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Pullman businesses disappointed by return to Phase 2: ‘It’s wearing on everybody’

Llana Kish, 21, manager of Cougar Country, pauses as she talks about the effects of COVID-19 on the local economy on Aug. 13 outside Pullman.  (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Llana Kish, 21, manager of Cougar Country, pauses as she talks about the effects of COVID-19 on the local economy on Aug. 13 outside Pullman. (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

PULLMAN – Jill Bielenberg is among those in Pullman who were not surprised that Whitman County was reclassified back to Phase 2 of the state’s COVID-19 recovery plan.

Bielenberg, general manager and an owner of the restaurant Birch and Barley, said Whitman County Public Health kept the community aware of the metrics required by the state to remain in Phase 3, helping business owners “mentally prepare” for a potential reclassification. Whitman, Cowlitz and Pierce counties will move back to Phase 2 on Friday for at least the next three weeks, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Monday.

The return to Phase 2 will limit capacity at restaurants, gyms and entertainment establishments to 25%. The state has still eased some restrictions on spectator events, such as allowing more capacity at professional and higher education sporting events and school graduation ceremonies.

While unsurprised, Bielenberg said she’s disappointed. A majority of cases countywide in recent weeks are attributable to WSU’s Pullman campus, with health officials tracing most cases to gatherings in private areas and not restaurants, gyms or other industries that face greater restrictions with Phase 2.

“I understand that you have to have a plan in place that everybody can follow and look at and see, and that’s a lot of work to have that be individual for every county or region – however you’re looking at it,” Bielenberg said. “In a situation like this, I would be hopeful for some exceptions when you’re seeing things that are very specific.”

Birch and Barley – which in normal times can hold up to 220 people between the bar area, restaurant seating and outdoor dining – went from 40 employees to six in March 2020 at the onset of pandemic restrictions, Bielenberg said. The restaurant’s catering business became almost nonexistent due to canceled events, while the remaining employees coordinated and prepared takeout orders.

A difference between now and even just six months ago is the availability of COVID-19 vaccines. Bielenberg said she’s noticed a comparatively greater level of comfort among patrons.

“Through all parts of COVID, this community has been super supportive,” she said. “So whatever model we were in, the people of Whitman County – and specifically Pullman – have done all that they could to keep us afloat.”

The restaurant has since climbed back to 27 employees. Bielenberg said hiring workers has been “a little bit of a struggle,” however, as the pool of college-aged individuals typically hired by the restaurant in normal times is smaller since WSU classes are predominantly virtual.

“Definitely (with) the unpredictability of what phases we’re going to be in, I feel like (with) some of the potential candidates in that younger population, we have lost some trust in that employment is going to be consistent,” she said. “I feel like this is a perfect example. We were in Phase 3 for three weeks and now, we’re going to have to switch again.”

The last time Anytime Fitness in Pullman went through Phase 2, manager Christy Walls said the gym employed an online sign-up sheet requiring members to select an approximately one-hour slot for their workouts.

The goal was to limit the number of people using the 24-hour gym at one time. As a result, however, Walls said Anytime lost many members, with several choosing to work out instead at the Anytime Fitness in Moscow amid Idaho’s comparatively looser COVID-19 restrictions.

“When we got to Phase 3, it really helped us a lot because members who had gone to Moscow were coming back again,” Walls said.

Anytime Fitness, which can typically hold 74 people, will again be limited to 18 patrons when Phase 2 takes effect Friday.

Anytime will not have a sign-up sheet this go-around, however, Walls said. Part of that decision was a learning experience from the last time the county was in Phase 2, while Walls said Anytime Fitness has not typically had more than 15 people at a time during the pandemic.

She said the decision was made after working with Keyra and Jack Elmo, who have owned the Pullman franchise for around two weeks. If Anytime does get busier, however, the sign-up sheet may come back, Walls said.

In any event, those who have come back to the Pullman gym “have been awesome about self-regulating” with COVID-19 rules, said Walls, who added “no one at this facility wants to get shut down again.”

“We’ve had a lot of people coming back to the facility who have been vaccinated,” she said. “I don’t see our numbers dropping much as we go into Phase 2. However, I guess that’s something we’re going to be playing by ear. We hope people continue to come back. … The mass majority of people coming through our doors, they just want to know if we’re staying open.”

Restaurants, gyms and entertainment venues have been among the members of the Pullman Chamber of Commerce hit the hardest throughout the entirety of this pandemic, said Marie Dymkoski, the Chamber’s executive director.

“There is a nationwide group of that particular age that are impacting these numbers, and that’s really disheartening,” she said. “I think a lot of students want to do the right thing and have done the right thing, but we have a huge number of students in that age group in Whitman County.”

Decisions by Gov. Jay Inslee’s administration have been sometimes difficult and frustrating for Pullman and the rest of Eastern Washington, Dymkoski said, such as the state’s crackdown earlier this year on areas seeking to administer extra vaccine doses to those who were not yet eligible.

“I don’t know what the answer is,” she said. “I do know from what I have read through the health department that most cases are not being traced back to places like restaurants, and so I wonder often why we keep penalizing those businesses the most.”

Dymkoski said the difficulties Birch and Barley is having hiring staff is common among other Pullman businesses. At the same time, she said some establishments were not able to increase to 50% capacity as allowed by Phase 3 due to 6-foot social distancing parameters.

“We’ve had some very slow rollout to (Phase 3), and those who did work really hard to roll up to (Phase 3) are now rolling back to (Phase 2),” she said. “It will be devastating for some – not only mentally, but some of these businesses have used every financial resource that they have just to keep it open. It’s wearing on everybody.”

After enduring a year of the pandemic, the community has been much more resilient these past few months, said Willow Falcon, an owner of Noshies wine shop in Pullman.

“We’ve been through this before,” Falcon said. “The good news is we learned a lot last year. The even better news is a lot of the vulnerable population has been vaccinated. We’ll get there eventually.”

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