While the looming implementation of phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Safe Start Washington” plan would allow area restaurants to once again serve customers in-house, some local business owners expressed frustration this week over the practicality, or lack-thereof, of some of the plan’s requirements.
“As this carries on longer and longer, fewer and fewer businesses have the resources to stay in business,” said Centralia-Chehalis Chamber of Commerce Director Alicia Bull. “The restrictions currently put upon restaurants will make it tough to get back to business as usual and many have told me they will continue the take-out approach if the restrictions set forth remain as presented.”
Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Safe Start Washington” plan details the reopening of Washington in four phases. While the state as a whole is in phase 1 until June 1, several counties have been granted the opportunity to move forward more quickly, based on the number of new cases and the county’s population.
The Lewis County Board of Commissioners have successfully applied for a variance this week to enter phase 2.
Under phase 2, restaurants must operate at half-capacity, with no more than five people at a table and no bar seating. Hand sanitizer must be available at entry for all staff and customers.
“Tables must be placed far enough apart when measured from occupied chair to occupied char to ensure dine-in guests seated at a table are a minimum of 6 feet away from guests at adjacent table, or there must be a physical barrier or wall separating booths or tables,” the phase 2 requirements for restaurants read.
Buffets and salad bars are not permitted, and patrons are strongly encouraged to a wear a “cloth face covering” when not seated. Single use menus are required, and condiment containers are required to be either single-use or sanitized after each use.
An early version of the guidelines also required restaurants to keep a daily log of all customers with telephone or contact information to aid in contact tracing investigations.
However, after restaurant owners around the state complained that it would be impractical to keep such a log, as well as potentially an invasion of their customers’ privacy, Inslee shifted course and made that requirement voluntary.
Dawn Merchant, owner of Centralia’s Dawn’s Delectables, said in a news release that Inslee’s mandates made it too difficult for her restaurant to open for indoor dining in phase 2.
“The burden the state is placing on small restaurants and other businesses is overreaching and unrealistic to implement. There are no positives for the small businesses entering into the so-called ‘Phase 2.’ I am all for helping slow the pandemic and do all I can to keep my employees and customers safe, however, I am not willing to do all they are requiring in order to open my doors for sit down dining,” Merchant said. “Dawn’s Delectables is committed to offering a clean, safe, and healthy environment for both its customers and staff. This commitment is not a result of the current circumstances, but what we have always done, and will continue to do, as long as our doors are open for business.”
Alicia Thornton, owner of Lemon Tree Cafe & Espresso in Mossyrock, said her building is small, which, from her perspective, makes enforcing social distancing all the more difficult.
“So, phase 2, we would just skip and we would go straight to hopefully phase 2 or opening all the way,” Thornton said. “I would continue just to do the to-go’s like I am now.”
Phase 3 would allow 75 percent occupancy with up to 10 people per table. In Phase 3, gatherings of 50 people would also be allowed, according to Inslee’s office.
Currently, Thornton said she’s relying on her drive-through services to get her through, as well as outdoor seating for customers to eat their to-go orders. Still, she says losing the ability to offer dine-in services has caused her business to take a hit, primarily on the weekends.
“Our weekend flow has gone down quite a bit,” Thornton said. “Usually, because we serve breakfast all day, we get a lot of the hungover crowd and then as well as the church crowd on Sunday and I’ve noticed that those crowds aren’t even coming in for the to-go.”
She expects that to get worse when the county enters the second phase.
With larger restaurants able to open and execute business while following health and safety guidelines, Thornton is expecting customers to choose a sit-down experience over electing to order take out.
“If anything, Phase 2 is probably going to affect me more, because I have bigger businesses around me that are going to be able to open and still fit 15-30 people in there adding social distancing,” Thornton said. “Those people are going to want to go sit down at a restaurant.”
Bull cited unemployment insurance as another hurdle that businesses will have to clear.
“Many businesses are having a tough time getting employees back to work due to the $600-a-week supplemental payment for unemployment and people feeling scared regarding their exposure to COVID,” Bull said. “So, workforce availability seems to be a very real concern as we reboot.”
One business that is planning on adjusting with phase 2, however, is Judy’s Country Kitchen in Centralia. Still, owner Judy McCann said she’s also feeling a similar sense of frustration toward the new guidelines that will come with the progression.
“We’re usually super packed,” McCann said. “To try to limit the people that come in and that kind of stuff, it’s a little frustrating for us and unknown grounds for us, so it’s just something we’re hopefully not going to fumble through but adapt to pretty easily.”
According to McCann, her plan at Judy’s includes customers being alerted by text when their table is ready, an employee that will take down the names and phone numbers of customers, setting tables six feet apart and limiting the amount of staff that help with each table.
Tables and other places around the restaurant will also be sanitized regularly.
“Just do the best we can and hope it’s enough,” McCann said.
She said one of the biggest challenges with implementing the new procedures is keeping everything organized and in-place. The staff at Judy’s will also be having a meeting to go through all of the new guidelines and reminders will be placed throughout the restaurant.
That being said, McCann maintains the faith she has in her staff.
“I have an awesome group of people who work for me,” McCann said. “We’re a pretty good team. We might be fumbling around the first couple of days, but we’ll get it together.”