The Seattle area was among the earliest areas in the U.S. to get hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, as the first confirmed case and death in the U.S. was reported in Kirkland. More than a year and a half later, the city continues to cope with devastating health and economic impacts, even as Washington forges ahead with its newest reopening plan.
Here’s a timeline of how COVID-19 has impacted Seattle dining, from before its closure and through early August, when a significant number of bars and restaurants started taking measures into their own hands.
February 29, 2020: The first confirmed COVID-related death in the U.S. is linked to a long-term care facility in Kirkland. Gov. Jay Inslee declares a state of emergency.
March 9, 2020: The Starbucks location at First Avenue and University Street closes after the company learns that an employee had tested positive for COVID-19; this marks the first time a case was publicly linked to a Seattle restaurant.
March 12, 2020: After Amazon and other tech companies institute work-from-home policies, many restaurants downtown and in South Lake Union announce temporary closures, citing a steep drop in business, including Tom Douglas.
March 15, 2020: Inslee signs an emergency proclamation, shutting down restaurants and bars statewide for dine-in service. Takeout and delivery is still allowed.
March 23, 2020: Inslee officially issues a stay-at-home order. Under the new rules, all Washingtonians must stay home for at least the next two weeks, unless they are pursuing “essential” activities, such as getting food, going to the pharmacy, or visiting the doctor. Restaurant takeout is considered an essential service (bars can also stay open for takeout if they serve a full food menu).
April 2, 2020: Inslee extends the stay-at-home order until May. During this period, dining rooms must still be closed, but restaurants and bars may continue to offer takeout and delivery.
April 22, 2020: Inslee lays out the general outline for the state’s COVID-19 economic recovery plan, as officials examine data to determine the best approach on lifting certain stay-at-home restrictions. But it’s still unclear what the immediate future means for restaurants, cafes, and bars.
May 1, 2020: Inslee extends the state’s stay-at-home order another month. He also gives more details about the recovery plan, introducing four phases of reopening. Though the whole state is in the first phase at this point, in phase two, restaurants could begin to reopen at 50 percent capacity, with a table size limited to no more than five diners.
May 12, 2020: Inslee finally releases a list of detailed guidelines that restaurants must adopt before resuming dine-in services during phase two of Washington’s reopening plan. Previously unannounced measures include eliminating bar seating, distributing single-use menus, and logging diners’ personal info to facilitate contact tracing.
May 16, 2020: Inslee quickly retracts the mandatory contract tracing part. It’s now optional.
June 5, 2020: King County receives approval to reopen some business activity during a variance of phase one, which Inslee calls “phase 1.5.” Seattle can now resume dine-in services indoors at 25 percent capacity and have outdoor seating at 50 percent capacity. The first weekend of reopening sees long lines outside breweries and restaurants.
June 16, 2020: Less than two weeks after officially reopening, Fremont Brewing becomes the first Seattle spot to publicly announce a temporary closure due to an employee’s positive COVID-19 test. It then reopens a week later.
June 20, 2020: King County officially moves from phase 1.5 to phase two. That means indoor dining capacity is doubled to 50 percent (outdoor seating stays the same). Tables must be set at least six feet apart to adhere to social distancing measures.
June 23, 2020: Inslee orders a statewide mask mandate. Diners must wear face coverings indoors, except when actively eating or drinking, and they must stay on outside if social distancing measures can’t be maintained.
July 7, 2020: Insee takes things up a notch. Businesses — including restaurants — are now required to refuse service to those who don’t wear a mask. Failure to comply could result in a fine or a loss of business license.
July 9, 2020: Public Health Seattle - King County temporarily shuts down Duke’s Chowder House on Alki Beach due to a recent COVID-19 outbreak among employees. It marks the first time since the pandemic began that King County health officials have closed a restaurant in Seattle temporarily due to coronavirus concerns.
The week of July 16, 2020: Amazon lets its Seattle corporate employees know that if they can work from home, they’re welcome to do so until Jan. 8, 2021. That policy had already been in place until October 2020, but is now extended. It means businesses in the vicinity of the Amazon campus will likely face even more problems than they have already.
July 23, 2020: Inslee announces that Washington’s “Safe Start” plan would start reimposing certain restrictions due to the continued rise of COVID-19 cases in the state. Bars, breweries, taverns, and wineries must close for indoor service (whether they serve food or not), indoor dine-in for tables at restaurants are limited to members of the same household, and restaurants must close down any game areas (like pool and darts). Alcohol service will also be cutoff at 10 p.m. Both bars and restaurants can serve people outside at 50 percent capacity with no additional restrictions. Seattle is still in phase two.
August 3, 2020: Slight change of plan. In newly-modified guidelines, bars and other drinking-focused establishments can serve people inside at half capacity during phase two, as long as they either convert their existing food license to a full restaurant license, or make enough food available on their menu.
August - October, 2020: One silver lining for restaurants (and their customers) in 2020 has been the expansion of outdoor dining. In Seattle, restaurants can more easily apply for a temporary “outdoor cafe permit,” and the city starts to grant street closure permits in mid-summer, allowing businesses to create outdoor plazas. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan soon announces that the expedited, free permits will be extended until October 2021.
October 6, 2020: Inslee loosens some restaurant and bar restrictions that were reimposed in late summer, allowing people from different households to sit at the same table inside, increasing table limits from five people to six, and moving the alcohol sales cutoff from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. for areas in phase two of the state’s reopening plan.
November 15, 2020: With an alarming spike in COVID cases across Washington in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, Inslee reinstates several major restrictions. Restaurants and bars must close again for indoor dining. Takeout service and outdoor dining with limitations — no more than five people per table and adhering to current guidelines on capacity — are still permitted.
December 8, 2020: Though the new indoor dining ban was set to expire on December 14, Inslee extends the current restrictions on businesses and gatherings by three weeks, as COVID cases flatten somewhat post-Thanksgiving but remain high. As it stands, the most recent mandates will continue through the holidays, until at least January 4. Inslee says it would be “possible to recalibrate” should cases fall by a significant number before then.
January 5, 2021: Inslee announces his new “Healthy Washington” plan, which will reopen aspects of the economy by region, depending on lowered COVID-19 activity. If a region meets certain guidelines regarding trends in COVID cases and hospital capacity, restaurant dining rooms can reopen at 25 percent capacity. King County is grouped into the Puget Sound region with neighboring Snohomish and Pierce Counties due to connections within their health care systems. All of Washington starts in phase 1 of this plan January 11, but each of eight regions can advance to phase 2 if the area meets all four of the following metrics: there must be a 10 percent decrease in COVID cases over the previous 14 days; a 10 percent decrease in hospital admission rates; ICU occupancy below 90 percent; and overall COVID test positivity below 10 percent. To remain in phase 2, the guidelines won’t be exactly the same, but the region must still show declining or flat trends in COVID cases. Data will be assessed on a weekly basis.
January 15, 2021: Washington officials release an updated set of “outdoor” dining guidelines that includes new stipulations for “open air” seating. The biggest upshot is that restaurants everywhere in the state can seat people inside their spaces, under very specific conditions. Basically, if a restaurant has roll-up doors, bay doors, garage-like doors, or lots of large windows that can be opened to allow for significant outside air ventilation inside the dining room, it can seat customers indoors at 25 percent capacity. The caveat is that any establishment that wants to try this must use a CO2 monitor to track air flow in the dining room. If CO2 levels exceed 450 parts per million (ppm) for 15 minutes, diners must be relocated to an open‐air seating area that meets the state’s requirements. At this point, all regions in the state are still in phase 1 of the new reopening plan.
February, 2021: Not long after Inslee announces significant modifications to the state’s “Healthy Washington” roadmap, indoor dining reopens in Seattle. Instead of having to reach four COVID-related benchmarks to allow indoor dining at 25 percent capacity, Washington regions now only have to hit three out of the four, and the data will be assessed biweekly instead of weekly. The Puget Sound region — which includes King County — meets the new requirements, and Seattle restaurants resume indoor dining at 25 percent, without the need for CO2 monitors or extra ventilation for “open air” seating.
February 1, 2021: Inslee announces that five more regions will open in Washington, starting Monday, February 15. This means that around 92 percent of the state can resume indoor dining at 25 percent capacity, with other COVID measures in place.
March 18, 2021: Citing a better outlook for COVID vaccine supply in Washington, Inslee announces that the next two tiers of eligible groups, including restaurant workers, can sign up to get inoculated starting March 31. This is a much clearer and more accelerated timeline than officials previously revealed; the state’s justification previous justification for delays in making restaurant employees eligible didn’t hold up to scrutiny.
March 22, 2021: Washington officially enters phase 3 of the latest reopening plan, which allows indoor dining to increase from 25 percent to 50 percent capacity. In addition, table size limits are now 10 people max, instead of 6 (with no same household rule), and sales of alcohol extend from 11 p.m. to midnight. But local health officials urge caution, as area COVID cases tick up. In order for King County to stay in phase 3, cases must stay below 200 per 100,000 people over the previous two-week period, and hospitalizations below 5 per 100,000 people over the previous week.
March 31, 2021: Washington’s COVID vaccination timeline keeps speeding up, as Inslee announces that vaccine eligibility in the state will expand to all people 16 years of age and older starting April 15. This moves up his original target date of May 1 for a larger group of eligibility, which the governor set just a week ago, and will expand accessibility to 1.2 million more residents.
April 8, 2021: Inslee addresses some of the concerns over rising COVID cases in Washington, noting the possibility that certain counties may have to reinstate restrictions on indoor dining from 50 percent to 25 percent capacity. He said the metrics will determine any decisions, and that the plan is really on “auto pilot.
April 9, 2021: Just a day after saying the benchmarks for moving counties back a phase likely wouldn’t change ... Inslee makes a significant adjustment. In order to maintain the status quo, counties need to be below just one COVID threshold, not two.
April 12, 2021: Inslee announces the status of all the state’s counties in reopening process. Despite the steady rise in COVID cases, King County remains in phase 3. But neighboring Pierce County, along with Whitman and Cowlitz, must tighten restrictions again as they backslide to phase 2, the only three out of Washington’s 39 counties to do so.
May 4, 2021: At the end of April, officials in King County warned that rising numbers of COVID cases and hospitalizations would mean a reinstatement of restaurant-related restrictions, since the area was not meeting the state-driven requirements. But Inslee announces a two-week pause in any sort of rollback considerations, which means that Seattle restaurants can remain open at 50 percent. He cites an apparent plateau in the COVID numbers for his decision.
May 20, 2021: Public Health Seattle - King County issues a new COVID-related directive that advises all residents to keep their faces covered in indoor settings, including restaurants, whether fully vaccinated or not. The directive states that everyone 5-years of age and older in the county should continue to wear masks within indoor public spaces “unless a state-approved method is used to assure that all people allowed inside have been fully vaccinated.” The directive will remain in effect until the health department confirms that 70 percent or more of adults aged 16-years of age and older in the county are fully vaccinated.
May 13, 2021: In the biggest announcement of the year, Inslee says he plans to lift most COVID-related business restrictions in Washington on June 30, which would include allowing restaurants to open at full capacity. He also says the transition could happen even sooner than that, if at least 70 percent of Washingtonians over the age of 16 get vaccinated. At the current pace, the state should reach that number in the coming weeks, but it’s unclear whether the benchmark will be met.
June 3, 2021: Inslee announces a slew of incentives for people to get COVID inoculations, including entering vaccinated folks into weekly statewide lottery drawings for prizes totaling $2 million in cash. But the pace of vaccinations would have to pick up significantly in order to fully reopen the economy sooner rather than later. About 63 percent of Washingtonians have received one dose of the COVID vaccine to this date. Hopes dim for lifting restrictions before June 30.
June 29, 2021: Public Health Seattle - King County officially lifted its mask directive. The county kept the guidance in place until two weeks after the county had hit the 70 percent fully vaccinated mark. This doesn’t mean that it’s a free-for-all when it comes to mask wearing, though. The mask guidance from Washington state’s department of health takes effect, which still requires unvaccinated people to wear face coverings in indoor settings and advises everyone (vaccinated or not) to continue masking up in certain indoor settings, such as hospitals, doctor’s offices, and schools with unvaccinated children.
June 30, 2021: After 16 months of rolling lockdowns and constantly shifting restrictions, Washington state officially lifts most COVID-related requirements for businesses. That means there’s no more capacity limits on restaurants. Alcohol can be served past midnight. Bar seating is now allowed. Tables do not have to be set apart at six feet for social distancing, and there are no caps on the number of people per party.
July 23, 2021: As COVID cases in the region rise due to the more contagious delta variant, King County health officer Dr. Jeffrey Duchin says he now recommends that all people, whether fully vaccinated or not, should wear masks indoors again, particularly in crowded settings such as restaurants. But he stopped short of issuing a strict mandate or directive like the one that expired June 29. Duchin says there remains quite a bit of uncertainty about the impact of changing behaviors now that many COVID-related restrictions have been lifted and the delta variant becomes prevalent, even as he emphasizes that the vaccines remain highly effective in preventing severe illness.
July 28, 2021: Inslee urges Washingtonians to consider wearing masks inside public places, whether fully vaccinated or not, particularly in regions of the state where vaccination rates are low. The guidance is in line with what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently proclaimed due to the continued rise in COVID cases and the prevalence of the more contagious delta variant across the country, along with vaccine hesitancy. Inslee’s recommendation is not a legally binding requirement nor is it a new mandate, and it’s not all that different from the recommendation Duchin issued. However, it does highlight the urgency among state authorities to address the latest COVID wave.
July 29, 2021: A growing contingent of Seattle bars and restaurants begin to institute their own COVID-related restrictions after several establishments had to close due to potential exposure or cases among staff. The list includes mostly bars and breweries, with a few prominent restaurants, making sure that customers are fully vaccinated for indoor dining (some allow proof of a recent negative COVID test as an alternative). “The priority has always been keeping the team safe so this means we either open with this restriction or not at all,” says Watson’s Counter owner James Lim, who instituted a proof of vaccination policy recently for his Ballard brunch destination. “Up until now we’ve been providing service at the door with no entry at all; this then is just the next logical step forward.”
August 4, 2021: The number of Seattle restaurants and bars requiring vaccination verification for entry grows to more than 100, with more added by the day. Along the way, there seems to be some politically motivated pushback from anti-vaxxers looking to punish some places for these measures by leaving one-star reviews on Yelp and Google. Most of those reviews have already been flagged and removed, and several restaurateurs say most guests have appreciated the stricter new policies. “There’s been so much kind and encouraging feedback that it’s easy to not let [the negative reviews] bother us,” says Kate Opatz, co-owner of La Dive, a popular natural wine bar and bottleshop on Capitol Hill.
August 23, 2021: Due to a spike in COVID cases driven by the delta variant, Inslee’s latest COVID-related mandate for face coverings goes into effect, and applies to everyone, whether vaccinated or not, in most public indoor settings such as bars and restaurants. As has been the case previously during the pandemic, the only exception for removing a mask is when one is actively eating or drinking.