In King County, eating at a restaurant indoors, seeing a movie in a theater or working out at a gym will require proof of a coronavirus vaccination or a negative test beginning next month, county leaders and health officials announced Thursday.
The health order, issued by Public Health – Seattle & King County Dr. Jeff Duchin, goes into effect Oct. 25 — allowing those who aren’t currently vaccinated to complete both rounds of the Pfizer or Moderna shot by that time. The order applies to most restaurants and bars, indoor recreational venues regardless of size, and outdoor events with 500 people or more.
Customers who aren’t vaccinated or don’t have proof will instead need to show results of a negative coronavirus test taken within the past 72 hours. Children under age 12, who aren’t yet eligible for a vaccine, are exempt.
The health order doesn’t require vaccines for employees at restaurants and other establishments covered under the new policy, but strongly recommends workers get vaccinated. It also doesn’t affect the county’s current masking mandates, which require people to wear face coverings while at indoor public places — including grocery stores, malls, gyms and community centers — and outdoor events with more than 500 attendees.
The requirements mirror those set in New York, San Francisco and New Orleans, as well as Washington’s Clallam and Jefferson counties, and come amid high COVID-19 case rates attributed in part to the highly contagious delta variant. Washington’s professional and college teams announced last week that fans would be required to provide proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test to attend home games; the Seahawks will begin enforcing the order at this weekend’s game against the Tennessee Titans.
The new rules aren’t expected to be permanent, health officials said, and will be reviewed within six months of the date they go into effect.
Workers and customers can use their vaccine cards or a photo of a vaccine card, documentation from a medical record or vaccine provider, or a printed certificate from MyIRMobile.com.
While leaders in other cities have said the orders are meant to pressure residents to get vaccinated, King County Executive Dow Constantine said earlier this week that this is “first and foremost” about ensuring safety for customers and employees. Among eligible King County residents, 85% have received at least one vaccine dose, according to the public health department. Yet infection and hospitalization rates remain at dangerous levels.
“In a community where we have some of the highest rates of vaccination nationally, we are still seeing a small percentage who haven’t been vaccinated causing tremendous challenges,” he said.
The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation projects the current outbreak to worsen in the next six months, peaking in mid- to late-December, Duchin said at a briefing Thursday afternoon in Seattle’s Columbia City. The surge could overwhelm the county with up to 300,000 new infections, 8,000 new hospitalizations and up to 1,000 or more additional deaths, he added.
“IHME projects vaccine verification at restaurants, bars and gyms alone could prevent between 17,900 and 75,900 infections, between 421 and 1,760 hospitalizations, and between 63 and 257 deaths” in King County, Duchin said.
The estimates include a range of uncertainty, depending on new data in the coming months, he said, “but clearly our COVID-19 response must continue to adapt to the changing reality of the evolving pandemic.”
Washington State Hospital Association CEO Cassie Sauer thanked the county for the order and urged other jurisdictions to do the same.
“This should not be happening in America today, with a pandemic we can see coming and is preventable,” Sauer said, describing hospital strains.
The order doesn’t apply to outdoor dining, customers picking up takeout orders, or restaurants and bars with seating for fewer than 12 people. The requirements for small restaurants will take effect in December.
Constantine said the county will rely on individual businesses and venues to verify vaccine compliance. He compared the verification to when businesses have to check identification to serve alcohol or ensure someone is wearing a shirt and shoes before they enter. The phase-in approach, he added, helps address staffing challenges faced by smaller restaurants.
“We start with education and technical assistance, and we do everything we can to help [venues] be able to comply, but if they’re unwilling to, there are additional steps to be taken, just as there would be if there was a venue illegally serving alcohol,” he said. “But we don’t expect it to come to that.”
More than 150 restaurants and bars in King County have already implemented some form of vaccine requirement to enter. Many require customers to present a matching ID alongside proof of vaccination, but that isn’t required under the health order.
Carla Leonardi, the owner of Café Lago, a fine-dining Italian restaurant in Montlake, has been requiring proof of vaccination or a negative test for diners at her restaurant since Aug. 6, and is thrilled about the new rule.
“I’m ecstatic about it,” Leonardi said. “I’m really happy it’s happening, that we’re going to get the support of King County behind us in asking our guests to provide their vaccination card.”
She said most diners have been cooperative with her rules but believes a countywide rule will make enforcement easier.
Khampaeng Panyathong, co-owner of Taurus Ox, a Laotian restaurant on Capitol Hill, sees checking vaccine records as just another chore that will make running his restaurant harder. The restaurant has not been requiring diners to provide proof of vaccination for indoor dining.
Panyathong said Taurus Ox, like most other Seattle restaurants, is contending with a severe labor shortage and rising ingredient prices, so he hasn’t had the time to do extra work that’s not required of him by law.
“For me personally, it would just be an inconvenience to ask for a vaccination card for indoor [dining],” Panyathong said.
Anthony Anton, president and CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association, said that the policy uses the hard-hit hospitality industry as a “carrot-and-stick” to persuade those who haven’t been vaccinated, when it should instead be far broader in scope.
“We are seeing as many outbreaks in retail and grocery stores as we are in restaurants,” Anton said in an interview. “If this is the right approach it should be the right approach for all that are public facing, not just the industry so badly hit.”
He added the association is concerned about the safety of workers who have to deal with guests who may be unhappy about the rules. For members in Jefferson and Clallam counties, he said, the No. 1 request has been for de-escalation training.
“For operators to be asking for training, when they can barely hang on to staff, it tells you that this is a point where they need help,” he said.
Burke-Gilman Brewing Company already requires customers show proof of vaccination to enter the taproom, but co-owner Kenneth Trease said he believes this policy only has bite when coupled with the county rules. Instead of arguing with nonvaccinated people who want to enter his bar, Trease said his servers and hosts can now just say, “This is a [county] policy. We are just enforcing the rules.”
The sentiment has been echoed in the nightlife industry. By and large, artists and independent clubs across the country have led the charge on COVID-19 safety in the live entertainment sector, often implementing stricter protocols than required by law.
“You go to a dance night and you get six people that show up,” Steven Severin, who co-owns Capitol Hill’s Neumos and Life on Mars, said last month. “Four of ‘em have their vaccine cards and two of them don’t, and they’re bummed. But then they leave and go somewhere else that doesn’t require it, which is one of the reasons it should be across the board.”
Local performing arts organizations beat King County to the punch when several of them — including Seattle Symphony, 5th Avenue Theatre, ACT, Seattle Rep, Village Theatre and Pacific Northwest Ballet — announced in August that they will be requiring audiences to mask and provide proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test to attend indoor performances and events.
Though chain multiplexes do not currently require vaccination proof, a number of the Seattle area’s independently owned movie houses already do so: the Ark Lodge, the Beacon, SIFF Cinema Egyptian (which reopens later this month), the Grand Illusion. The Majestic Bay in Ballard does not require vaccination verification at this time but it’s in the works, said operator Aaron Alhadeff, whose family has owned the theater for more than two decades.
Seattle Times reporters Elise Takahama, Mike Rietmulder, Crystal Paul, Moira Macdonald, Jade Yamazaki Stewart and Tan Vinh contributed to this report.