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Washington reopens, but does 'full-capacity' mean business as usual?

caption: Inside Bait Shop in the Capitol Hill neighborhood on Friday, June 25, 2021
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Inside Bait Shop in the Capitol Hill neighborhood on Friday, June 25, 2021
KUOW photo/Kate Walters

At 12:01 a.m. on Wednesday, June 30, Washington state officially reopened.

So what does that mean?

For many, it’s a major mental milestone after such a long period of restrictions, lockdowns, sacrifice, and loss during the pandemic.

But it also means that people who are fully vaccinated can largely return to pre-pandemic life, with some caveats.

Perhaps the biggest change is that bars, restaurants and other businesses will be allowed to open at full-capacity.

Large indoor events with more than 10,000 people will still be capped at 75% capacity, unless vaccination is required for entry and vaccination verification is occurring.

Masking directives will also remain in place. That means people who are unvaccinated must continue wearing masks in public indoor settings.

Everyone, regardless of vaccination status, must still wear a mask in certain settings like schools, healthcare settings, and on public transportation.

In most other places, vaccinated people no longer need a mask.

However, state officials are asking people to “respect the rules of the room you’re in” because individual businesses and local authorities can require masking if they choose.

“Masks will still need to be in your car, your pocket, your backpack – they’ll still be a part of your life as we start to transition into this new phase of recovery,” said Umair A. Shah, state secretary of health, in a press release Tuesday.

Businesses will also still be required to ensure unvaccinated employees wear masks while working indoors, and are required to verify vaccination status before employees can unmask.

Bars and restaurants prepare for a return to full-capacity

While some businesses in the Seattle area are planning celebrations for 12:01 a.m. on Wednesday, others are approaching reopening with a little more apprehension.

Mike Leifur is the owner of Bait Shop in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. He said he’s unsure what reopening will mean for his bar.

Leifur said bar and restaurant owners have gotten a lot of instruction during the pandemic about what they could and couldn’t do.

Simply being told he can reopen at 100% capacity still leaves Leifur with questions.

“Does that mean 100%? Does that mean we need to wear masks, or the customers need to wear masks, or they need to be vaccinated? Or do I need to have Plexiglas between the bartender and the people sitting at the bar? Can people sit at the bar?” he said.

Leifur said it’s frustrating, especially when he’s trying to inform his staff and put out a schedule. So, come Wednesday, he said Bait Shop will likely stay the same, at 50% capacity and requiring masks.

He said he thinks they’ll open up at full-capacity early next week, but he wants to get the lay of the land first.

They’ve made a lot of changes in the past 15 months. In early June of 2020, the bar was just opening up outdoor seating and to-go options. Now, 25 people can be inside.

Come next week, Leifur said he hopes the bar can be full of people, but that people are acting responsibly.

“Covid’s not just gone,” he said.

Like others in the industry, Leifur also said he’s struggling to find the staff to run at full-capacity.

Over in the University District, Rick McLaughlin is facing a similar issue. McLaughlin is the owner of Big Time Brewery.

He said the state reopening means a lot to his business. But there are challenges.

Staffing, accessing the raw materials he needs for brewing, and the increasing price of meat for the kitchen are all considerations.

He’s also trying to prepare his space physically – bringing tables out of storage and hoping to add a bar to the patio area in preparation for bigger crowds.

The excitement about reopening at 100% capacity is tempered somewhat for McLaughlin by some skepticism that the state will follow through.

“I haven’t trusted that it’s fully going to happen until it actually does happen. I’m going to do my best to be ready but we’re definitely still going to have more work to do after the 30th.”

McLaughlin is also wondering if customers are ready to go back to sitting shoulder -to-shoulder with strangers. He said he probably won’t bring all his table and chairs back into the brewery, but will scale back a little to create more space between tables and ease people back in.

McLaughlin and others are asking the public for some grace as they ramp back up after a tough period.

Reopening doesn't mean it's over

State health officials will continue to monitor cases, hospitalizations and Covid-19 variants. While reopening is exciting, officials stress it does not signify an end to the pandemic.

“Even though Wednesday marks a new stage in our continued efforts to defeat this pandemic, we still have work to do. Continued success depends on everyone getting vaccinated and encouraging any loved one who has not yet received this lifesaving vaccine to do so, and quickly,” said Governor Jay Inslee in a press statement Tuesday.

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