Gov. Jay Inslee said late Sunday he would sign an emergency declaration temporarily shutting down bars, restaurants and places of entertainment and recreation statewide, and cap all public gatherings at 50 people, in the latest bid to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The governor’s executive action coincided with a similar order by King County officials, both set for Monday, which will also prohibit gatherings with fewer than 50 people unless specific criteria for hygiene and social distancing are met, according to statements released Sunday night. The orders would allow restaurants to provide takeout and delivery services but not allow patrons to dine in, according to the statements.
“These are very difficult decisions, but hours count here and very strong measures are necessary to slow the spread of the virus. I know there will be significant economic impacts to all our communities and we are looking at steps to help address those challenges,” Inslee said in the statement.
King County’s order will apply to businesses ranging from dance halls to fitness clubs, in addition to restaurants and bars, that will have to cease operations until March 31. Grocery stores, banks, gas stations and other retail operations can operate as long as they meet public health directives, according to the county.
“We are at a critical moment in this crisis,” King County Executive Dow Constantine said in the statement.
The sweeping actions, after a week of escalating measures to contain the virus that causes the respiratory illness COVID-19, promised even more disruption to the social lives and wallets of Washingtonians, from people planning weddings to struggling restaurant workers trying to pay rent.
The latest measures came as pressure built on officials in Washington state — with 769 confirmed cases and 42 deaths due to COVID-19, the most reported in the nation — to take action, as a series of city and state officials across the country announced they would close bars and restaurants or restrict their operations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended Sunday that gatherings of 50 or more people be suspended for the next eight weeks.
The actions could further strain a restaurant industry that is already reeling from a downturn in customers, with dozens of Seattle businesses closing and laying off staff.
The push to prevent people from transmitting the virus by gathering to eat and drink in close quarters follows a week of steps to stop the spread of COVID-19. Gov. Jay Inslee last week ordered all public and private K-12 schools to close through April 24 and banned public gatherings in excess of 250 people, while Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan shuttered the city’s public libraries and community centers, and suspended permitted events.
Durkan, following the announcements Sunday from King County and the governor, acknowledged the new restrictions “are hard and impact the livelihoods and ways of life of our families. But it’s the right thing to do for the long-term health, safety and vitality of our communities,” she said.
The city has taken steps to support small businesses and employees with a stabilization fund, deferring business taxes and halting residential evictions, but the mayor said more would be needed. “Ultimately, we know we will need an unprecedented small business and worker relief package from Congress,” Durkan said.
With the number of reported cases spreading rapidly across the country, officials in several states began limiting the public’s access to restaurants, as some European nations had already done.
Ohio, with 37 confirmed cases of COVID-19, became the first state to order all bars and restaurants closed to the public on Sunday afternoon. Gov. Mike DeWine said on Twitter that the establishments could remain open for takeout and delivery orders only, and that the state would make changes to unemployment benefits to support bar and restaurant workers.
Illinois, with 88 confirmed COVID-19 cases, followed suit with a similar announcement, closing bars and restaurants until March 30. California, New York City, Nashville, South Boston and New Orleans have also announced the closure of bars and restaurants or limited their services.
In Seattle on Sunday, the Pike/Pine strip of Capitol Hill bore the marks of the virus’ economic toll. A row of bars had signs with revised hours; one posted on the door of carnival-themed bar Unicorn read “STOP!!! If you have had symptoms of the flu in the last 2 weeks, please don’t come in.” Still, most tables at the café inside Elliott Bay Book Company were occupied at one point on Sunday afternoon.
Gov. Inslee took to Twitter earlier Sunday to praise Washingtonians for “practicing strong social distancing,” while admonishing those who aren’t. “Your actions could kill someone. Stop it,” he tweeted.
Some restaurant owners acknowledged the logic of closing to the public was compelling. Travis Rosenthal, who owns Rumba, Aqua Verde Café and Sand Point Grill, said public health should be the first concern.
“At this point, I would be in favor of shutting down bars and restaurants for dine-in service for a limited time,” he said Sunday, adding that takeout and delivery services should still be allowed and that there should be a date for reopening. “Many restaurants and bars won’t survive if this drags on for months.”
On Twitter, the hashtag #shutdownSeattle was trending. Vince Keenan, a 50-year-old Seattle novelist and editor who works from home, said he’s made a point of patronizing bars and restaurants downtown and in Belltown, where there’s been a noticeable drop in customers.
“They’re fairly empty and so they’ve been able to employ safe, social-distancing practices,” he said of the businesses owned by friends. “Seeing that bars on Capitol Hill and in other neighborhoods are packed is infuriating to me.”
Kevin Canetti, a server at The Grill from Ipanema in Belltown, chimed in to speak to the effect that the downturn was already taking on his finances.
“I’ve had half of my shifts cut because business has plummeted,” he said by email. Even so, he added, “Something or someone has to intervene for us in the service industry who mainly survive paycheck to paycheck, have no health insurance, and who are among the first to feel the economic implications of this epidemic.”
Seattle Times staff reporters Sara Jean Green and Paige Cornwell contributed to this report.