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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane-area restaurants reflect on the ‘really disheartening’ threat of going back to Phase 2

Co-owner Tim Lannigan of Neato Burrito and Baby Bar, said he would reopen only if the county remains in Phase 3.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Kip Hill Laurel Demkovich and Colin Tiernan The Spokesman-Review

For 14 months, Spokanites wanting a booze and burrito fix have had to walk by the darkened windows of downtown haunt Neato Burrito and Baby Bar.

Co-owner Patty Tully, after the bar/restaurant has hosted a successful virtual concert series during the pandemic, said this week the two businesses linked by a darkened hallway and the need for grub and grog would reopen if Spokane County remained in Phase 3 of reopening. On Thursday, Tully acknowledged that was unlikely.

“We stayed closed this long,” Tully said. “I don’t want to mess it up at the end.”

Heading back to Phase 2 of Washington’s COVID-19 reopening plan would be a gut punch for many other local businesses.

“To take a step in reverse, it sucks,” said Jeramie Entner, general manager at Hay J’s Bistro in Liberty Lake. “There’s really no other word for it.”

But based on the uptick in COVID-19 infections, many businesses might have to steel themselves for a return to lower capacity requirements.

Most of Washington – with the exception of Whitman, Cowlitz and Pierce counties – is under Phase 3, the least restrictive phase of the state’s three-tiered reopening plan.

Under Phase 3, restaurants and many businesses must limit themselves to 50% capacity – there are other strings attached for some types of operations. Under Phase 2, businesses generally must limit themselves to 25% capacity.

Lacy Fehrenbach, Washington’s deputy secretary for COVID-19 response, told reporters Thursday as many as a dozen or so counties could move back or stay in Phase 2. Spokane County is among them, while a few others are close to going all the way back to Phase 1.

“Certainly our hope is that as few move back as possible,” Fehrenbach said.

Per the state’s model, counties with more than 50,000 residents return to Phase 2 if they see between 200 and 350 new COVID-19 infections per 100,000 residents in a two-week stretch, or if they have between five and 10 new hospitalizations per 100,000 residents in a week.

Gov. Jay Inslee could choose to ignore the state’s thresholds and prevent counties from going backward – he has loosened the metrics before to avoid a rollback. The governor and Washington Department of Health will release the new county phase designations Tuesday, a day later than they initially planned.

“We are listening to new information, but it all suggests we’re not out of the woods yet,” Inslee said.

Rough year for restaurants

Tully isn’t optimistic .

For the past 14½ years, Tully and her partner Tim Lannigan have been running the late-night spot on the first floor of a nondescript financial building as a combined venture. With downtown “like a ghost town” during the day and a bar that famously requires patrons to get close while waiting for drinks, Tully said it wasn’t thinkable to open one side of the business without the other.

“This place, even though it’s two separate spots, it is completely one,” Tully said. “If we can’t have the bar open, we would be hurting ourselves.”

The Baby Bar, with its Twin Peaks-inspired decor and jukebox full of punk and rarities, has a fire marshal limit of about 25 people. At Phase 2 rules, the watering hole would have to close at 11 p.m., and while capacity is calculated based on the entire floorplan, including the burrito bar in front, it wouldn’t be feasible to open the doors under those rules, Tully said.

“It is definitely a conscious decision to not bend the rules,” she said of remaining closed until Phase 3.

Should Inslee announce a rollback in Spokane County next week, Tully said the bar will wait the three weeks and see if conditions improve. They’ll be back with most of their staff, except one server who found a full-time job, she said.

“We never question the fact that (the pandemic) was real,” Tully said. “It was, and our focus was always, how do we retain our employees, who’ve stuck with us through everything?”

Like the Baby Bar and Neato Burrito, many Eastern Washington restaurants and bars have been hammered during the pandemic, even if they haven’t been shut down the entire time. The hope had been that life, and dining out, would return to normal by summer.

The thought of returning to Phase 2 in May, instead of shedding all restrictions, is frustrating.

“We felt like we were really turning a corner, heading towards reopening 100%,” Entner said. “To announce that (we might be) going backwards is really disheartening.”

The fight for a fighting chance

Returning to Phase 2 could come with significant financial repercussions for some businesses. Washington Hospitality Association CEO and President Anthony Anton said restaurants have “a fighting chance” to survive in Phase 3, at 50% capacity. They can make some money, or break even.

But for restaurants that rely on sit-down dining, the business at 25% capacity in Phase 2 is generally below subsistence level.

“Most full-service restaurants, when adhering to 25%, lose about as much money as they would when they’re fully closed,” Anton said.

Anton said the average full-service restaurant loses $18,000 a month at 25% capacity, compared with $25,000 if fully shut down. He said many restaurants have taken on more than $150,000 in debt during the pandemic.

A return to Phase 2 wouldn’t impact all restaurants equally.

Fast food restaurants probably wouldn’t be hurt as much. Pizza parlors and burger joints would be OK, Anton said, since they always rely on takeout .

And places with ample outdoor seating will be better prepared. Outdoor dining doesn’t have the same capacity restrictions; in Phase 3, the only outdoor dining restriction is a restaurant can’t sit more than six people at a table.

South Hill Grill General Manager Chelsea Struck said her restaurant had been operating at under 50% capacity anyway. That’s because the South Hill Grill is seeing strong pickup orders and using extra tables as to-go stations.

Plus, as the weather improves, more people want to eat outside, and the South Hill Grill has outdoor seating.

“I feel like we’re kind of one of the lucky ones,” Struck said.

Entner said Hay J’s Bistro, which is roughly 10 minutes from Post Falls, has already been losing business because some Liberty Lake residents are driving across the border to avoid the Evergreen State’s COVID-19 dining restrictions. Some people walk in the door, see staff wearing masks, and walk right out, Entner said.

Going back to Phase 2 might encourage even more people to head to the Gem State when they want to go to a restaurant, Entner said.

Like Struck, Entner said the nice weather provides a bit of a silver lining. Hay J’s new patio should be finished on Friday. If there are lower indoor capacity requirements, the patio should make up for the losses.

Anton emphasized that bars, event centers, bowling alleys – those are the businesses hurt most by capacity restrictions.

“Those are the ones that are getting crushed,” he said. “What we really need now is to get open, and get everyone vaccinated and please wear a mask.”

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.