COVID-19 Sends McMenamins to the Brink; Company Pleads for Easing of Dining Restrictions

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The family behind the McMenamins group of hotels, restaurants and concert venues in Oregon and Washington on Friday made public their letter to the states' governors "and other elected officials" seeking a broader reopening of the economy.

The family contends its company is in dire straits without some form of compromise after the latest restrictions curbed indoor dining to slow the spread of COVID-19.

"While guests can currently dine outside in both states, stop at a McMenamins to fill growlers, grab meals to-go and shop for bottles and cans of handcrafted beer, wine and spirits, it's not enough," the company said in a news release Friday accompanying the letter.

The company contends the business could offer "a safer, regulated alternative to risky private gatherings."

The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department has in the past said much of community spread fueling the third surge has come from social gatherings.

Does that mean indoor dining would be a safer alternative? A representative for the health department declined to offer an opinion Friday, saying it was up to the state to decide Safe Start guidance.

Health officials elsewhere have repeatedly warned of the dangers of indoor dining in the spread of coronavirus. Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has served as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, has talked about the challenges facing restaurants.

While he says he orders takeout to help support local businesses, the indoor dining experience is too risky, he notes, when levels of community transmission are high.

"If you go indoors in a restaurant — whatever capacity, 25%, 50%, or what have you — indoors absolutely increases the risk," Fauci said in an MSNBC interview Sept. 11. "If we want to get back to the normal existence of being able to enjoy being in a restaurant, the best way to do that is to get the community level of infection at the lowest level possible."

SEEKING COMPROMISE AMID LACK OF AID

Pierce County is among the counties still in a high level of community transmission with its 14-day case rate per 100,000 at 520.8 as of Friday.

McMenamins, in its letter, stated it recognized the seriousness of the pandemic but felt earlier measures were working.

"We understand the seriousness of this novel virus, and we have diligently complied with all restrictions set by the Oregon and Washington governments to keep our customers and our employees safe," the letter states. "We agree with many of the restrictions, and, before the last shutdown, with limited indoor seating, we believe they were working."

In the letter, a copy of which were shared with The News Tribune on Friday, the family cites the company's ineligibility for most small business relief packages.

"With no federal assistance in sight, we are now making an urgent plea to allow indoor dining on some level in our restaurants," the letter states. "The current model is not sustainable without government relief, and staying in business until the end of the pandemic gets more difficult each day.

"We are a family-owned and operated business, but we are considered too big for the majority of small business relief packages. We were making strides toward recovering through a lot of creative maneuvering and shifts in our business model before the recent lockdowns in Oregon and Washington, but that has come to a halt."

As a result, they seek a return to limited, socially distanced indoor dining "to operate more sustainably."

"Prior to the pandemic, when allowed to operate at full capacity, the company employed more than 3,000 employees. There are currently 1,320 employees actively working at the company," McMenamins said in a news release on Friday to promote the letter.

The letter states that when sites originally shuttered in March: "We had never been so overwhelmed; we had to postpone normal payroll while we waited for the funding to arrive. We exhausted personal funds to ensure our employees were paid, and we have leaned heavily on banks, a PPP loan, and other available assistance programs to get us where we are today. We have reopened under the restrictions, but that came with considerable sacrifices and business is far from 'usual.'"

"We cannot sustain our company at this limited level, " it added.

The company is the latest to speak out about how pandemic restrictions have dramatically affected their industry.

Around 2,500 restaurants permanently closed across Washington state between March-September during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to estimates from the Washington Hospitality Association.

On Thursday, Anthony Anton, CEO of the association, noted: "Hospitality is the industry hardest hit by the pandemic and the state's response to it, which is why we've urged and will continue to urge Gov. (Jay) Inslee and the Legislature to make relief for our industry an early priority in the 2021 session."

"We will continue to remind the public of the scope of the problem. Shutting us down costs our industry $800 million per month," Anton said. "As we approach the second month of this latest shutdown, we're nearing a $1.6 billion hole — which will only grow if the current shutdown is extended into January."

NOT SITTING IN SILENCE

McMenamins operates 56 locations in Oregon and Washington, including McMenamins Elks Temple in Tacoma, which launched a phased reopening one year to the date this year from its initial grand opening in 2019, following the initial business shutdowns in both states to slow the spread of COVID-19.

What a difference a year, and the pandemic, has made.

"We never got a chance to really celebrate our first (Elks) anniversary," Brian McMenamin told The News Tribune in a phone interview Friday.

"We're not bashing anybody, and we're not talking about politics," he said, in reference to the letter. "We don't get out there very often as far as making statements or whatever because that's not what we are; we just to let our places speak for themselves."

But, he said, it was time to speak out.

"The hospitality industry is .... I mean we're the face of the pandemic, and I don't think that's entirely fair.

"We can't just sit in silence. ... I don't think we're the enemy in this. I think we can all work together and help."

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