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As Poor Air Quality Lingers This Week, Seattle Restaurants Are Still in Limbo

Many closed temporarily over the weekend and continue to face difficult decisions

The Space Needle in Seattle can barely be seen through the haze related to wildfire smoke.
The air quality in Seattle has deteriorated over the past week due to wildfire smoke.
Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images

This past weekend, there were quite a few restaurants closing their outdoor patios — or closing completely — as wildfire smoke deteriorated air quality in the region to unhealthy levels. Now, a weather system that was expected to arrive on Monday, September 14, to help push much of the smoke out of the area doesn’t look like it will arrive until later in the week. And that could continue to have a major impact on local businesses.

As of Monday, the air quality is still “unhealthy” or “hazardous” in many parts of Seattle, per the National Weather Service, which means residents should still stay indoors if possible. The city extended closures of parks, beaches, boat ramps, and play fields through Monday because of the hazard. There is still no official mandate for restaurants, bars, and breweries to close outdoor patios, but many have already done so voluntarily and are facing the uncertainty of another week with poor air quality. With Seattle paused in phase two of the state’s “Safe Start” plan during the COVID-19 pandemic (in which dining rooms can only open inside at half capacity), options are limited.

“We make decisions day-by-day on whether we feel it’s right to open our outdoor dining,” says Rumi Ohnui, co-owner of Moshi Moshi Sushi & Izakaya in Ballard. “So far, we’ve remained closed outdoors due to smoke, though we still offer to-go orders. It’s been really challenging losing half our sales on top of reduced sales from COVID-19, especially with time being of the essence, as we expect guest count to dip as the weather cools.”

The impact early in the week on business may not be as severe, since many restaurants are closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, anyway. But if the smoke continues to be a hazard by mid-week, it may be difficult for many places to open for anything besides takeout. And, as Ohnui noted, those who were banking on extra revenue from outdoor seating while the weather is still warm are nervous that the reduced business — on top of other challenges during the pandemic — will linger along with the hazy conditions.

Several chefs, managers, and owners tell Eater Seattle they are continuing to monitor the situation (it’s best to check restaurants’ social media accounts when it comes to closure updates). Wes Yoo, owner of The Gerald in Ballard, said this past weekend was the slowest weekend revenue-wise in months. Monica Dimas, who owns Little Neon Taco on First Hill and Capitol Hill’s Westman’s Bagels, says the lack of business hit her bagel shop the hardest, since it does the bulk of its sales on Saturdays and Sundays. Dimas is hoping to make up for some of that loss by offering schmears from Westman’s at Little Neon Taco for takeout and delivery.

Others are feeling the business impact as well. “I don’t know if it was because people were glued to their screens watching football or if it was the third day in a row of heavy smoke, but Sunday we saw our sales cut in half from the previous Sunday,” says Nathan Yagi-Stanton, general manager of Fremont Mexican restaurant El Camino. “It didn’t help that the Fremont Sunday Market was shut down yesterday due to the smoke, and there was very little to no foot traffic all weekend.”

Nearby Dreamland Bar & Diner just made its debut this summer, and had a patio all set up to accommodate the push for more outside seating during the pandemic. But owner Paul Shanrock decided that it’s best to put that on pause. “I can’t imagine being a guest right now,” he says. “In their mind, it’s either sit outside and get the black lung or sit inside and die of COVID.”

Though Dreamland is usually open daily, Shamrock is closing the restaurant Monday (February 14) and may do the same Tuesday (February 15): “I don’t like asking my employees to do stuff I don’t want to do and just existing in your house is hard right now, so working is kind of off the table.”

With this entire week potentially a wash, and colder weather coming in, Shanrock also hopes that there will be some direction from Gov. Jay Inslee and other officials on how to prepare for the coming fall and winter. “My sole task in life currently is to winterize outdoor makeshift seating directly next to the unoccupied buildings I pay for,” he says.

Likewise, Jennifer Petty, co-owner of Eden Hill Provisions in Queen Anne, has wondered how to adjust, since the restaurant recently received approval for a street closure to expand outdoor seating. The restaurant had just begun the new effort on W Crockett Street, and now has to shut the plaza down temporarily, while also prepping for the new season. “We’re starting to think about tenting and heaters but candidly, we’ve barely made our money back from the original investment for the street dining and it’s hard to think about throwing more money at it,” she says.

In the meantime, others wait and refresh the air quality index updates, looking for a sign that things will improve.

“It’s very frustrating. Every time we take a step forward we are forced to take a step back,” says Miki Sodos, co-owner of Bang Bang Kitchen in Othello, Bang Bang Cafe in Belltown, and Cafe Pettirosso on Capitol Hill.

“We’re already walking on a tightrope.”

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