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How Washington’s New ‘Outdoor’ Dining Rules Actually Allow for Some Indoor Service Right Now

You should probably bring a coat

A “Come in, we’re open” sign on a window of a restaurant
Though traditional indoor dining is still not allowed in Washington, if bars and restaurants have enough outside airflow, they can make it happen.

Without much fanfare, Washington officials recently dropped an updated set of “outdoor” dining guidelines that includes new stipulations for “open air” seating. The instructions are ... complicated. They include charts, four different set-up options, talk of “permeable” versus “impermeable” walls, and details about the need for restaurants to install CO2 monitors to determine air flow quality. But the biggest upshot is this: Restaurants everywhere in the state can now 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.

Several restaurants in the Seattle area have already advertised that they are now open for “indoor dining.” But it’s understandable that many chefs, owners, workers, and diners are confused by the guidelines — especially since in his new reopening plan issued on January 5, Gov. Jay Inslee specifically said that indoor dining would not be allowed until various regions in Washington met certain COVID-19 metrics. No region in the state has met them. So what gives with the new “open air” rules?

“At first blush, it might seem to be contradictory, but it isn’t,” says Sheri Sawyer, Inslee’s senior policy advisor. “We heard really good arguments and reasoning from a lot of restaurant owners who said, ‘We’ve got indoor seating, but we can roll up these doors and open up these big windows and it’s like outdoor seating, but our walls are permanent. Why should we have to purchase a tent, when we can really create the same sort of outdoor ventilation in our permanent structure?’ So we took that to heart, and we wanted to offer some clarity for those businesses that could actually create that kind of environment.”

Given the ventilation requirement, restaurants that adhere to the new guidelines will likely be extremely drafty. But for some restaurant owners who have pushed for more onsite seating and are impatient for the next phase of the reopening plan, the effort could be worth it. While CO2 monitors can cost anywhere from $30 to $200 and are relatively easy to use, elaborate tent set-ups and heat lamps are much more expensive and subject to the elements, like the recent powerful windstorm that swept through the area.

Not everyone is so sure what to make of the new regulations, though.

“We have a number of locations that can likely meet these new criteria, but we are in a bit of a wait-and-see moment,” says Jeremy Price, co-owner of the Sea Creatures restaurant group, which includes the Whale Wins and Larder, the Walrus and the Carpenter, and Willmott’s Ghost. “We are ready to open these indoor-but-open-to-the-outdoors dining rooms as soon as we are confident that we are permitted to do so.”

Several other chefs and owners Eater Seattle spoke with were likewise unsure of what was allowed, and didn’t want to commit to opening up their dining room and risk incurring exorbitant fines if they are inadvertently not in compliance. The instructions about the CO2 monitors may not help matters. Do restaurants really have to check to see the ppm numbers every 15 minutes? (Sawyer says the guidelines aren’t meant to be so dogmatic; owners need to use their own “discretion” and the numbers are intended to be a frame of reference.) All that uncertainty may be why the Washington Brewers Guild, Washington Hospitality Association, and Wine Institute have set up a webinar for business owners on January 22 to walk members through the new guidelines.

But even if owners are able to process all the information and proceed with these “indoor/outdoor” dining set-ups, there may still be some pushback from restaurants that simply don’t have the option to roll up some doors and open a bunch of windows. The guidelines make it clear that entrance and exit doors do not count as a “non-permeable” wall, and Sawyer emphasizes that the air flow must be natural, meaning that HVAC systems can’t act as a substitute for outside ventilation. As such, it seems that many restaurants and bars may be left with few options through no fault of their own.

“It’s certainly not our intent to penalize anybody,” says Sawyer. “We’re saying traditional indoor dining is not safe. But you can do outdoor dining. And if you can create that same environment inside, even though your walls are permanent, and your roof is permanent, we think you can have customers there and you can have employees there safely.”

Of course, much of this may be moot if vaccination rates increase and COVID cases fall significantly in the coming weeks. Once regions in Washington begin to enter phase two of the state’s reopening plan, restaurants will be allowed to open for indoor dining at 25 percent anyway, CO2 monitors be damned. But that’s still a big uncertainty, with no guarantees. In the meantime, restaurant owners who want some indoor dining now can make it happen — it’s just really complicated.