The past year has been nothing short of a nightmare for small business owners — and service workers, postal carriers, teachers, nurses, students, people in general — in America. As has been well-documented in these pages and many others, it has been incredibly damaging to the restaurant industry and the millions of people it employs. It will continue to be.
But I cannot in good conscience encourage your return to enclosed dining rooms, no matter how kind you are or how well you tip.
Nor will scientists like Dr. Paul Pottinger, a professor of infectious disease at the University of Washington, where he also leads the infectious disease fellowship program and the tropical medicine clinic.
“Like you,” he told me when I expressed my concern with the timing of reopening indoor dining in Western Washington, “I’m nervous about this.”
IS INDOOR DINING SAFE?
Has indoor dining ever been safe during this crisis? Can it be done safely at this juncture?
“My overall philosophy is: Yes, of course it can be done safely,” said Pottinger. “The question is whether it will be.”
I shared my perspective from nearly a year of covering the local restaurant industry engulfed in the pandemic: that a preponderance of businesses follow the protocols to the best of their ability. Egregious acts of ignorance exist, but they are rare. Rule-bending happens, sometimes out of financial duress but more often its roots lie in a general misunderstanding of just how easily this virus flutters through the air, and how mysterious it can be even to those who carry it.
“At this point,” said Pottinger, “we have plenty of information about how it is spread to be able to say, ‘These are the core elements of a safe experience,’” meaning masks, golden air circulation and ample personal spaces for you and your household, and your household only. “The virus doesn’t care how hungry you are. The virus doesn’t care how much you want to see your friends. It simply waits for us to make a mistake with those core elements.”
Washington state has been fairly consistent with its pandemic response to high-risk activities like indoor dining, as prescribed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Gov. Jay Inslee, while announcing changes to the Healthy Washington plan’s metrics on Jan. 28, said science and reason portended the adjustments that reopened dining rooms in seven counties.
My question, and Pottinger agreed, is why now? We can see the light, but given new variants and flawed vaccine rollout, could it not dim again?
In part because only two of eight regions are affected, explained the governor’s director of communications Mike Faulk in an email, the move “is not exactly waving the white flag of surrender.”
Before the November rollback that restricted restaurants to outdoor seating and closed other indoor activities like bowling and movie theaters, he noted, restaurants in several counties were permitted to seat up to 75 percent capacity, including some in the West region that includes Thurston and the state capitol.
“What has drastically changed? COVID activity,” he said. The rate of spread has decreased to the point that public health can, in this case, be balanced with the “economic realities that cannot and should not be avoided in these decisions.”
Neither I nor restaurant owners, most of them independent, will argue with that sentiment.
Chef Derek Bray, who owns the contemporary American destination The Table in Tacoma’s Sixth Avenue district, told me in early January that camaraderie in the industry has veered from the logistics of rules and numbers and instead revolved around, “‘Hey, are you crying in the bathroom today?”’
WHAT HAPPENED TO OPEN AIR DINING & OUTDOOR DINING?
Just two weeks before the sudden jump forward to 25 percent indoor dining in Western Washington, the state had formalized its open air dining protocols.
The specificity of those setups — carbon dioxide monitoring, at least one wall with two or more windows, two opposite walls with open windows — insinuated that open air was the concession that Inslee, guided by science, was willing to make.
A well-ventilated building with open windows is probably safer than an unmonitored vinyl tent, the latter of which Pottinger called “an air-proof, leak-proof chamber.”
Rain and fluctuating temperatures aside, outdoor setups have vastly, and shockingly rapidly, improved, but I have said nuh-uh to many-a-bad tenting situations and alleged “patios” that looked uncannily like the inside of a restaurant.
Yes, it is “safer” to dine outdoors. I have assumed that risk, which I excuse with the fact that I am young and healthy and because I work for food. I have dined solely with my partner, the only person I have neared unmasked since March. But just a few weeks ago, we requested our food to go because four 20-somethings, more than six feet away from us in a parklet, had ordered three rounds of tequila shots and it just felt wrong.
Honestly, after talking to Dr. Pottinger, I’m not so sure I want to take that risk anymore.
I’m not just talking about my own health here: I’m talking about the people serving you, who stand in the same enclosed space for hours as dozens of strangers roll through. I’m talking about your parents, your cousins, your neighbors, your friend’s neighbors, your kid’s teachers and their families and neighbors and friends.
I’m talking about strangers.
“It is this tension between the perception of strategic personal gain and the burden of responsibility to the whole community,” said Pottinger. “If you shed COVID-19 to someone else, you don’t know where it will end up. If you have an in-person dining experience, you may have just killed somebody.”
WON’T MORE PPP RELIEF AND THE VACCINE HELP?
Restaurant workers and their employers have been shoved between a stupid rock and a partisan hard place.
State industry trade groups have lobbied for a return to 50 percent indoor dining, mainly for fiscal reasons. They also argue that people will gather regardless, which is true, and at least restaurants have rules they can enforce.
As Pottinger pointed out, 10 rules don’t make a right.
It’s easy to overlook the places that have steadfastly only offered outdoor seating, and when deemed untenable, have returned to a takeout-only model. As Chris Kiel, owner of the downtown Tacoma restaurant en Rama told me late last fall, once it was determined unsafe for kids to be in school, it became obvious to him that indoor dining was not safe either.
“There’s no bottom line number that would make me put my guests and my team at risk,” he said. The restaurant served guests outdoors until the weather turned and will return to that model once it warms again this spring. For now, it’s takeout.
By no means does any of the above or below shame any business that has taken a different tact. For too many, it is rarely of choice but rather of necessity.
The Paycheck Protection Program slapped a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound, and the third rendition will repeat the first and second act. The only hope this time: Will science, in the form of vaccine, and sensibility, in the form of a willing populace, end up on our side?
Though diners can return indoors, the COVID mission of the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department has not changed, according to spokesperson Karen Irwin.
An underlying theme right now, it seems, quietly reinforces what scientists and researchers, nurses and doctors, and yes, elected officials, have been telling us for months.
“Avoid crowded, poorly ventilated or fully enclosed indoor spaces,” said Irwin in an email. “Outdoor activities are safer than indoor activities. (This includes dining.)”
“We still think open air and outdoor dining is the safest option,” said Faulk in the governor’s office. That the state took weeks to release guidance for outdoor tents and open windows, he added, means the option won’t, or rather shouldn’t, disappear as vaccinations increase.
The difference between going to the grocery store masked and going to a restaurant is the mask, said Pottinger.
We concurred on the old adage: just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
I wish it weren’t so, but the safest way to enjoy a restaurant right now is outside, or at home, sitting next to the people who sleep there.
“The least safe would be in a closed room with strangers,” said Pottinger. “It is a spectrum of safety. That remains true to this day.”