In what can’t help but feel like “Groundhog Day” for Seattle-area restaurateurs, indoor dining has been reopened at 25% capacity for the second time since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic almost a year ago. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites data showing that “adults with positive SARS-CoV-2 test results were approximately twice as likely to have reported dining at a restaurant than were those with negative SARS-CoV-2 test results,” other cities around the country, including Philadelphia, Chicago and Washington, D.C., have also reopened dining inside at 25% capacity.

The change comes while vaccinations for health care workers and older Americans proceed (if sometimes at a frustratingly slow pace), but also as frightening variants of the virus continue to spread. Meanwhile, King County public health officials warn restaurant owners that it is “extremely important to proceed with caution” to protect employees and customers, calling in an email alert for measures including well-fitted masks, physical distancing, hand-washing, pre-shift employee health screening, keeping doors/windows open, and encouraging the alternatives of outdoor dining and takeout instead.

How does a restaurateur determine whether reopening is worth it? Two Seattle-area chef-owners explain their decisions.

Takeout only: Mutsuko Soma, chef-owner of Seattle’s Kamonegi and Hannyatou

Chef Mutsuko Soma, at her Seattle restaurant Hannyatou in 2019. Soma, who also owns Kamonegi, has decided to keep her dining rooms shut even as many other area restaurants start to open for limited indoor dining. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

Soma has announced that she will stick with takeout instead of reopening her dining room as allowed under Phase 2 rules.

How did you decide whether to reopen for indoor dining during COVID-19 this time around?

“It’s not fair to our community and it’s not fair for our family, friends and staff [to reopen now]. The landscape of the pandemic is still so uncertain. As a business owner, I cannot keep up with all the changes happening so quickly … The process of adapting to this pandemic is not as easy as it seems. We have our staff’s livelihood to think about, and unemployment has proven to be a battle of its own. I think it is unreasonable to push and pull my employees in and out of unemployment, back into an unstable work environment.”

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How did the financial implications of reopening at 25% play into your decision?

“Like all small businesses, we are running really lean. We do not have a buffer for emergencies right now. If even one of my employees becomes ill or, worse, tests positive for COVID, my business would have to suffer the financial implications of shutting down. It’s just not worth it.” 

How does your staff feel about the decision to keep the dining room closed for now?

“I know it’s hard for my staff because everything is so uncertain. I cannot guarantee what will happen in the next few months. However, we remain hopeful, and we are taking the time to learn, grow and motivate each other during this time. We’re doing our best to make sure that the future is safe and stable. As an owner, I am trying to make sure that my staff has a job to go back to. 

“Even with vaccines being distributed, it’s going to take a long time before we see the light at the end of the tunnel. As a mother, I am concerned because my 4-year-old daughter is not eligible for a vaccine, so my daughter isn’t safe. We’re all still not safe.”

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Open for indoor dining: Shubert Ho, owner of Edmonds restaurants Bar Dojo, Salt & Iron, The MAR•KET, SanKai, Fire & The Feast and Shore Pine Coffee & Gelato

Shubert Ho’s Salt & Iron restaurant in Edmonds reopened for indoor dining Monday — with capacity capped at 25% per the new pandemic guidelines. (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)

Ho, owner of Feedme Hospitality & Restaurant Group and Shooby Doo Catering, will be reopening Bar Dojo, Salt & Iron, Fire & The Feast, and Sankai for indoor dining this week.

How did you decide whether to reopen indoor dining during COVID-19 this time around?

“Our experience over the summer and how we serviced our guests and taking extra precautions — building additional barriers and also installing ion [a type of air purifier] HVAC that removed particles from the air — all that factored into our confidence in serving customers. Not a single one of our servers got COVID while they served thousands of customers while dining rooms were open — any reports were incidental, more because of lifestyle choices, not because of the workplace.

“The first shutdown was because we didn’t know the trajectory of the virus. The second was a knee-jerk reaction without any proof the industry was contributing. We feel we can educate our customer base on how to safely dine with others, while providing a safe environment.”

How did the financial implications of reopening at 25% play into your decision?

“It costs a lot of money to reopen in this capacity like this, but it makes total sense, as long as customers keep coming in.

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“Salt & Iron opened Monday, Bar Dojo will open Tuesday, SanKai and Fire & The Feast will open Wednesday. We’re never having people sit inside The MAR•KET ever again. [That restaurant has] become the best performing space from the worst one. They have single-handedly saved our company. It’s such a small place and when we first opened we felt like, ‘OK, if this doesn’t work out, at least it’s a small place.’ The MAR•KET lost money the first two years of operations. Since the pandemic, it has proven itself to be a profitable model with mainly quick-service cuisine. It reduced our deficit by half, lessening the blow during a pandemic. Still, we lost money in 2020, but have survived this far from grants and programs like PPP [Paycheck Protection Program].”

How does your staff feel about the decision to keep the dining room closed for now?

“Really, the majority can’t wait to get back to work. They recognize that we keep a safe workplace. We’ve added protocol, additional sanitizing options and also the HVAC upgrades. The proof is in the pudding; there was no outbreak or transfer from guests to server. There are a few [employees] who have family members that are elderly and they don’t want to expose them and those employees chose to isolate their family by not working. Those who want to come back to work, fantastic. Those who don’t, we’re happy to hold on to their space until they’re ready to come back.”