It happened on March 15 of this time-warp of a year, and it’s happening again: Gov. Jay Inslee announced Sunday that, starting at 12:01 am. Wednesday and in effect until Dec. 14, indoor service will not be allowed at restaurants and bars in Washington state. Outdoor service will still be permitted, but with a five-person party limit. Takeout and delivery will still be allowed during this four-week pause.
With average daily coronavirus case numbers in Washington doubling over the last two weeks, the third wave of the virus is upon us, and “this spike puts us in a more dangerous a position as we were in March,” Inslee said during a news conference Sunday to announce the new restrictions.
“And it means, unfortunately, the time has come to reinstate restrictions on activities statewide to preserve the public’s well-being, and to save lives,” Inslee said. “These were very difficult decisions that have very real consequences to people’s livelihoods. I recognize that and don’t take those impacts lightly, but we must act now and act quickly to slow the spread of this disease.”
Until Sunday, state regulations allowed restaurants to operate at 50% capacity, with party sizes capped at six in Phase 2. The monthlong pause is an effort to curb the record-setting numbers of new coronavirus cases found in Washington and across the country in recent weeks.
Marissa Baker, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at the University of Washington, and a leading expert on how COVID-19 affects workplaces, applauded the shutdown, saying indoor dining falls under the “high-risk category” since diners are maskless and in close proximity to one another over a long period of time.
“Often, they’re meeting with people who are not in their household,” she said. “It creates more risk than it’s worth. I am of the camp that we should never have opened indoor dining. Closing it makes perfect sense to me.”
The Washington Hospitality Association, which represents the lodging and restaurant industry across the state, disagreed with Inslee’s mandate, calling the closure “devastating,” saying it “will likely result in more than 100,000 restaurant employees out of work just before the holidays” and adding that “less than one half of one percent of COVID cases can be traced to restaurants.”
However Inslee and state health officer Dr. Kathy Lofy both disputed that statistic.
“Restaurants are the most common site of outbreaks in our state,” Lofy said, explaining that the number of COVID cases traced to restaurants skews small because tracing mechanisms focus on employees infected, and the system is not set up to track how many patrons fall ill after visiting specific restaurants.
“People need to understand that there are lots of limitations to the data,” Lofy said. “We want to be fully transparent about every piece of data we have, but there are some major limitations to the data we have around outbreaks.”
“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” Inslee said, citing cellphone mobility data-based research done by Google and others that shows restaurants rank high among locations where coronavirus is likely to spread.
The restaurant industry is suffering greatly from the economic effects of the pandemic, with local longtime favorites such as James Beard-award winning Tilth and beloved Boeing Field diner Randy’s closing permanently. With the loss of more livelihoods and businesses already a certainty, Seattle chefs and restaurateurs reached for comment recognize the necessity of the shutdown to lessen loss of life and avoid a prolonged, worsening pandemic. But they also urgently call for more aid.
“No matter how much you knew it was going to happen, there is really no way for small businesses and restaurants to be ready for [this] second closure,” says chef Rachel Yang of Joule and Revel. But, she says, “The closure is necessary not only for public safety, but also for our restaurant family’s safety.” Noting that no one in the restaurant industry has the option of working from home, she says, “We really need help from the government for small businesses as well as for individuals.”
Chef Monica Dimas of Little Neon Taco and Westman’s Bagel echoes that need, saying, “It’s on our government to mitigate the impact on businesses and the people whose jobs are impacted.” But she, too, calls the shutdown “imperative — we’re looking at the spike, it’s atrocious.” Dimas says that when she finally reluctantly reopened for limited-capacity indoor dining on Aug. 1, it was due to customer demand. She feels that people are “getting a little too comfortable with the pandemic,” citing seeing crowds inside and outside other local establishments with patrons failing to practice social distancing. She points out that those most impacted are older people, the immunocompromised and “the black and brown community.”
“I do personally know people who have gotten sick and have died from this …” Dimas says. “It’s not somebody else’s problem. We all have to deal with this.”
Inslee indicated Sunday that aid will be coming, saying the state is committing another $50 million “to mitigate impacts on businesses” that will be disbursed in some combination of grants and loans. “We’re going to work with our partners to get this aid out as swiftly as we can,” hopefully before the end of the year, Inslee said.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said Sunday that the city will also be announcing “more flexibility for restaurants with outdoor dining” in the coming days.
Restaurateurs say they’ll take all forms of aid as they struggle to balance their livelihoods with the desire to look out for the public good.
Even before Inslee’s announcement Sunday, chef Melissa Miranda had stopped taking reservations for indoor dining at her Filipino restaurant Musang last Friday after seeing the spike of coronavirus cases around King County and surrounding areas. Trying to get by on dining with just four tables outside is tough, she said, and offering takeout that’s not pizza isn’t easy, but closing down her indoor dining room was absolutely the right thing to do, she says. “It comes down to the safety for my staff and my customers.”
“The only part I’m upset about is there is not another stimulus package or more local government help,” she says. “A lot of restaurants can’t get rent relief. Can’t take any more loans. We have not seen the worst of this yet.”