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What Gov. Jay Inslee’s Plan for Reopening the Economy Means for Local Restaurants

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The timing for rolling back many stay-at-home restrictions is unclear, but Seattle’s restaurants and bars likely won’t be among the first to reopen

The outside of Hattie’s Hat and Percy’s & Co. in Ballard
Washington’s stay-at-home order is set to expire on May 4, but many restrictions will stay in place past that date.
Suzi Pratt

On Tuesday night, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee laid out the outline for what he billed as the state’s COVID-19 recovery plan. In the televised address, Inslee described a phased approach that was more like “the turning of a dial than the flip of a switch,” as officials examine data to determine the best approach on lifting certain stay-at-home restrictions. The plan called for a ramping up of testing first and foremost (still hoping for help from the federal government on that front), as well mobilizing a team of contact tracers in the state acting like a “fire brigade” to identify new coronavirus cases and make sure those who were exposed are isolated. To date, there have been 12,282 cases in the state and 682 deaths.

Even if all goes well and the numbers of COVID-19 cases continue to decline, Inslee cautioned that many current restrictions would not be lifted by May 4, when the current stay-at-home order is set to expire. Three particular industries — such as residential construction, elective surgeries, and outdoor recreation — might be the first in line to get back to business, even before then. But restaurant dining rooms weren’t mentioned as part of the early reopening phase.

In fact, it’s unclear when the state will let restaurants and bars offer services beyond takeout and delivery. David Postman, Inslee’s chief of staff, tells Eater Seattle that the state is still working with the hospitality industry on what health restrictions may be involved to reopen, but says it’s too soon to say when those guidelines might be put in place or what exactly they’ll look like. Inslee mentioned Tuesday night that information gleaned from other lower risk businesses when some restrictions are lifted could inform efforts elsewhere.

Inslee’s statements come as other states start rolling out more aggressive plans to reopen businesses. In Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp announced that restaurants could open as soon as Monday, although that plan received pushback from many chefs and owners, concerned about the safety and welfare of their workers. Tennessee has also announced that the majority of its businesses could open on May 1. Meanwhile, California — which is coordinating with Oregon and Washington on a shared vision for reopening West Coast economies — has no end date for its stay-at-home order. California governor Gavin Newsom says the new normal for restaurants in the state may mean masks for servers and half-full dining rooms.

Whenever restaurants and bars do return for dine-in service in Washington, Seattleites should still expect significant changes to the way things were before. As Inslee mentioned in his plan, physical distancing will be required for all industries, and the state will set guidelines on rigorous cleaning, screening employees for illness, and providing personal protection equipment. “Until we have a COVID-19 vaccine, workplaces are going to look much different,” said Inslee.