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Seattle Still Won’t Be Reopening Dining Rooms (Besides ‘Open Air’ Exceptions)

No region in Washington has advanced to phase two of Gov. Jay Inslee’s reopening plan

A sign outside a restaurant says “Closed COVID-19”
Washington has been in phase one of the state’s reopening plan since January 11.

In what has become a weekly routine, all eyes were on the Washington State Department of Health’s “Roadmap to Recovery” report for January 22 in anticipation of possible news about reopening — but the story remains the same. Not one of the eight regions in the state has qualified to enter phase two of Gov. Jay Inslee’s reopening plan, per the latest COVID metrics, which means restaurants won’t be allowed to reopen at 25 percent capacity until at least February 1 — for the most part.

There’s recently been an exception to the rule. As part of the complex outdoor and “open air” seating guidelines, some very drafty indoor dining is allowed. Basically, if a restaurant has roll-up doors, bay doors or large windows that can be opened to allow for significant outside air ventilation, it can actually seat customers under its permanent roof 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. On January 22, there was a seminar for those in the restaurant and bar industry to sort through the new guidelines, and several places in Seattle have already taken advantage of the stipulation.

But in order to reopen at 25 percent inside closed off dining rooms, a region must still advance to phase two. To do so, there must be a 10 percent decrease in COVID cases over a 14 day period; a 10 percent decrease in hospital admission rates; ICU occupancy below 90 percent; and overall COVID test positivity below 10 percent. If all those marks are reached, then the area will automatically advance. On January 22, it looks like two of those four numbers were trending in the right direction in the Puget Sound region, but the 14-day case rate is increasing, and the hospital admission rate has fallen by enough.

Even if all the numbers improve soon, it may be difficult for any region to hit the exact numbers required. That means most restaurants, bars, and cafes are still on standby — and frustrations are mounting. On January 20, state lawmakers introduced a bill that seeks to reopen all businesses at 25 percent capacity immediately. If passed, the new law would basically bypass the current conditions set up by the health department and skip right to phase two, no matter what the data in all eight regions look like. 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.

Inslee has pushed back against the legislative effort. In a January 21 press conference, he said that while he empathizes with restaurants and workers severely impacted by the latest COVID measures, he continues to heed the dangers of dining inside an enclosed space, since it necessitates removing one’s mask to eat and drink.

So far, the new state senate bill to accelerate the reopening timeline looks like it probably won’t get very far. Only two out of the 16 co-sponsors are democrats, and there’s little to indicate mass support within a mostly democratic legislature to override the governor’s emergency powers.

But with the two-phase reopening plan continuing to stall week after week, there could be an appetite to recalibrate the details of the mandates or benchmarks going forward. That may all depend on how well the effort to vaccinate more Washingtonians goes, as Inslee recently announced a new goal of 45,000 inoculations per day, with even Starbucks pitching in. In the meantime, restaurants in Seattle will need to sit and wait at least another week before the next batch of relevant COVID numbers come in.