The Washington Hospitality Association (WHA) is formally urging Gov. Jay Inslee’s office to reconsider the ban on indoor dining that took effect Wednesday and will run until at least Dec. 14.
“This year, our industry has been decimated,” WHA’s Director of State Government Affairs Julia Gorton wrote in a letter sent to Inslee’s office on Wednesday. “This most recent announcement will mean 100,000 families or more will lose their income right before the holidays.”
In the letter, WHA, a trade group that represents more than 6,000 members of the lodging and restaurant industry across the state, claims that restaurants are not a significant source of COVID-19 cases in Washington state, citing the safety regulations in place at restaurants and two months worth of data from public health offices in Clark, Pierce, and Walla Walla counties that the organization says suggests that less than one half of one percent of COVID cases were connected to restaurants.
The governor’s office refutes that claim on the basis that the available data does not paint a full picture.
“The fundamental disagreement here is whether COVID spreads in restaurants. It does. Period,” Mike Faulk, a spokesperson for the governor’s office wrote in an email. “Even with incomplete outbreak data due to the limitations of voluntary contact tracing, restaurants remain the number one non-healthcare [industry] where COVID spreads.”
As coronavirus numbers continue to climb around the U.S., Washington is one of a handful of states including Oregon, Minnesota and Michigan that have recently shut down indoor dining again to try and curb the spread of the virus. Several other states have introduced more severe dine-in restrictions.
But Washington is not the only state that’s seeing pushback from the restaurant industry. The Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association filed a lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services on Tuesday, demanding a judge block the state’s recently announced three-week ban on indoor dining, and alleging that the shutdown “this time with no safety net of federal stimulus dollars to soften the blow to already ailing operators and employees – will absolutely lead to a catastrophic economic fallout.”
In WHA’s letter, Gorton alleges that social gatherings are the main source of the rise in COVID-19 cases, particularly around the holidays, a trend the group says can be seen if you compare the timeline of spikes in coronavirus cases to a calendar of holidays associated with social gatherings.
Social gatherings with friends and family were the top frequently reported source of potential exposure to the virus in the last 60 days, Public Health – Seattle & King County says, but restaurants were No. 2.
Data from Public Health – Seattle & King County supports Inslee’s concerns about restaurants, and confirms what Inslee and Dr. Kathy Lofy, the state’s health officer, said in the governor’s news conference on Sunday: that the numbers WHA is citing have limitations and don’t paint a full picture.
“Because our non-healthcare workplace outbreak investigations primarily identify employee exposures in the workplace, we do not have a way to estimate the total number of patrons that may have been infected,” wrote Gabriel Spitzer, Communications Specialist for Public Health – Seattle & King County. “Because people may be exposed at multiple places, it is difficult to accurately estimate the precise burden of transmission associated with any one particular setting, including restaurants.”
Still, according to Public Health – Seattle & King County, in the last 60 days, restaurants were the second-most frequently reported source of potential COVID-19 exposure. Since the start of the pandemic, 83 outbreaks have been associated with restaurants, with 38 of those outbreaks reported in the last 60 days.
Gorton says in WHA’s letter that Inslee’s restrictions are unfairly focused on the hospitality industry when there is evidence of cases tied to other social activities.
“Activities that have been tied to large outbreaks are untouched under your most recent announcement,” Gorton wrote in the letter. “For instance, fraternity and sorority parties have caused hundreds of confirmed cases, and yet there is no guidance to impact these settings.”
(Inslee’s new restrictions announced Sunday included a ban on indoor gatherings with people from more than one household unless participants quarantine for a week beforehand and test negative for COVID-19.)
Faulk said the governor’s newest announced restrictions were formed based on facts at hand: “The science, which paints an even more complete picture, says the virus spreads when people are in close contact, unmasked, and indoors for a prolonged period of time. That is absolutely happening at restaurants.”
Inslee also said Sunday that the state has freed up another $50 million worth of grants and loans to help the state’s struggling business owners.
But in its letter to Inslee, WHA requested greater support and “robust” emergency relief for the industry, claiming that the $50 million in emergency grant assistance in federal CARES Act dollars (which includes $30 million in loans and $20 million in emergency grant relief) would barely take the edge off of the $1.2 billion in monthly costs the industry owes.
Tara Lee, communications director for Inslee’s office, said in an email Wednesday that “based on experiences in states like [California] and [New York], we believe we can roll out a loan program with about $100 [million] available. Commerce is working on the details now, timing will depend on several factors but the goal is for the program to be ready to roll out before the end of winter.”
Above all: “The governor has said he knows this isn’t enough and is asking for Congress to finally pass economic relief,” Faulk wrote. “We are not the only state in this position and it’s critical the federal government step in.”
In the meantime, the governor’s office encourages Washington residents to support local businesses by ordering to-go food and buying gift certificates
“We also continue to look for ways to provide more economic supports to these businesses,” wrote Faulk. “We take no pleasure in this, we know it’s painful, but we have no doubt that it is necessary to save our hospitals from being overrun and to save lives.”
Seattle Times reporters Paul Roberts and Tan Vinh contributed to this story.