Across Washington state’s business community, Gov. Jay Inslee’s plan to fully reopen the state economy next month was greeted with a mix of optimism and uncertainty.
Industry and business groups were largely jubilant over Inslee’s announcement Thursday that the state’s broad COVID-19 restrictions would be lifted by June 30, or sooner if vaccination rates increase.
“This news comes as a ray of hope,” said Mark Canlis, co-owner of Seattle’s Canlis restaurant. “Everything we’ve done for 14 months has been to survive.”
“Today’s announcement suggests we are on the cusp of finally turning the corner on this pandemic,” added Tammie Hetrick, president and CEO of the Washington Food Industry Association, the industry group representing grocers, in a statement Thursday.
But business and labor leaders also warned that a full reopening, if not carefully managed, could spark yet another surge in cases.
“As Washington ‘reopens’ and expands in-person work, the state must make workers’ health and safety its top priority or risk inviting another wave of infections, even as more people are being vaccinated,” said Rachel Lauter, executive director of Working Washington, a labor group.
Even outright supporters of Inslee’s plan warned that the state’s economy still faces months if not years of recovery ahead. “We still have a long road ahead of us, but we want to celebrate today,” said Bill Weise, president of the Seattle Hotel Association, whose members have been especially hard-hit by pandemic restrictions on tourism and business travel.
Some businesses leaders said the June 30 date gives businesses enough time to plan for reopening as well as confidence to staff up and make other reopening investments.
Inslee’s announcement “is hugely important for overall planning and more certainty for our businesses and residents,” said Patrick Bannon, president of the Bellevue Downtown Association.
“Uncertainty has been a major barrier for businesses as they try to reopen,” echoed Jon Scholes, president and CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association, which has tracked the permanent closure of nearly 300 street-level business locations in Seattle since the start of 2020.
Still, many businesses had questions about the timing and specific details of the reopening plan, which will be partly contingent on vaccination rates.
Some restaurant owners, for example, worried they wouldn’t be able to hire enough staff by June 30 to operate at full capacity, given ongoing labor shortages.
“Are you going to be able to get enough workers by then? There’s no way,” said Ethan Stowell, who owns more than a dozen Seattle-area restaurants. And while customer demand in some residential neighborhoods might be high enough for restaurants and other businesses to fully reopen, that might not be the case in downtown areas, which still lack office workers, Stowell said. Many downtown employers won’t fully return to the office until the fall.
Other businesses had questions around how to handle customers’ vaccination status.
Hetrick said WFIA wasn’t certain what requirements, if any, would be needed to determine proof of vaccination among customers and was awaiting more information from the state health department on that topic.
“My members are either going to have to make a decision to require masks or give people the benefit of the doubt until we know better,” Hetrick said. But she added that members are “not going to ask for any proof from customers until we’re told we have to.”
Hetrick also said that some grocery stores were likely to require their fully vaccinated employees to wear masks, while others may not. “Our members are kind of all over the board on this,” she added. “Some have told me they are still going to ask their employees to wear masks to give customers a reassurance it’s a safe environment.”
For example, although QFC and Fred Meyer stores now require masks for everyone in the stores, that could change, said a spokesperson for parent company Kroger.
Other businesses are also divided about verifying vaccination status, depending on the industry.
Eric Rivera, owner of Addo in Ballard, said he will require customers to show proof of vaccination. “I’m not going to fight with them,” Rivera said. “They have [vaccination] cards and they’re legit, or they don’t get to come and eat and that’s their problem,” he said.
Others worried about the effects of having to ask about vaccination status, especially in sensitive cases such as health care or funeral services.
Cameron Smock, president and CEO of Bonney Watson, a funeral home with locations in SeaTac and Federal Way, said he worried about requesting proof of vaccination at funeral services. “We’re dealing with people in varying states of grief and emotional distress,” he said.
Smock said he would lean toward using an honor system similar to asking people whether they’ve had recent symptoms, but added that the company’s leadership still has to decide on formal policies.
“We’re trying to be as empathetic and sensitive as we can without, obviously, compromising the health of our staff or visitors,” Smock said.
Some business owners also worried whether their employees will be comfortable with full indoor capacity or with a return to close contact with customers.
“I always just keep worrying about the staff and the team,” said Melissa Miranda of Musang, a restaurant on Beacon Hill in South Seattle. “I don’t think I’ll be opening up at 100%.”
Some businesses said they would maintain at least some safety measures, including masks and social distancing, even after the state reopens.
Addo’s Rivera, for example, said he had already planned to reopen far below his restaurant’s capacity for the rest of the year. The restaurant will allow a maximum of eight people in a space that holds about 50.
The eight-person limit will keep an intimate feel, and staff and diners will know others in the room are vaccinated, Rivera said.
It will also allow Rivera to avoid a huge hit to his operations if rising case counts lead the state to reimpose restrictions. “Even if things go up or down or all over the place again, and they have to roll back again, we’ll be fine,” he said.
Despite the questions and uncertainty, many businesses see the reopening as a welcome step toward returning to normal — for business, but also for society.
“This will truly be a game-changer,” said Bonney Watson’s Smock.
“Rituals and traditions around death, grief and mourning are so deeply held and passed on from generation to generation, that to be told ‘no’ or to be very restricted in what they could do has been very difficult for the families.”
Seattle Times staff reporters Evan Bush, Joseph O’Sullivan, and Bethany Jean Clement contributed to this report.