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State Senators Introduce Bill That Would Reopen Restaurants at 25 Percent Capacity Right Away

The bill would put all of Washington into “phase two” without meeting current guidelines, overriding a key part of Gov. Jay Inlsee’s reopening plan for businesses

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The capitol building in Olympia, Washington, on a clear sunny day
The new bill proposed by Washington state senators could accelerate the reopening of dining rooms.

With Inauguration Day happening in the other Washington, it’s understandable that legislative action in Olympia on Wednesday, January 20, may have flown under the radar. But state lawmakers introduced a bill that could have a direct impact on the restaurant scene in Seattle — one that pushes to bypass part of Gov. Jay Inslee’s reopening plan.

Senate Bill 5114 seeks to reopen all businesses at 25 percent capacity immediately. Currently, the entire state is in phase one of the “Healthy Washington Roadmap to Recovery” plan, with most types of indoor dining banned, among other activities. But each of eight regions in Washington can advance to phase two 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. If passed, the bill would basically bypass those conditions and skip right to phase two. And it would allow the legislature to format additional phases of re-opening, rather than leave it all up to Inslee, essentially curbing his emergency powers.

Right now, no Washington regions meet the current benchmarks for reopening, and though COVID numbers in various parts of the state are fortunately trending down (or flattening), health officials warn that transmission is still, overall, at a dangerous level and the state is still seeing an increase in hospitalizations after the winter holidays. Since the reopening plan was put into effect January 11, some regions have come close to advancing to phase two, but two weeks later, there are few signs of a massive statewide reopening.

Now, it seems, legislators want to press the issue, even if the effort may not get much traction. The bill has been touted as being bipartisan, but out of the 16 senate co-sponsors, only two are Democrats: Mark Mullet and Tim Sheldon (both of whom have been vocal critics of Inslee’s economic policies and reopening plan in the past; Mullet also owns a Zeeks pizza restaurant in Issaquah). A companion house bill has 15 co-sponsors and only one of them is a democrat. With Democrats in firm control of the entire state legislature, SB 5114 likely has an uphill battle. If it does advance through to the floor for a vote and passes, Inslee could always veto it, and it would then need a two-thirds majority of legislators to override the veto.

“Frustrations with the law are misplaced,” says Inslee’s spokesman Mike Faulk. “We do not see how these changes would benefit Washingtonians when the next disaster or emergency strikes. Debates over this kind of legislation need to take into account all the potential unintended consequences that could come with complicating the state’s ability to respond appropriately to protect lives.”

On January 20, there was a hearing online (discussion starts at around 53:30) before the Senate State Government and Elections Committee, where proponents and opponents of the bill each had a minute to speak. Among those in support were employees from the Ethan Stowell Restaurant group, famed Spokane chef Chad White, and Brian McMenamin (co-owner of the McMenamins franchise). They echoed many of the same arguments that restaurateurs have been making for months — that the hospitality industry is being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic measures and is not the main source of COVID spread, and that businesses can reopen responsibly following strict guidelines. Those opposed included health care workers who related their anxiety and exhaustion in seeing hospitals near capacity and the continued devastating toll the pandemic is taking across the state. All this discussion comes as Washington hits a grim milestone: It’s been one year since the state discovered the first confirmed COVID case in the US.

The public discussion for the bill will be open for at least another week, and then the legislation is earmarked to finish the committee process before potentially going to a vote. By that time, it’s possible that some regions may already be open in phase two of the reopening plan, since COVID metrics are assessed every Friday.

All that’s to say SB 5114 may soon become moot, anyway. But the fact that it was introduced in the first place is a sign of increasing pressure on Inslee and state officials to develop a more cohesive roadmap to reopening. Earlier in January, the Department of Health released additional guidelines to outdoor dining that included “open air” amendments, essentially letting some restaurants and bars that have enough ventilation (and CO2 monitors) open for indoor dining. But the rollout of those new guidelines was confusing, and many chefs and owners still aren’t quite sure what is and isn’t allowed.

Even if SB 5114 fizzles, it’s always possible that Inslee could reconsider and recalibrate the reopening plan, something that he mentioned when it was first announced January 5. At the same time, the governor has introduced a new strategy for ramping up vaccine distribution and administration to 45,000 shots a day across the state, which even includes Starbucks attempting to figure out some logistical issues. If that effort is successful, perhaps the reopening timeline will accelerate as well.

In the meantime, it’s worth keeping a close eye on what the state legislature does over the following weeks. Though overruling a key aspect of the reopening plan may not ultimately have the wide support it needs, another top priority that does have bipartisan momentum is unemployment insurance (UI) tax relief for small businesses. Inslee has signaled a desire to get something done on that front, and — if a bill is passed to lower the UI rate — it could potentially save businesses millions of dollars in 2021. That may not completely ease the economic concerns of restaurants and bars struggling to make it through the pandemic, but it could be a start.

  • SB 5114 [Washington State Legislature]