Restaurants can now welcome more customers after Gov. Jay Inslee announced that the state’s coronavirus infection rate has fallen low enough for bistros, cafes and other dining establishments to increase seating capacity from 25% to 50%. You can also grab a cocktail until midnight, as last call has been extended by an hour.
The easing of dining restrictions starts Monday, but those looking to cure their cabin fever might be surprised to find they won’t immediately get that many more indoor dining options with a change of the calendar.
In interviews with a dozen restaurateurs last week, it became clear that many owners are at least a month away from reopening their dining rooms. Many restaurants around Seattle with fewer than 40 seats will not reopen now, since the economic arithmetic of limited seating plus the high cost of staffing and other expenses doesn’t add up, several veteran restaurateurs said.
Others that will reopen need more time to hire and train staff, buy patio furniture for al fresco dining and — perhaps the biggest obstacle — wait until their servers and cooks are fully vaccinated before they turn the lights on again.
The celebrated Capitol Hill bar Canon won’t reopen “until July at the earliest,” owner Jamie Boudreau said. Canon’s predicament is similar to that of many bars and small restaurants: The cocktail den has 42 seats, but at 50% seating capacity and with the ban on sitting around the bar counter, his room can only accommodate 12 guests with social distancing. That’s not enough business to break even, he said.
Boudreau said he needs at least a 75% seating capacity allowance before he reopens, and even then, he will need time to hire and train bartenders and restock his kitchen. No matter how long it takes, he will also require every server, cook and bartender to be fully vaccinated as a condition of employment, he said.
“I’m not going to take the chance of someone getting sick,” he said. “I can’t afford to close down and reopen again.”
Last week, Inslee cleared a major hurdle for the service industry when he moved servers, cooks and other restaurant workers to the front of the line for the COVID-19 vaccine, beginning March 31.
How many restaurant employees can get quickly vaccinated is unclear. According to the Washington Hospitality Association, up to 251,000 servers and other service industry workers are eligible for the vaccine at the end of this month.
Even if every restaurant worker could score a vaccine appointment in April, they’re still about another month out before they are fully protected, said 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.
If the vaccine received is one with a two-dose regimen, it would take “five to six weeks” to get the maximum protection, she said.
Even the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine would take about a month before providing the maximum protection, Baker said.
James Lim, owner of the popular fried chicken joint Watson’s Counter in Ballard, said he will require his entire staff to get vaccinated before he considers reopening for indoor dining. He’s only doing takeout, holding off on indoor dining until the state lifts the seating restrictions, since his 24-seat bistro can only accommodate eight diners with the 50% capacity and 6-feet-social-distancing mandates. Eight seats doesn’t generate enough revenue to justify staffing up, he said.
On Beacon Hill, James Beard Award-nominated chef Logan Cox of the acclaimed restaurant Homer, said he won’t reopen for indoor dining until his staff of 12 can get vaccinated, and his servers and cooks tell him they “are comfortable with customers inside the restaurant.” His 50-seat dining room can accommodate only 15 diners under the current seating restrictions, but he hopes to make up for the lack of indoor seating with 20 additional outdoor seats in front of his bistro and in the alley.