Two Longview restaurants continue to fight hefty state fines for defying restrictions to protect customers from COVID-19.
Stuffy’s II Restaurant owes the state nearly $1 million for citations and Creekside Cafe owes almost $70,000.
Both were fined for offering indoor dining during the state ban that ran from mid-November to Feb. 13.
Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee banned indoor dining in spring 2020, allowed reopening for the summer, and banned indoor dining again in the fall to protect Washingtonians from the airborne coronavirus. Counties have been allowed to reopen businesses in phases if they meet certain benchmarks on rates of COVID-19 hospitalizations and positive cases.
Today, Cowlitz County is in Phase 2 of the reopening plan and restaurants can seat up to 25% capacity indoors.
Some local businesses may break rules at times under the radar, while others like Stuffy’s and Creekside Cafe have been vocal. Owners of both businesses publicly proclaimed they would defy the governor’s orders to local media outlets and on social media.
Washington Department of Labor and Industries Communications Consultant Dina Lorraine said businesses often stop alleged infractions once they receive warnings from the state, resulting in no fines.
Creekside Cafe was cited for seven violations and fined $67,473 when indoor dining was banned in early February, Lorraine said.
Labor and Industries regulates and enforces labor standards.
Creekside Cafe owner Danielle Rowley said she is appealing the fines with her lawyer Jason A. Celski. The Benton County attorney represented Stuffy’s for a period, as well as other Washington restaurants fighting to remain open during the restrictions, including Spiffy’s Restaurant & Bakery in Chehalis and Farmboy Restaurant in Olympia.
Rowley said she “chose to stay open” because her restaurant “could not survive being closed” during the state indoor dining ban.
She adhered to the indoor dining ban at first, she said, but offering takeout and delivery wasn’t “enough to keep the lights on.”
Rowley posted about offering indoor dining on the restaurant’s Facebook page in December, when all indoor dining was banned, and spoke to the Portland CBS affiliate television station KOIN about her decision in January.
Her downtown Longview business is highly visible, she said, so there was no way to secretly defy state mandates.
“I’m right here on Commerce, it’s not like you can really hide it,” Rowley said from her business Wednesday.
Rowley said she could not apply for loans to get through the shutdown because she has not owned her business long enough to prove financially sound to most lenders. She bought the restaurant in August 2020.
She said she received one grant that helped, but didn’t offer enough funds to stay closed during the entire indoor dining ban.
Rowley said her decision to offer indoor dining wasn’t made for political reasons, but to keep her business open and support her employees. Rowley owns Bear Country Catering in Kalama and said she’s dreamed of owning a brick-and-mortar eatery.
She questioned why larger chains like grocery stores — where people are not forced to distance — could stay open throughout the pandemic, but her restaurant — where people are seated 6 feet apart — was closed periodically.
“It’s not like I don’t have respect for the rules,” she said. “You can catch this virus anywhere, but you can shut down a small business and not give any help when big box stores stay open?”
Stuffy’s was cited for 53 infractions and fined $954,000 over nearly two months during the state’s indoor dining ban, according to state records.
Lorraine said Stuffy’s has a higher daily fine than Creekside Cafe because Stuffy’s has more employees.
The Washington State Attorney General’s Office filed a restraining order Dec. 31, 2020 against Stuffy’s to prevent staff from defying the indoor dining ban.
The office dropped the motion, as well as fines for contempt of court, when the indoor dining ban was lifted in Cowlitz County in mid-February.
Lorraine said Stuffy’s still owes nearly $1 million in fines from Labor and Industries, but neither Stuffy’s nor Creekside Cafe has to pay during the appeals process.
Skai Hogue, the granddaughter of Stuffy’s owners, said they are still appealing the citations and replaced attorney Celski with Joel Ard of Seattle’s Ard Law Group last winter because he is “more experienced in Constitutional litigation.”
Hogue said the restaurant’s revenue was nearly cut in half in the second quarter of 2020 compared with the same time in 2019.
She said her grandparents — Bud and Glenda Duling — drained their savings during the shutdown and had to choose whether to open the doors and defy the governor’s order, or close their roughly 30-year-old business.
The owners posted on social media that they had made the “tough, risky decision to open our doors for dine-in seating” on Dec. 5, 2020, during the indoor dining ban. The restaurant continued to make regular public posts about their open business throughout the ban and their state citations.
Prior to three hearings at the Hall of Justice, rallies were held in support of Stuffy’s. Attendees, which ranged from 30 to 100 people at each event, waved signs and spoke against Inslee’s restrictions on businesses.
Hogue said the restaurant did not reopen to defy the governor, but to maintain the livelihood of its staff.
“We are doing this for our employees and trying to survive,” she said.