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New COVID-19 rules give some Washington restaurants ability to open inside dining (but bring a coat)

Jim Rhoades, owner of Rock City Grill, 2911 E. 57th Ave., stands in the large overhead doorway to his restaurant’s patio, where he currently has a few tables in small area equipped with patio heaters. He hopes to expand his capacity in the coming weeks as restaurants get permission to offer indoor seating.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)
By Daisy Zavala For The Spokesman-Review

As soon as he could, Jim Rhoades rolled up the garage door that takes up an entire wall of Rock City Grill to take advantage of Washington state’s new guidelines loosening some COVID-19 restrictions on restaurants.

Gov. Jay Inslee announced the new dining guidelines early last week, allowing business owners living in Phase 1 regions to provide in-person dining up to 25% capacity under certain circumstances.

Business owners still are required to comply with social distancing and enforce customers wear masks at all times unless they are eating or drinking. Rhoades, who owns the grill with his wife Rose, said he made sure the area was cleaned before they opened since nobody had dined there for about a month.

He’s operating Rock City, 2911 E. 57th Ave., at below 20% capacity with five tables inside and a barrier to separate diners and customers ordering takeout. The patio also remains open with about five heated tables for customers.

“We’ve been able to survive on takeout and delivery, but it’s really nice to see people in here,” Rhoades said. “It’s still winter and chilly inside so everybody’s got their coats on and some people had blankets on.”

The state’s new rules allows business owners within Phase 1 regions some alternatives to indoor seating until their region reaches Phase 2 and are allowed provide dining completely indoors at 25% capacity, said Sheri Sawyer, senior policy adviser with the governor’s office.

The first option for business owners requires them to have at least one wall that is permeable, according to the guidance. The second option requires business settings to have two non-adjacent permeable walls that would allow for cross ventilation. Both options allow owners to seat customers up to 25% of their total capacity.

Rhoades, who took advantage of the first option, said he was excited to call back some staff who had been laid off.

“We’ve been in business for 29 years now and we feel a great deal of responsibility to our staff, and we’ve been able to keep the majority of our staff employed,” he said.

Sawyer said business owners who decide to open space by allowing outside air inside should monitor the carbon dioxide levels to ensure there is enough airflow and levels remain under 450 parts per billion.

The carbon dioxide monitoring is not required or overseen by any state agency, Sawyer said, but is a great tool for owners to measure the inside air quality and adjust so the air quality inside is similar to the outdoor air.

“We’re trying not to be overly prescriptive and say ‘You have to check it every hour or whatever.’ We are saying that if it drops below that for 15 minutes then you might need to seat your customers somewhere else,” she said.

Another option allows owners to place tables that can seat up to six people on sidewalks, covered patios, courtyards and similar outdoor seating up to 25% of their capacity according to the guidance. Business owners who don’t have permeable walls can seat a group of up to six people inside enclosed structures, but the area must be aired out for 10 minutes and sanitized in between each group use.

Sawyer said these options are intended to allow business owners to provide an “outdoor environment” inside of an enclosed structure while mitigating the spread of the virus.

But finding the balance between keeping restaurants open for dining inside while slowing the spread of the coronavirus has raised concern over whether or not it’s possible to do both.

There have been 3,393 {%%note} {/%%note} complaints related to restaurants and food service businesses for not following COVID-19 guidelines as of Friday, and 1,780 of those complaints originated in Spokane County, said Ginny Streeter, Washington State Department of Health spokesperson, in an email.

Many small businesses have been hit hard as political leaders deliberate on how to reduce the spread of COVID-19 by placing restrictions on dining services, said Anthony Anton, president and CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association.

Leaders of the hospitality industry worked with legislative leaders to design the open air guidance, Anton said. The regulations although helpful to industry members will not work for everyone, he added.

“Until they can get over 50% of their indoor dining back, they’re still going to be losing money,” he said. “This is going to help some people, but it’s not going to help everyone and it’s not going to save anybody.”

The average restaurant makes about $50,000 a year, and closures have caused some businesses to be over $150,000 in debt, Anton said. About 2,000 restaurants across the state have permanently closed, he added.

Small business owners don’t have extensive reserves or huge investors that can bail them out, Anton said.

“Most of them have their own homes up for collateral,” he said. “Now, not only are their businesses at risk, their homes are at risk.”

Rhoades said he’s felt strong support from the community, which is always important, but more so now that their sales are down 40% from where they were about a year ago. He said his focus is on keeping customers and the community safe as they weather the pandemic.

“Normally that decrease in sales would be death for any restaurant,” he said. “Most of us are in that position and wouldn’t be here without the PPP loan.”

Inslee announced that there may be additional financial help for business during a press conference last Tuesday.

Rhoades said the slightly loosened restrictions are helpful, but they he remains worried about the future of Rock City Grill.

“I’m just like everyone that owns a restaurant wondering if we’re gonna survive,” Rhoades said.

Anna Dampf, events coordinator for Iron Goat Brewing, said the brewery and restaurant is barely breaking even .

The owners have been proactive in figuring out how to manage the business since the first shutdown, Dampf said, which has made the following restrictions seem “far less scary.”

The Iron Goat used to be packed to the point that there was only standing room left, but now the atmosphere feels different because only the patio is open with some heated tables, Dampf said.

Although the business has a roll-up garage door taking up the space of a wall, inside dining remains closed , Dampf said. The owners are still unsure if they will roll them up.

“So many of our customers have been amazing. They come in with blankets and basically are prepared to just sit outside and support us and have a beer out in the cold,” Dampf said. “I have been really pleasantly surprised by the community that has kind of rallied around all of us.”