Seattle’s reopening has picked up the pace. On Friday, King County officially moved from “phase 1.5” of Washington’s “Safe Start” plan, which allowed dining rooms to open at 25 percent and outdoor seating at 50 percent, to phase two. That means indoor dining capacity is doubled to 50 percent effective immediately (outdoor seating stays the same, but doesn’t count toward the total restaurant capacity). Tables must be set at least six feet apart to adhere to social distancing measures.
For those following Washington’s complex four-phased plan to reopen the economy in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, phase two allows for relaxed restrictions on restaurants, with the capacity limitations and other guidelines in place. In phase three, restaurants can reopen at 75 percent capacity and bars at 25 percent. Phase four allows restaurants and bars to fully reopen, although — if the six-feet between tables rule is still in effect — it’s unclear how that would look in practice for most restaurants. Each phase is meant to be separated by at least three weeks to evaluate data around the spread of COVID-19. By that timeline, it’s within the realm of possibilities that restaurants could be allowed to open in fuller capacity sometime in August, but that would depend on a lot of things going right in terms of slowing the spread of the coronavirus, which is no guarantee.
In a statement earlier this week, King County executive Dow Constantine said, for now, the area’s health care system capacity for treating COVID-19 and other metrics are currently “holding steady.” But he emphasized that a “successful economic recovery will depend on everyone in King County carefully following the recommendations of our Public Health experts, including wearing face coverings and avoiding unnecessary contacts.”
Restaurants — along with bars, breweries, and wineries that serve food — must still adhere to a series of other safety guidelines laid out by the state for mitigating the spread of the novel coronavirus. Those rules include providing single-use menus, eliminating bar seating, and making sure all employees are wearing masks. Even though diners are not required to wear face coverings, a Seattle directive states that businesses can refuse service to customers who don’t wear them — and public health officials continue to remind people about basic precautions, such as regular hand washing, face coverings, and staying at least six feet apart.
Whether diners are actually following through on such protocols is a different story. Dozens of restaurants in Seattle have already resumed dine-in services in a limited capacity — and early looks at the reopened dining scene show a lack of social distancing in long lines outside breweries and inconsistent mask usage.
The city has already seen the dangers of reopening, regardless of preparations. Just 10 days after welcoming back customers to its outdoor beer garden, Fremont Brewing announced this week that it would close indefinitely after an employee testing positive for COVID-19. This follows similar news from around the country, as bars and restaurants in cities that reopened earlier than Seattle did have had to close down due to coronavirus cases.
Several major chefs and restaurateurs in the city have already been wary of the safety hazards and economic implications of opening at 50 percent capacity. Though many may be eager to draw more diners to their doors, that sentiment likely won’t change, even as more tables and chairs free up.
UPDATED, June 20, 2020, 8:13 a.m.: This article has been updated with news that King County was officially approved to enter phase two.