Coronavirus Chronicles

Washington's New Covid-19 Restrictions Are a Gut Punch to Restaurants

Gyms, museums, and movie theaters also feel the pain in this round of rollbacks.

By Benjamin Cassidy November 16, 2020

empty restaurant table

Indoor dining has been put on hold.

Welcome back to mid-March, Seattle. Over the weekend, coronavirus cases in our region continued to climb to record levels, toilet paper disappeared from shelves, and governor Jay Inslee announced the strictest set of restrictions on social and economic activity since spring.

We haven’t entered a total lockdown state. Unlike the Stay Home, Stay Healthy order that went into effect on March 16, the governor’s new policy offers an end date—Monday, December 14, or four weeks from today—and a little leeway. Under some conditions, we can still gather. We can still shop for holiday gifts at local stores. We can still get haircuts. And, yes, we can still stock up on groceries (though we really don’t need to hoard, people).

But the latest round of rollbacks will come as a gut punch to other industries that have struggled to survive even under looser guidelines. While the aforementioned businesses can operate at 25 percent of their indoor capacities, museums and movie theaters must close. Gyms can only offer outdoor classes. And restaurants and bars must shut down indoor dining, currently at 50 percent capacity in Seattle, after Tuesday night’s service, a ban that mirrors those in Oregon and San Francisco.

Inslee repeatedly stressed that the measures were difficult to sign off on. He knows business closures and mass layoffs will ensue, saddling many families with the "terribly traumatic" experience of unemployment. He says they all deserve our empathy. "I feel it right here," the governor said at one point, holding a fist to his chest. He also emphasized that "life itself" is at stake during the coronavirus pandemic, and that a healthy economy demands a healthy populace. "This is clear: We also cannot enjoy a full economic recovery, which we all desperately want, without knocking down this virus. That is an economic principle we have to realize as well."

Inslee pledged $50 million to help businesses endure the next stage of the economic crisis. Still, it won't make up for the lack of a federal stimulus package and the additional unemployment benefits that workers could access during the state's first shutdown. While that other Washington deliberates, unemployment will continue to rise in this state, burdening a system that has been hacked and backlogged. The Washington Hospitality Association says that the new restrictions will imperil as many as 100,000 jobs, a figure Fire and Vine Hospitality CEO Chad Mackay cited during a Sunday phone interview. The restaurant group, which includes the El Gaucho steak houses, may have to lay off as many as 95 percent of its 185 employees due to the new policy, Mackay says. He calls the inevitable cuts "heartbreaking" with holiday season approaching. "There's just not an option. We just don't have the money to keep going for everybody."

A handful of workers will support takeout operations at each of the sites, but Mackay doesn't anticipate enough outdoor business to save many servers' jobs at his restaurants or others across the industry. "We're just not a great area for outdoor dining," he says.

Mackay was hoping for a slight indoor capacity reduction, not a ban. He points to the Washington Hospitality Association's claim that less than half of a percent of infections statewide have been traced to restaurants. At El Gaucho Tacoma, he adds, only a handful of employees have tested positive for coronavirus despite serving more than 14,000 customers indoors over the last five months. None of those infections stemmed from work, Mackay says. "We're being unfairly punished, I think, for people's behavior outside of our restaurants," he says.

It's safe to say other restaurant owners feel similarly, and it's understandable why: Inslee and other officials say private gatherings have helped fuel the latest surge in coronavirus cases. Over the next four weeks, people must either quarantine for two weeks or stay home for one week and receive a negative Covid test in order to hang outside of their households (or travel to a Thanksgiving potluck).

On Sunday, however, state health officer Dr. Kathy Lofy said that restaurants have been Washington's top source of outbreaks and have posed contact tracing difficulties; though businesses may report staff members who've tested positive, it's much more difficult to track down customers who may have been exposed without digging through receipts. "That's not happening," Lofy said.

The same logic would seem to hold for retail settings, with one important caveat: You don't have to remove your mask to buy a sweater. To eat and drink, you do.

The latest restrictions, then, don't betray an unreasonable set of standards but an advancement in understanding how Covid-19 spreads. Simply put: We know much more than we did when the Stay Home, Stay Healthy order was implemented in March. According to the officials who spoke on Sunday, we know that mask-wearing prevents the virus's spread. We know that indoor activities are more dangerous than outdoor ones. And we know that the longer the indoor gathering, the more likely someone is to catch the virus from someone else, regardless of distance (though close proximity increases those odds). More than anything else, those principles appear to have guided the new rules.

Which isn't to say this is fair. Restaurant workers have applied unfathomable amounts of elbow grease to sanitizing tables and dining rooms over the past several months just so many of us can enjoy some sense of normalcy. With only a few exceptions, Inslee said, they've done noble work, an effort we should honor by ordering tons of takeout over the next several weeks. "This is not an exercise in culpability," he said.

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