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Local restaurant owners urging state to consider 50% indoor dining capacity

UPDATED: Wed., Jan. 20, 2021

Ken Belisle, president of the company that owns Frank’s Diner and The Onion Taphouse and Grill, said his restaurants have been fully open only about two and a half months in the past year.  (Libby Kamrowski/The Spokesman-Review)
Ken Belisle, president of the company that owns Frank’s Diner and The Onion Taphouse and Grill, said his restaurants have been fully open only about two and a half months in the past year. (Libby Kamrowski/The Spokesman-Review)

Local restaurant owners are urging the state to consider raising indoor dining capacity to 50% in an effort to sustain operations and retain employees.

In a campaign featuring two, one-minute-long videos airing on local television and the Re-Open Restaurants Facebook page, restaurant owners are asking Gov. Jay Inslee to raise indoor dining capacity, stating they are unable to survive on takeout options alone and “25% (indoor dining) capacity will guarantee 100% failure.”

“Our big push is we want to open safely at 50% (capacity) with masks and social distancing,” said Derek Baziotis, Bene’s owner and Spokane chair of the Washington Hospitality Association. “At 50% (capacity), we feel it gets people back working. It gives them some sense of purpose and makes it sustainable for restaurants.”

Spokane County is in Phase 1 of Inslee’s Healthy Washington – Roadmap to Recovery reopening plan, which went into effect Jan. 11 and restricts indoor dining until Phase 2. Inslee instituted new “open-air dining” guidelines last week, allowing restaurants that meet certain outside-air ventilation requirements to seat customers indoors at 25% capacity.

Under the state’s existing phased reopening plan, restaurants could remain closed until June, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars per establishment in lost revenue, said Anthony Anton, president and CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association.

The association reports nearly 3,000 restaurants – most of which are independently-owned – have permanently closed in the state since the the pandemic’s economic impact began to take hold in March. Some 121 restaurants in Spokane County were reported closed as of September 2020.

Private gatherings are contributing to an increase in COVID-19 case counts while public health data indicate restaurants account for fewer than 1% of cases in the state, Anton said.

The association supports state Senate Bill 5114, which proposes to move all counties to Phase 2 and allows indoor dining to reopen to 25% capacity, but believes the best option for restaurants is 50% capacity.

“We think 50% is the right number … it gives restaurants a fighting chance to survive,” Anton said.

Ken Belisle, president and managing partner of Landmark Restaurants, which owns and operates Frank’s Diner and The Onion Taphouse and Grill in the Spokane area, said his restaurants have only been fully open about two and a half months in the past year.

“It takes its toll to continually be shut down,” he said. “In all the reports we see – if you are responsible – restaurants are very safe to be in.”

Belisle temporarily closed the Onion in downtown Spokane, but kept the north Spokane location open for takeout, in addition to two Frank’s Diner restaurants. 

He had reduced his salary a few months ago to retain a manager on staff and had just started to break even when the state closed indoor dining in November.

“We need to get back to 50% (capacity),” he said. “We want to do our part, but we also need to be here tomorrow. We are not going to have a restaurant community if they don’t do something soon.”

Although it has been a struggle to remain open, Belisle said he’s grateful for the community’s support over the past year.

“I’m so glad to be in Spokane where people are so supportive and have been doing takeout,” he said. “It really has made a difference.”

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