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As New Statewide Restrictions Roll In, Seattle Chefs and Restaurateurs Ask: Where’s the Relief?

Dining rooms must close again for at least the next four weeks

A red sign on a restaurant window says, “Closed Due to COVID-19.”
Gov. Jay Inslee announced that restaurants and bars must close for indoor dining until at least December 14.

For many Seattle restaurants, there was a sinking feeling of deja vu over the past week, recalling the events that led up to March’s stay-at-home order. The dire warnings from health officials about the alarming spread of COVID-19. A plea to be careful and cancel group plans. Then, the final decision: On Sunday, Gov. Jay Inslee issued a ban on all indoor dining, beginning 12:01 a.m. Wednesday and slated to last until at least December 14.

Just like in the spring, takeout is still permitted — the main difference this time is that outdoor seating is allowed, with tables capped at five people and capacity limits still in effect. And while many chefs and owners have been through these paces before, there is a measure of uncertainty looming over a more severe shutdown and its impacts. “I am concerned about my team,” says chef Preeti Agarwal, who just opened the Indian restaurant Meesha 127 in Fremont for both takeout and dine-in, after making the transformation from the French-leaning Pomerol. “I don’t want anyone to leave. I hope we get enough business so that I can support them during this difficult time.”

Melissa Miranda of Beacon Hill’s Musang decided to close her dining room before the new restrictions were announced, but she recognizes the daunting challenges to come. “Is anyone positioned to be okay? Most small businesses, I think not,” she says. “A lot of us have gone through the loans, grants, etc… People are going to be feeling the hit this holiday season, with a lot of people without work and unemployment running out. I’m doing the best for my staff to make sure they still will have a place to call home.”

In the International District, the popular Vietnamese destination Pho Bac Sup Shop has undergone several shifts over the past eight months, even launching its first-ever delivery service through a repurposed parking enforcement vehicle earlier this summer. Now, the restaurant is trying to take things in stride. “I don’t mind a scale back to insure the safety of the masses,” says co-owner Yenvy Pham, adding that she would prefer more aggressive action like “we should have had in the beginning.” From her perspective, “it’s all been such a slow suffer economically, socially, and personally because we can’t unify as a collective… But honestly, people just need to wear their masks.”

Other members of the Seattle restaurant industry agree that the new restrictions are frustrating, yet necessary. “With COVID cases rising so quickly, our hospitals are at risk of being overrun,” says Jeremy Price, co-owner of the Sea Creatures restaurant group, which includes Willmott’s Ghost, the Walrus and the Carpenter, and Bateau. “We’ve been through this before and we will be quicker to adapt, but as with many folks in restaurants and hospitality, we are hanging on by a thread as it is, and we are entering the slowest time of the year. It is going to be a struggle — more layoffs, more closures.”

A few restaurateurs mentioned that, while they understood the reasoning behind the governor’s decision, the relatively short, 48-hour notice restaurants were given to shut down dining rooms again posed some difficulties. “Even though we’ve kept constant contact with local authorities, the actual date and details of the announcement came as a surprise to us without any reason for it to be one,” says Wassef Haroun of Middle Eastern restaurant Mamnoon.

“We are closed on Sunday and Monday right now, so turning on a dime is crushing,” says Fire & Vine Hospitality CEO Chad Mackay, who runs El Gaucho and Aerlume. “We can manage this if we can delay the closure until Friday to give us time to deal with the details of closing,” like managing inventory.

Whether pushing back against the logistics of the indoor dining shutdown or not, the common refrain among those in the industry is that financial relief needs to arrive as soon as possible. The Washington Hospitality Association (WHA) warned that new restrictions could result in the loss of 100,000 jobs, extrapolating those numbers based on the impact from COVID measures over the past year. One notable factor of this new phase is that those who received money from the Payroll Protection Program earlier in 2020 likely have already used it, there’s no longer the extra money tacked onto unemployment checks via the CARES Act, and there’s no sign of more federal relief on the way. In his announcement Sunday, Gov. Inslee mentioned that the state has earmarked a new round of $50 million to help small businesses through a combination of grants and loans, but no additional details were revealed.

“The fact that the restrictions come when there is no federal support plan in place and only vague local support makes the short notice particularly cruel,” says Haroun. Ed Kashiba, manager of Sushi Kashiba says the acclaimed Japanese spot — known for its dynamic, in-person experience — is prepared to go back to takeout only, but “we’re keeping close watch for any further relief from Congress.” The same sentiment was echoed by several others, including the WHA, which has long pushed for a comprehensive relief package at the federal level. It has also urged for more effective third-party delivery rules along the lines of the 15 percent cap that Seattle has implemented, and targeted grants for restaurants specifically with cash in hand.

As the long winter begins to set in, many restaurants that have already committed to takeout-only programs and other changes — such as fine-dining destinations Canlis, Salare, and Cafe Juanita — will likely continue down that path. Others have made the tough decision to simply shut down for the time being and wait the colder months out, hoping that there will be better conditions on the other side in 2021.

But not everyone has that luxury, particularly workers on the lower end of the pay scale, or smaller operators who are trying to get by without adequate rent relief or any sort of external support. “Personally, Musang based on takeout alone isn’t sustainable,” says Miranda. “Filipinx food is definitely becoming well known within the household, but a lot of the education of our food has come from the experience of being in our home. This makes me think about all of the other businesses without the same resources that some larger places have, that don’t have access or understanding of making it work.”

On Sunday, Gov. Inslee noted the ingenuity and “yeoman’s work” restaurants have demonstrated this year to stay afloat and keep people safe. But commendation is one thing, action is another. And it seems increasingly clear that there has been little sense of urgency from any level of government to provide a bailout for an industry that desperately needs it. “Being treated in such a secondary way suggests that it will be survival of the fittest,” says Haroun. “It doesn’t have to be this way at all.”