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As COVID Cases Continue to Rise, Restaurant Promotions That Include Dine-in Discounts Walk a Fine Line

Efforts in Pierce County, Seattle, and Bellevue want to encourage more support for local businesses, but public health concerns persist

A view of the Tacoma skyline at Commencement Bay
Pierce County, which includes Tacoma, is launching a restaurant promotion soon that focuses on full-service restaurants.

Earlier this month, Pierce County announced a two-week promotion called Restaurant Rally planned for November. In its current iteration, the promotion will entice diners who wish to support local businesses with a significant discount: customers will get 30 percent off their bill at participating places, and the county will reimburse the restaurant for that discount (excluding alcohol) — and tack on another 20 percent using funds from the federal CARES Act. Essentially, the goal is to help restaurants make more money without requiring them to reduce prices, and hopefully sate diners with a bargain.

Two major caveats, though: Only full-service restaurants can apply to be part of the promotion, and, when it was first announced, the discount appeared to apply exclusively to dine-in customers. There was some language that hedged a bit, noting that the reimbursement for gross sales could apply to takeout, should the Pierce County lead health official deem it necessary. But the first announcement emphasized dine-in.

After further consultation with local health officials, the county council (which funded the program) since amended the rules somewhat, officially allowing for takeout orders to be part of the deal — but it kept the full-service requirement for applicants. When asked whether Restaurant Rally may make further adjustments depending on the COVID-19 outlook in the region, Pierce County public information specialist Emmi Buck told Eater Seattle that the organizers will continue to follow the advice of local health authorities pertaining to COVID, but it’s unlikely they’ll pull the plug entirely.

“We don’t foresee the need to cancel this program as it allows for those who don’t feel comfortable with dine-in options to participate via take-out,” she said. “Both dine-in and takeout will be included in the promotion, so long as third party apps are not used for takeout.”

Still, there are a lot of serious issues to consider. COVID cases are rising across Western Washington at an alarming rate yet again, with Pierce County recording 1,197 cases in the past 14 days, a rate of 132.7 per 100,000 people, indicating high community transmission. October 22 brought the highest single-day case total in the county since the pandemic began and local officials warned that the area was in a third surge, starting from Labor Day.

Given those metrics, it’s curious that Pierce County focused its November promotion on dine-in, before backtracking. A recent report from the Washington State Department of Health noted that out of all non-health care settings where people congregate, food service is the category that has experienced the most outbreaks over the course of the pandemic. And, as has been well documented, indoor dining in areas where there is high community transmission carries significant risk, particularly to restaurant workers.

Pierce County officials defended their promotion, noting that to participate, restaurants must still comply with all the safety measures in place during the second phase of the state’s “Safe Start” plan, which allows 50 percent seating capacity. And its primary aim is to try to help boost revenue in an industry that has heavily suffered economic losses during the pandemic. With no restaurant bailout from the federal government in sight and hopes for another stimulus package fading, wanting to use whatever CARES funds are left to help restaurants stay afloat and keep workers employed is understandable.

Pierce County’s economic team is not the only one grappling with these tricky issues. Seattle Restaurant Week (SRW) recently relaunched after the spring edition was canceled, making several notable adjustments for fall. SRW usually charges a fee to restaurants who want to participate, which has been waived. There’s also no emphasis on three-course prix fixe dine-in meals like in years past; restaurants, pop-ups, and food trucks have the flexibility to decide what to offer as the special (like a family meal that’s already on the menu), and takeout is encouraged. A new, charity-driven “Give a Meal” option directs proceeds to chefs and restaurants fighting food insecurity, such as That Brown Girl Cooks!, Musang, Salare, Project Feast, and Feed the People.

“These feel like pretty huge adaptations to the pandemic,” said Jeremy Price, co-founder of the Sea Creatures group, which includes both high-end restaurants like Bateau and more casual spots such as the Whale Wins Larder and Cafe. Price echoes some of the complaints that have dogged Restaurant Week in the past — it tends to attract diners who are in it for the deal, rather than dedicated food lovers who want to support local businesses — but notes the new format “feels like a fit for the business we are currently doing mainly, that we will take any free help we can get to market our to-go programs.”

Likewise, Miki Sodos, co-owner of Cafe Pettirosso, Bang Bang Cafe, and Bang Bang Kitchen, said Seattle Restaurant Week “has always been frustrating because it is so expensive to participate, but if you don’t participate, sales go down dramatically.” Sodos said it’s usually untenable for many restaurants that do not have the financial capacity to buy in, but that, this year, “it’s been great to be able to participate without having the extraordinary cost that it normally is.” And the flexibility on menus also aligns more with what Sodos is doing at her various restaurants.

That said, there have been some glitches. Spice Waala co-owner Uttam Mukherjee, who hadn’t participated last year when the restaurant first opened, said there really hasn’t been much guidance from the organizers about what’s expected from them, particularly “specific instructions on dine-in (which we aren’t doing) versus take-out or other COVID-related information,” he said.

“We have encouraged restaurants to participate in Seattle Restaurant Week in whatever format works best for them, be it takeout, delivery, or in-house,” said SRW program manager Andrea Porter, adding that the organizers have partnered with the Ethnic Chamber of Commerce Coalition to provide restaurants with free personal protection equipment. “We have noted [restaurants] must follow the WA State Department of Health guidelines. We will remove a restaurant from the SRW program if we receive and verify feedback that a venue is not following the mandated WA State Department of Health guidelines.”

On a smaller scale, Bellevue’s new “Dine for Five” promotion has launched, offering discounts to those eating out at the Bellevue Collection restaurants, including 13 Coins, Daniel’s Broiler, Duke’s Seafood, and others. Some of the offers include 10 percent off takeout orders, 20 percent off bills of $25, and free dessert with entrées. The opt-in for the restaurants were voluntary, and the gift cards are coming out of the Collective’s marketing budget. Like SRW and Pierce County’s Restaurant Rally, takeout is included, but the gift cards can only be used for dine-in.

It remains to be seen exactly how much these promotions will revitalize local businesses. Every little bit helps, but there’s still an anxiety-producing paradox at the heart of many discounts — they’re intended to draw more people to places, when social distancing is still the safest way to go.