On Wednesday, Public Health Seattle - King County announced it had temporarily shut down Duke’s Chowder House on Alki Beach due to a recent COVID-19 outbreak among employees and non-compliance with Washington’s “Safe Start” requirements for restaurants.
Duke’s — a popular local seafood chain that has seven locations in the area — posted a message on its Facebook page Wednesday that seven employees at the Alki outpost have tested positive for COVID-19, as well as two cases confirmed at the Tacoma restaurant and one in Bellevue. So far, there have been no reported cases from customers who ate at the restaurants, although the King County health department recommends that diners who have recently visited should monitor their health closely and get tested if they experience COVID-like symptoms.
The restaurant claims the employees were exposed to the novel coronavirus outside the restaurant, all at different times, starting in late June. “When we learned of their exposures, we worked to contain it, evaluated each situation, informed all company team members, alerted the health department, and notified our guests through a variety of channels,” Duke’s spokeswoman Cheryl Engstrom tells Eater Seattle. “In each case, we closed these stores for cleaning and to allow time for team members to be tested.”
But questions remain on whether the restaurant really took every precaution, as mandated by the state. The Seattle Times spoke with employees who allege that Duke’s management insisted on filling every table when it resumed dine-in services in June, despite the official cap being 50 percent capacity indoors and outdoors.
While restaurants are not allowed to have parties bigger than five per table in phase two, one server claims Duke’s once sat a party of 14. Engstrom later countered that charge by saying the restaurant did take a large party, but did not seat them at one table. “They were seated at individual tables outside,” she says. “They agreed to maintain 6-feet distance and we maintained less than 50 percent capacity. This seating fit well within the guidelines.”
The Seattle Times report also alleges that Duke’s waited a day and a half to tell staff about the first positive COVID-19 case, and sent out a memo that seemingly discouraged employees from getting tested if they weren’t experiencing symptoms.
Engstrom denied all these allegations, and says “Duke’s has followed strict guidelines,” regarding the state’s “Safe Start” plan. But a spokesperson for the King County health department tells Eater Seattle that “the set-up of the restaurant did not promote appropriate customer distancing.”
The shuttering of Duke’s is significant. While there have been COVID-19 cases linked to area restaurants, bars, and cafes before, this looks to be the first confirmed full-on outbreak among employees at a restaurant in Seattle.
It also marks the first time since the pandemic began that King County health officials have closed a restaurant in Seattle temporarily due to coronavirus concerns. In the past, establishments — such as Fremont Brewing and a downtown Starbucks — shut down voluntarily after an employee tests positive, as Duke’s on Alki did as well (twice for cleanings). West Seattle’s Grillbird Teriyaki also closed until further notice this week due to a detected COVID-19 case from an employee.
Up until this point, King County has not felt the need to step in and take direct action. But now it seems local officials aren’t taking any chances if there are signs that a restaurant isn’t doing enough to contain an outbreak.
“Any individual incident on its own is not likely to lead to immediate closure,” says the health department spokesperson. “However, when there is ongoing risk for transmission and lack of compliance, as is the case with this Duke’s location, closure is necessary to ensure the best prevention measures are in place.”
UPDATED, July 9, 2020, 4:46 p.m.: This piece was updated with further comments from the Duke’s spokeswoman about seating a party of 14 at the restaurant.