“How many in your party?”
“Would you all like to sit inside or outside?”
“Do you all live together?”
Beginning this Thursday, seating diners at restaurants in Seattle is about to get even more complicated than it was already during the pandemic. Last week, Gov. Jay Inslee announced some revised rules to Washington’s phased reopening plan in order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. While restaurants in the city can still open for dine-in services at 50 percent capacity inside and outside, only those from the same household are allowed to sit at the same table indoors.
This is to discourage people from intermingling outside of one’s personal daily contacts inside enclosed spaces, where the risks of COVID-19 transmission are higher than they would be outside. “Put simply, if you’re looking for a seat with people you don’t share a home with, sit outside,” Inslee said.
But enforcement of this rule seems challenging at best. When asked how restaurants will be expected to comply to the new guidelines, Mike Faulk, Inslee’s deputy communications director, noted, “There will be an expectation restaurants — say, a host or hostess — ask customers if they are in the same household, but verification is not required.”
Several chefs and owners Eater Seattle spoke with recently are willing to comply to the best of their ability, but are still unsure how this new rule will play out once it goes into effect.
“We are going to have our hosts confirm with people that they are all from the same household, and we will be adding ‘same household’ language guests will view in our reservation app as well,” says Jeremy Price, co-owner of the Sea Creatures restaurant group, which includes the French steakhouse Bateau on Capitol Hill (open for limited dine-in service). “Ultimately, we do not have any reasonable way of verifying any of this, so we will be relying on people to a large extent to do the right thing and to be compliant.”
Rachel Yang, chef and co-owner of Fremont’s Joule and Revel (both open for limited dine-in service), says, “We intend to add this announcement on our website and the menu to make sure our diners are from the same household.” But with other regulations in place — such as spacing tables six feet apart, mandatory masks for guests when not actively eating, and voluntary contact tracing — Yang is still unsure what the future holds for her restaurants. “We understand the responsibility that we bear as a public space and we will do our best,” she says. “Not sure how long we can all keep this up, though, as we are expecting the number of dine-in guests to drop in coming weeks.”
Some chefs that started seating people inside when Seattle first entered phase two of the state’s “Safe Start” procedures are abandoning that plan already. As of July 30, the spots owned by restaurateur Linda Derschang — Linda’s Tavern, Oddfellow’s, and King’s Hardware — will stick with patio seating and takeout only after a short time opening their dining rooms. The same goes for celebrated chef Mutsuko Soma, who reopened her soba-focused restaurant Kamonegi briefly for dine-in back in June at 20 percent capacity, but closed it again once she realized that it was difficult to regulate mask-wearing. She is still seating guests on the patio of her sake bar, Hannyatou, next door, and sticking to takeout-only at Kamonegi until the COVID-19 cases “get lower,” says Soma.
Even those forging ahead with indoor dining are still trying to make adjustments for those who want takeout. The venerable Japanese restaurant Sushi Kashiba at Pike Place Market had just launched its first-ever to-go omakase dinner box offerings, and will continue to have those available. Director of operations Ed Kashiba says the restaurant has also opened outdoor courtyard seating, and will attempt to adhere to the new guidelines on same-household tables.
“Enforcement will need to be done both at the point of making the reservation as well as at the host stand for same day walk-ins,” he says. “Our courtyard area is actually sought after and often requested so we’re confident there won’t be much objection from mixed parties who can’t dine indoors.”
Ultimately, though, the onus to police public health regulations seems to once again fall disproportionately on restaurants themselves, as guidelines about COVID-19 are often open to interpretation for food businesses (particularly when it comes to employees testing positive for the illness). Perhaps revised rules are a better economic outcome for small businesses than shutting things down completely, but it’s unclear whether it’s a sustainable strategy. Says Kashiba, “These times are certainly an exercise in flexibility and execution.”
Regarding the “single household” stipulation for indoor seating, Yenvy Pham, co-owner of Little Saigon’s Pho Bac Sup Shop, says, “I have no idea how that’s going to play out. Just going to put out more tables outside and see.”