WE KEPT GOING OUT right up until the end. At first, just a couple weeks ago in Seattle, everything seemed quite normal, with the issue of coronavirus just starting to show around the edges. Settling into a deep blue velvet booth at lovely Lark for local oysters ensconced on a bed of glittering ice, talking of all kinds of other things, seemed perfectly normal, too, a beautiful luxury. But even as the reports of the COVID-19 infection rate rising here started coming, a lot of people I know — the ones in low-risk categories — kept going out to our neighborhood restaurants, cafes and bars. We made jokes about social distancing, shrugging, still hugging and eating crêpes at an art opening at the tiny treasure of a cafe called Joe Bar. For a while, people seemed to be out drinking even more, a sort of euphoric end-of-days electricity in the barroom air along with the scent of the extra-good French fries at super-friendly Bait Shop.
We weren’t just being cavalier — pretty much everyone I know works in the restaurant industry or has many friends who do, and supporting them seemed more important than keeping our social distance. The Facebook group Seattle Restaurant Support sprang up to urge people to go out, and thousands quickly joined. Restaurants may be capitalist enterprises, but the Seattle network of them is also a close-knit community, and that sense of connection extends to its legion of fans. We know how much our favorite chefs, baristas, bartenders and servers care, and we know the caring of those who gather the mushrooms and tend to the oysters and grow the asparagus, too — we can taste the love.
Now Seattle’s the center of a pandemic — that’s the official term, with its shades of pandemonium and panic. All of our restaurants and bars have been officially closed, effective immediately, for at least two weeks’ time, and it seems almost certain it’ll be longer. New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and probably more by the time you read this have followed suit, but here at the U.S. epicenter of the virus, things are most dire. As Gov. Jay Inslee said Monday, we represent just 2% of the population, but 20% of the infections. He listed different kinds of places now forbidden with a chilling specificity: bars and taverns, food courts and wine-tasting rooms, ice-cream parlors and coffee shops. The governor on the radio, intoning that ice-cream parlors are no more — what world is this? “This is bigger than all of us,” he said. “Normal is not in our game plan.”
Please note right away that many of our favorite places are still making food for delivery and takeout, from tony Canlis to French-homey Cafe Presse. If you’re here in this nearly unfathomably bizarre new Seattle, and you aren’t in a high-risk group, and you have the means, you can and should help at least some restaurant workers stay employed with your patronage. While introducing the governor this morning, King County Executive Dow Constantine implored everyone to stay home and “hunker down,” but also to help the industry by getting delivery and takeout. “I’m urging everyone to patronize their local restaurants and coffee shops,” he said, “at a safe distance.”
The messaging is confusing, as is everything now, but you still need to eat — if you go to the grocery store or to pick up food, take all precautions. Pharmacies remain in operation, too. Don’t touch your face. Wash your hands a thousand times before and after, until they barely exist. “If we are living a normal life right now,” he said, “we’re not doing our job as Washingtonians.” If you are in a high-risk group, please keep your self-quarantine as thorough as humanly possible, and I’m so sorry for your fear and isolation. (Hi Mom! I miss you. We will get through this. We will hug again.)
If you’re a restaurant worker who’s out of work, thank goodness for the city of Seattle’s temporary eviction ban — but right now, it’s only for 30 days or until this crisis ends, at which point nobody will be any less broke. We’re quite assuredly going to need more of that, as well as help with medical benefits and some emergency income assistance for you. Nonprofit organization Working Washington has set up a petition on these issues.
Before any of this was visited upon us, chefs and owners were already struggling here. Seattle’s formerly wildly booming restaurant scene has been showing very visible signs of slowing, with the rate of closures rising. The increase in average annual sales per Seattle restaurant spiked to a high of 7.73% at the beginning of 2015; by the start of 2019, that figure had become a decrease of -0.2%. The rate for leasing retail space has gone up 36% in the past 10 years, while the cost of living has gone through the roof. We’ve got brilliant top-tier chefs such as James Beard award-winning Matt Dillon pulling up stakes as indictments of the skyrocketing costs of doing business in our newly exorbitantly expensive city, along with the difficulty of just finding workers who can afford to live here. Local industry moguls Tom Douglas and Ethan Stowell closed some of their restaurants recently, too, and independent mom-and-pop places have it even harder. Even if governmental powers-that-be step in right away with financial help for these businesses — which they should — it’s difficult to imagine that the assistance will be enough. This temporary shutdown of Seattle restaurants will be a final one for many places.
THE HUMAN COST of coronavirus is terrifying to contemplate, and doing what we can to keep ourselves safe and healthy and alive is paramount. But Inslee says to think positive. “We are going to get through this,” he said. “We do have the ability to control our own destiny.” If we can somehow end up with the kind of universal health care that would’ve been extremely helpful right now, that’ll be positive.
As the seriousness of the message of social distancing spread, something funny happened: When we went out, no one else was there. There were pockets of humanity: fans of the downtown jewel of a wine bar, Le Caviste, eating very nice French cheeses with extra appreciation under the warm glow of its 102 low-wattage incandescent light bulbs. While the bar at El Gaucho in Belltown was sparsely populated at one happy hour o’clock, the vast, posh sea of a dining room had mink-trimmed booths occupied, and the excellent hamburger remained just so. But, increasingly, those of us venturing out had the city to ourselves, walking down empty streets as stoplights ceased to mean anything because of no traffic. We drank martinis in the gorgeous old-school lobby of downtown’s Arctic Club, the carpeting soft and endless, the coveted fireside sofas all ours with no one else around, the building guarded by its frieze of carved walruses. Last night, as we messaged each other the news, some of us went instinctively, immediately to our closest local bar, sliding into a corner with our hand sanitizer and finding the pizza dramatically improved by circumstance.
“See you on the other side!” our favorite bartender called on the way out. God, we hope so.