Washington restaurants brace for thousands of layoffs with statewide ban on indoor service
Restaurant officials call it a sad day for the industry. Washington state is shutting down indoor service at restaurants, bars, and gyms for the next four weeks at least — possibly longer.
“This is devastating news," said Anthony Anton, head of the Washington Hospitality Association, a trade association that represents restaurants and hotels. "This likely leads to 100,000 workers out of work right before the holidays.”
A third, record-breaking surge of new Covid-19 cases led Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to announce the new restrictions on Sunday, as well as a ban on indoor social gatherings.
"What we know is if you act early, you can save lives," Inslee said. "And if you don’t, you’ll be swamped by a tsunami of this virus."
The restrictions come ahead of any new assistance for businesses, which commonly rely on a rush of income during the holiday season.
Inslee said another $50 million in coronavirus relief aid for businesses will be available soon.
"All of us would like to have the financial aspects of this totally resolved when we announced this today," Inslee said on Sunday.
Desirae Aylesworth, owner of the Wild Mountain Cafe in Seattle, said she respects that decision if it's the right course of action.
"We definitely understand that it's affecting people and don't want people getting sick and things like that," she said. "But it is definitely a hard pill to swallow when it comes to your business relying on walk-in traffic and sales on a daily basis to survive.”
Aylesworth, who runs the cafe with her husband and a small staff, said she doesn't expect to lay anyone off, though she will have to reduce their hours.
Thoa Nguyen, however, says her restaurants can only endure a ban for so long.
"It's going to be tough, especially going toward the holidays," said Nguyen, who owns Chinoise in Issaquah and Sushi Chinoise in Bothell. "And I've been in business for a long time, so I will do my best. But I can't imagine people who haven't done this for a long time.”
Nguyen added that she's skeptical about the shutdown ending on its current lift date of December 14. "I think it's going to take longer," she said.
It took nearly four months after previous restrictions were issued in March for her restaurant to be allowed to reopen at half capacity, Nguyen said.
Some GOP leaders are now calling on Inslee to convene an emergency session of the state Legislature in response to the new restrictions.
The governor said on Sunday that he has not ruled out the possibility of a special session, but said there aren't plans at this time to hold one.
It's up to Congress to decide what, if any, additional federal aid to make available to small businesses like Nguyen's.
"I'm hoping that they will put a lot of limitation to it, so it will get to people who really need it," Nguyen said. "The first time around, [the Paycheck Protection Program] seemed like everybody can get on that."
As KUOW reported in July, national chains including Washington-based MOD Pizza and Burgerville received multimillion-dollar loans under the federal program aimed at small businesses.
"We managed to persevere the first time around," Aylesworth said. "We have such a huge, huge group of regular customers and people that visit us on the daily and order takeout and stuff."
"We are definitely still standing, and we put up a good fight," she added. "We're definitely not going to give up."
Anton, with the Washington Hospitality Association, said he was frustrated by Inslee's move, after restaurant operators have invested thousands in plexiglass dividers and other strategies to make their indoor spaces safer for diners.
Anton claimed, based on contact tracing in Clark, Pierce, and Walla Walla counties, that 0.5% of Covid cases are spread in restaurants.
That claim, however, does not account for the fact that half of reported Covid infections in those counties, according to data the hospitality association shared with KUOW, have no known source.
Health officials appear to disagree with Anton.
"Restaurants are the most common site of outbreaks here in our state," Washington state health officer Kathy Lofy said.
Washington Department of Health data show that healthcare facilities are the most common site of Covid outbreaks, with restaurants first among non-healthcare settings.
Lofy said restaurant outbreaks appear small in public health data because investigators are focused solely on restaurant workers and lack the ability to connect any infections among customers to where they've eaten.
"Indoor dining at restaurants and bars is widely considered to be a high-risk activity by public health and medical experts," Gabriel Spitzer with Public Health Seattle & King County said in an email.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that Covid-19 patients in July were twice as likely to have eaten at a restaurant in the previous two weeks as a control group of patients who were not infected.
"Masks cannot be effectively worn while eating and drinking, whereas shopping and numerous other indoor activities do not preclude mask use," the study explained.
"We have to close every window of transmission we can," Inslee said.
Editor's note, 11/18/20, 12:25 p.m.: This article has been updated to clarify the uncertain share of Covid-19 infections contracted at restaurants. An earlier version included a wide range of possible but unlikely percentages of Covid cases contracted at restaurants. It’s also been updated to make clear that long-term care facilities are the most common outbreak setting.