November 29, 2021

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Fit And Go Forward

Indoor dining OK’d for Pierce County, western WA restaurants

Restaurants in seven western Washington counties can restart indoor dining at limited capacity on Feb. 1, following an adjustment to the state’s Healthy Washington plan announced Thursday by Gov. Jay Inslee. Gyms and fitness studios also can begin indoor activities.

The Puget Sound region, which includes Pierce, King and Snohomish counties, as well as the West region of Thurston, Grays Harbor, Lewis and Pacific, have been upgraded to Phase 2 for meeting three of the plan’s four metrics. Originally, a region had to meet all four to move forward, sustaining at least three to remain at that level.

Thursday’s changes allow bars and restaurants to seat guests indoors, up to 25 percent capacity — with windows closed, should they so desire.

Social media posts ensued from restaurant accounts in the area saying they would take advantage of the upgrade, looking especially forward to Valentine’s Day, one of the industry’s most lucrative days of the year. Marzano, an Italian restaurant in the Parkland neighborhood near Tacoma, quickly shared the news. Many others might hold off, however, as such limited numbers inhibit the ability to turn a profit. Risks to staff and customers also remain a worry for countless owners and workers.

Plenty of restaurants had already flung open their windows to accommodate open air dining, which allows limited seating in enclosed areas as long as the airflow mirrored the outdoors. The state and the Washington Hospitality Association refrained from considering this scenario “indoor dining,” but it was an effort to give businesses some leeway in where they could safely seat guests.

Until those rules were shared two weeks ago, eateries were relegated to outdoor dining at half capacity plus takeout.

“We believe that you have to make a decision based on science and reason, and we’re bringing both of those to the table,” Inslee told reporters Thursday afternoon.

He praised Washingtonians’ efforts thus far to combat the virus through mask wearing, social distancing and generally being careful and stressed the importance of continued vigilance.

“We believe this is a reasonable step,” he said, adding that the hopeful influx of additional vaccine doses will enhance the state’s ability to pursue a viable reopening path.

Other parts of the state will remain in Phase 1 of the tweaked Healthy Washington plan for at least another two weeks. Previously, the metrics were to be evaluated weekly.

RETAIL, RESTAURANTS ASK FOR LONG-TERM REOPENING PLAN

In a press briefing later Thursday afternoon, leaders from business groups representing hospitality and retail praised the small step forward but lamented that most counties would remain untouched. Beleaguered by the back-and-forth of the state’s iterations of reopening plans — and the shifting metrics of the current one they also called for details on the long-game.

“The need for a complete roadmap is really important,” said Washington Business Association president Kristofer Johsnon.

“I’m really concerned that there is no Phase 3,” said Renée Sunde, president and CEO of the Washington Retail Association.

Though its members were not directly affected by the step back to shuttered dining rooms, movie theaters and other centers of social activity leading into the holidays, retail relies on customers flowing to nearby businesses.

“It makes it easier to not frequent a small business,” she said. “There isn’t really anything surrounding the experience. You don’t have a place to get a drink or a cup of coffee.”

Business and restaurant trade groups across the country have lobbied for similar reopening permissions in the first few weeks of 2021, as the anniversary of initial COVID-19 lockdowns nears. Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York said this week, “We simply cannot stay closed until the vaccine hits critical mass.” Last weekend, Chicago and surrounding Cook County suddenly switched gears to allow 25 percent capacity or 25 people indoors, whichever is fewer. That change occurred after Gov. Jay Pritzker there loosened the metrics of Illinois’ reopening plan.

Nonetheless, numerous businesses said they would stick to takeaway and outdoor seating for health and safety reasons.

Anthony Anton, president of the Washington Hospitality Association, repeated a sentiment he has expressed consistently in the past year: “This isn’t gonna work for everyone.”

The average restaurant loses $25,000 when closed completely, he said, and that number drops only slightly, to $18,000, when open under limited capacity. The sweet spot is 50 percent capacity with indoor and outdoor seating, plus takeout.

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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