When Seattle area restaurants reopen, perhaps as soon as early June, customers should brace for a dining experience that will look little like what they encountered before the coronavirus pandemic, many restaurateurs warn.
Servers will likely don masks and gloves. You’ll order from a disposable paper menu while your server stands 6 feet away. If you leave your seat to use the restroom, you will be asked to put on your face covering. And in what will likely ignite the biggest controversy, restaurants will be required to record your personal data — name, number, email address and the time of your visit — and maintain those records for 30 days.
Gov. Jay Inslee on Monday night issued a checklist that restaurants must abide by as they inch toward a return to full capacity under the governor’s four-phase plan.
Stevens, Wahkiakum, Skamania, Ferry, Pend Oreille, Columbia, Garfield and Lincoln counties are already in Phase 2, which allows restaurants to operate at half-capacity. For those counties, in-store retail operations may also resume with limitations, effective May 12.
State officials estimate that King County and other counties around Seattle will likely enter phase two by June 1 if there is no spike in coronavirus cases.
The state’s blueprint for restaurant openings has been eagerly anticipated, given the economic stakes. In King County alone, restaurants and bars accounted for 105,600 jobs and $6.3 billion in taxable revenues in 2019, according to King County’s office of economic and financial analysis.
The restaurant industry has been one of the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic, with more than 120,000 hospitality workers filing for unemployment benefits statewide, or about 13% of workers across all occupations who filed claims with the Employment Security Department, according to the Washington Hospitality Association.
On Tuesday morning, as news of the governor’s guidelines spread, many Seattle restaurant owners scrambled to set up Zoom meetings with their management teams to prep for the pending reopening. Several owners said one major sticking point is how to deal with contentious customers who refuse to disclose personal data or turn belligerent if the host logs their visits.
Under the guidelines, if the restaurant offers table service, the staff must record the personal data of every diner and maintain those records for 30 days for contact tracing in case anyone who was in the restaurant at the time tests positive for the new coronavirus.
Contact-tracing investigations have been used by public health officials for decades as a way to track down those who may have had contact with a person confirmed to have a highly infectious disease. The investigations are used to try and get ahead of transmission before a disease becomes more widespread.
Now that the coronavirus is widely circulating, contact tracing is to be deployed alongside broader diagnostic testing in an effort to avoid outbreaks that push up the state’s case count. The governor and the state Department of Health are now trying to help the state’s 35 health districts with contact tracing investigations. The state has trained almost 1,400 people to do contact tracing work, Inslee said Tuesday.
But on Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington criticized the governor’s plan for restaurants, saying, “the current guidelines requiring restaurants to maintain mandatory daily logs of customers is vague as currently written and creates risks to people’s fundamental rights to privacy and association.”
“The data should also be securely deleted after the minimum period of time necessary to retain the data for public health purposes,” said Jennifer Lee, a spokesperson for ACLU Washington.
ACLU Washington has requested a meeting with the governor’s office.
Rich Fox, the CEO of Weimann-Maclise Restaurants, which owns 10 Seattle-area restaurants including Poquitos on Capitol Hill and Bastille Café & Bar in Ballard, plans to post the new guidelines at the front of all his restaurants and have someone at the door with a clipboard take down customers’ data. If patrons opt not to disclose the info, they will be declined entry, he said.
“These are the regulations and rules, and we have to follow them,” Fox said. “This is what we have to do to protect the public and our staff. This is the reality that we have to deal with.”
Another issue is crowd control. Under phase two, restaurants can only open at 50% capacity, and party sizes are capped at five. But that does not account for customers who will wait in line, which will put an additional burden on staff to enforce social distancing in waiting areas and along the sidewalk.
Breweries are also included under the reopening guidelines, which has many industry insiders worried. On a sunny Friday or Saturday afternoon, thousands of customers will barhop around the dozen microbreweries in the Ballard Brewery District, which could create a block-party vibe if each of the taprooms reaches the maximum 50% capacity.
“We suspect some people will wait 40 minutes to an hour,” to get into a taproom on a nice day, said Eric Radovich, executive director of the Washington Beer Commission, which represents the 421 breweries in the state.
He advises popular breweries such as Stoup Brewing and Reuben’s Brews in Ballard to set up an online reservations system on weekends and cap how long patrons can linger in their beer gardens. Radovich also encourages customers to get growlers, bottles or beers to-go instead of waiting in long lines.
On Capitol Hill, Eric Banh, who owns five restaurants, said he will continue with takeout and delivery in phase 2 but not reopen dining rooms at his Ba Bar branches in South Lake Union, University Village and the Central District. He said he stands to lose more money reopening at 50% capacity due to the high cost of food, staffing, training and crowd control. He has not decided whether to reopen his fine-dining restaurant Monsoon — with branches in Seattle and Bellevue — until he can crunch the numbers.
The new rule requiring employees to stay 6 feet away from one another will be impossible to enforce since most restaurant kitchens are tight quarters designed to maximize space, and cooks often work shoulder-to-shoulder, Banh said.
Restaurants might also need to measure floor space and reposition tables to ensure each party has 6 feet of separation and also leave room for lines to the restroom.
The week leading up to the reopening will be a nightmare, Banh warns. Restaurants must pay for masks and gloves for their workers. Management must thoroughly screen employees daily and ask if they show any symptoms of the coronavirus before they are cleared to work. Servers must disinfect not just every table and chair but every condiment bottle for every party. With servers donning gloves and masks, and the whiff of disinfectant in the air, your dining experience might more closely resemble a visit to the hospital, Banh quipped.
“Going to eat is about the experience, not just filling your stomach. It’s about the interaction,” Banh said. “Do you think anyone thinks this is a romantic industry anymore?”
Seattle Times reporter Ryan Blethen contributed to this story.