Whenever dining rooms open back up in Seattle, there will be some dramatic changes. This week, Gov. Jay Inslee’s office released detailed guidelines for restaurants in phase two of Washington’s economic reopening plan, in which restaurants can resume dine-in services at 50 percent capacity, with no more than five people seated at each table. The additional requirements — meant to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 — include single-use menus, six feet of social distancing between staff and customers, a limit of one employee tending to a table at a time, and the need to log all diners’ information, including phone number, email, and arrival times, for the purposes of contact tracing. Employees will also need to wear personal protection equipment (PPE); cloth face masks for customers are recommended, but not required.
King County released its own set of restaurant criteria for reopening, which mainly aligns with the state’s, although Seattle recently said that restaurants would be allowed to turn away diners for not wearing masks (even if there’s no law requiring their use). Employers must also screen workers for symptoms of COVID-19, including fever, ensure six feet of distance between employees in both back and front of house, and stagger work schedules as much as possible, which are more specific clarifications to the state’s guidelines.
There is still no exact timeline when these measures will be put into play: small, rural counties in Eastern Washington are slated to enter phase two faster than other parts of the state, particularly King County, which is likely still weeks away from moving forward due to the relative higher number of COVID cases. But whenever the requirements and recommendations are in play here in Seattle, they won’t be easy to implement, as local chefs and owners attest.
“The rules make it sound like the worst dining experience of all time, and a borderline invasion of privacy” says Logan Cox, chef and co-owner of acclaimed Beacon Hill restaurant Homer, which is currently open for takeout. Inslee sought to address the privacy issue around logging diners’ info in a press conference Tuesday, saying that the data collected by restaurants would be purged when not needed, and only used for the purposes of contact tracing. But the governor also said the exact logistics are still being hashed out with industry leaders.
Even if further details are forthcoming, Cox says he will likely not reopen his doors whenever Seattle enters phase two, since the half capacity restriction would hurt too much financially, and the spacing in Homer’s small dining room — which includes an open kitchen — raises concerns about health hazards. “A lot of our staff isn’t comfortable coming back to work, as they don’t feel safe interacting with multiple people in close proximity,” he says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if this takeout program is Homer’s reality until 2021 or longer.”
Recent James Beard Award finalist Rachel Yang of Fremont’s Korean steakhouse Joule and the more casual Revel echoes Cox’s sentiment, even as she seems more resigned to the new regulations, particularly the customer logs, which would require taking info from everyone in a party (not just the one making a reservation). “This will be a more intense version of the reservation, waitlist, check-in, or whatever you call it,” she says. “It will never feel safe enough until we have a vaccine developed. These guidelines will help us feel a little safer in the meanwhile.”
Likewise, Miki Sodos — owner of Cafe Pettirosso on Capitol Hill, Bang Bang Cafe in Belltown, and Bang Bang Kitchen in Othello — is willing to roll with the new rules in the hopes of adding dine-in to the current takeout programs. “I have touchless thermometers on order for all three restaurants, all front-of-house staff is already wearing masks, and I have barriers in place where possible and free standing barriers on order,” she says. “We can easily provide a digital menu customers can download, and tables can be taken away.”
But even so, the requirements on maintaining social distancing between staff and diners may be a challenge, as the new rules state that restaurants must have a “six-foot separation between all employees (and customers) in all interactions at all times.” Sodos calls it an “impossibility, because we would need to drop the food off with the customer, and we would not allow the customer to get their own food for obvious reasons.” She hopes the government will provide more guidance on this issue.
Chef David Nichols of the Green Lake farm-to-table restaurant Eight Row also sees those social distancing restrictions as a potential sticking point, and is not preparing to resume dine-in services in phase two, but rather continue the current takeout options. He also points to the restriction requiring only one employee per table. “Service would be slow; guests at the same table would not receive their food at the same time,” he says. “It’s a lot more work for way lower revenue. And we’d have all the additional costs of PPE. And we wouldn’t have bar revenue.” That said, the customer log doesn’t seem to be a dealbreaker: “It adds to the overall work, but not more than other constraints.”
Most chefs and owners Eater has spoken to over the past couple of weeks appear to be approaching the reopening prospect with understandable caution. The majority say they will not reopen for dine-in services right away, but either continue takeout services indefinitely or wait until the latter phases of the reopening plan, when restaurants can open for fuller capacity. Unlike other states, particularly in the South, where the reopening has been chaotic, there is at least some time to plan locally, even if the future of the industry is still precarious.
“I am under the assumption that most restaurants will not make it through this,” says Sodos. “That being said, there’s no restaurant or business worth a single human life in my opinion.”
- Washington Restaurants Will Need to Track Diners’ Info As Part of Reopening Requirements [ESEA]
- King County Issues Directive to Wear Face Masks at Restaurants, Grocery Stores, and Other Public Settings [ESEA]
- What Seattle Chefs and Owners Think About Reopening Restaurants at 50 Percent Capacity [ESEA]