At 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, June 30, Washington officially lifted most of its COVID-related restrictions that had been in place in one form or another since March 2020. 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.
Gov. Jay Inslee is already making the rounds in various cities, starting in Tacoma Wednesday morning, as he plans to tout the reopening and vaccination effort as a cause for celebration. To date, nearly 70 percent of Washingtonians have received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine, and 71 percent of Seattleites are fully vaccinated. Inslee will be in Seattle on Thursday to raise a “Washington Ready” flag over the Space Needle and pay a visit to Pike Place Market.
The state’s official reopening comes a day after King County lifted its mask directive, allowing fully vaccinated residents to go without face coverings indoors, including restaurants. But there are still some precautions in place. The mask guidance from Washington state’s department of health is still in effect, which requires unvaccinated people to wear face coverings indoors 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. Washington state’s guidance also notes to “respect the room you’re in,” which means that if a business still has a mask mandate in effect, they still have the right to refuse service.
“We are a little nervous about unmasked guests, but we are following public health guidelines in this regard,” says Jeremy Price, co-owner of the Sea Creatures restaurant group, which includes Westward, Bateau, and the Walrus and the Carpenter. “For many, I would say that the enthusiasm for getting back to normal, and away from all the COVID-related stress and strangeness, outweighs any nerves.”
There seems to be a mix of caution and enthusiasm when it comes to the new allowances. Restaurants are no doubt eager to welcome back as many customers as possible, but even some that have been mostly offered takeout for a long time are taking things slowly when it comes to reopening. Fremont soba destination Kamonegi isn’t opening for indoor service until July 6, and the Central District’s acclaimed Communion Restaurant and Bar will take a short break the first week of July, before prepping the dining room to officially open July 14.
Japantown icon Maneki will also take things slowly as well, not long after winning an energy-saving revamp from Puget Sound Energy. “I would say we will have a gradual soft opening as we ramp up service to accommodate dine-in reservations and balance takeout service,” says Maneki owner and longtime caretaker Jean Nakayama. “We should be able to announce our new online reservation service soon which will enable our patrons to check availability easily for openings.”
Likewise, Sea Creatures is proceeding with care. “We are probably some time away from 100 capacity at most of our spots,” says Price, noting that there are still four entirely closed locations from the restaurant group, include the bar Deep Dive at the Amazon Spheres. “We are opening as fast as we can hire and train. With this in mind, it is looking like we will be easing back into things rather than jumping back into things.”
The Washington Hospitality Association recently noted that the industry statewide faces around a 80,000-worker shortfall, although the well-documented “labor shortage” for restaurants is not limited to Washington, and goes beyond the overly simplistic narrative of unemployment benefits disincentivizing workers. Even if hiring picks up, it will take some time for everyone to adjust to the new allowances after 16 months of rolling shutdowns, and that includes customers. A recent Eater Seattle survey found that the majority of respondents still weren’t dining out, even if fully vaccinated, and that hesitation is unlikely to change on a dime, no matter how many restrictions are lifted.
“We know that there won’t be a huge influx of business right away and it will take the entire summer and probably the rest of this year to get our numbers back to where they where pre-pandemic,” says David Nichols, chef-owner of Eight Row in Green Lake. “That is scary with all the extra hiring we have done. Hospitality workers have been put through the ringer the last 16 months.”
Still, Nichols and others are looking at the positive developments as well, and see some better times ahead. “I can’t tell you how oppressive the feeling is to be told to stop or cut back and all the juggling that we’ve done to cope,” says restaurateur Wassef Haroun of Middle Eastern restaurants Mamnoon, Mamnoon Street, and MBar. “I’m very excited in the sense of feeling a real relief.”