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There Have Been Over 1,000 COVID-Related Complaints Directed at King County Restaurants in 2020

But only two restaurants have been shut down for violations

A surgical mask and bottle of hand sanitizer on a table next to a place setting
COVID-related complaints for restaurants in King County rarely result in fines or closures.

When area diners saw something in potential violation of COVID-19 mandates, they said something. According to Public Health — Seattle & King County, there were 1,022 COVID-related restaurant complaints filed from March to December 10, department spokesperson Gabriel Spitzer tells Eater Seattle. The department did not go into specifics about what those complaints entailed but, in general, they would encompass anything from not observing proper social distancing protocols, to a lack of proper mask-wearing among staff and customers, to any non-compliance with the health and sanitation guidelines for food establishments set forth by local officials during the pandemic.

The summer saw the highest numbers of COVID-related complaints filed to the health department, when restaurants in King County began to reopen for dine-in service. That was followed by a brief downturn in complaints this fall around the time when restrictions lightened up further. Before Thanksgiving, Gov. Jay Inslee instituted the latest indoor dining ban, which has been extended until early 2021 due to the alarming spike in COVID cases. From December 1 through December 10, there were 72 COVID-related restaurant complaints.

But it’s rare that those call-outs turn into punitive measures. Per official records, only two King County restaurants have been shut down by the department because of COVID-related violations during the pandemic. Duke’s on Alki closed in July after seven employees at the location tested positive for COVID-19. Even though the restaurant claimed it had followed protocols regarding the state’s “Safe Start” plan, officials found the set-up of the restaurant did not follow social distancing requirements. More recently, Blue Nile Ethiopian Restaurant on Rainier Avenue S was closed December 11 by the health department for providing indoor dining and bar service, and for serving customers who were not following the mask mandate. Just a day later, the restaurant was allowed to reopen.

Spitzer echoes what health officials have said since the beginning of the pandemic: the primary approach the department takes to restaurants found in potential violation of COVID protocols has been one of education, rather than strict enforcement. “The vast majority of businesses are cooperative and work in good faith to come into compliance,” he says. To that end, the department has launched a mobile outreach effort to help businesses adjust to the latest restrictions. A specially outfitted van gives out free COVID-19 supplies — such as antimicrobial cleaning solvents, hand sanitizers, gloves, and masks — to area establishments and team members are on hand to provide support to restaurants in an “atmosphere outside the normal inspector-inspectee setting,” Spitzer said.

Many area restaurants have also shut down voluntarily when a COVID outbreak has been detected, although the issue of letting food establishments police themselves when cases come to light remains an open-ended issue, particularly as the pandemic worsens. Just before Thanksgiving, the King County health department released a report that showed that 15 percent of people who tested positive for COVID over a 60-day period this fall cited visiting a food-service establishment or restaurant prior to the onset of illness. Since the pandemic began, restaurants have accounted for the second-highest number of non-healthcare-facility outbreaks in King County, including 40 in the 60 days prior to the release of the report.

Despite the “education-based” approach to violators in general, there have been some indications that health officials may come down harder on those who flagrantly flaunt the new rules. Even though Inslee has praised the majority of restaurants for compliance with COVID-related restrictions across the state, there have been some notable exceptions, such as the longtime Chehalis diner Spiffy’s, which continued to open for indoor dining in November and December, despite the recent ban. That restaurant faces more than $60,000 in fines.

Here’s the full breakdown of COVID-related complaints in King County, by month (source: Public Health - Seattle & King County).

March: 52
April: 76
May: 60
June: 150
July: 189
August: 126
September: 97
October: 103
November: 98
December 1-10: 71