. “People wear masks when they go to grocery stores, and they don’t sit next to each other for an hour and a half and breathe on each other.”

In an email to The News Tribune, Mike Faulk, deputy press secretary for the governor’s office, repeated this sentiment and linked to several studies and articles outlining the risks posed by dining at restaurants and other prolonged indoor activities. A study in the journal Nature, for instance, estimated that full-service and limited-service restaurants, cafes, hotels, gyms and religious organizations would cause the highest increases in infections if reopened. Researchers described reopening full-service restaurants as “particularly high risk.”

Religious gatherings in the state can be hosted indoors at 25 percent capacity, and under the new plan, fitness centers can accommodate individual guests in one room or one person per 500 square feet.

Inslee quipped during the press conference that “until we design a technology that we can wear a mask and eat, then we continue to have this problem.”

To diminish the risk and reopen restaurants safely, he said, “We have set forth a path that will allow them to reopen as we knock those numbers down.”

WORKERS, BUSINESS, PUBLIC AT ODDS OVER INDOOR DINING

Many restaurants last year stuck with only outdoor seating in the summer and takeout otherwise to ensure the safety of both employees and customers.

Unlike the industry trade group, workers groups including Working Washington have applauded restrictions on indoor dining for similar reasons.

With this new plan, Inslee has rightfully prioritized public health over “restaurant revenue or restaurant owners’ political power,” said spokesperson Sage Wilson in an email.

“We’re pleased to see that the new roadmap reflects the basic reality every restaurant worker knows: indoor dining is not an essential service, and it is simply not safe right now.”

The group has called for more financial relief for workers without reliable sources of income and lamented the lengthy waits to receive unemployment through the state’s Employment Security Department.

In what seems increasingly to be a lose-lose situation, restaurants — especially full-service ones known for their in-person experiences — continue to endure diminished sales, and the nationwide loud voices in the industry continue to clamor for targeted federal relief.

Inslee on Tuesday referenced the state’s more than $100 million directed toward restaurants and other businesses most affected by indoor restrictions and alluded to additional financial relief when the Legislature convenes later this month.

Matt Wakefield, senior communications director for Travel Tacoma-Pierce County, pointed out, “The latest relief package from December ended up granting $12,500 to 7,000 businesses. It’s fair to say that covers only about half the cost of keeping the average restaurant closed for one month.”

Alluding to court battles and “organized opening protests” in other states, Anton said Tuesday’s announcement leaves the hospitality association and its members “at a loss for what to do next and makes it clear that we are running out of time.”

He pointed at high rates of travel reported over the Christmas holiday despite a statewide stay-put order and added that Washington residents too have grown weary of restrictions.

“Public fatigue is weakening the effectiveness of the restrictions but isn’t diminishing the harm,” he said.

Faulk says the governor stands by the “Healthy Washington” plan.

“There are limitations to state outbreak data, when sharing information in many cases is voluntary,” he said by email. “But we have a whole body of scientific evidence about the spread of the virus that confirms places like restaurants are high-risk venues. These are awful circumstances, but we are confident in the science behind the decision.”

Follow more of our reporting on Full coverage of coronavirus in Washington

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Kristine Sherred joined The News Tribune in December 2019, following a decade in Chicago where she worked for restaurants, a liquor wholesaler and a culinary bookstore. She previously covered the food business for Industry Dive and William Reed. Find her on Instagram @kcsherred and Twitter @kriscarasher.

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