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Brown Bear Car Wash frustrated with reopening phases

A worker at a touchless car wash uses a high pressure hose to rinse off a car. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

UPDATE, 5/8: Gov. Inslee’s office announced Thursday that Washington car washes would now be allowed to open. Brown Bear plans to open its doors to customers starting at 8 a.m. Friday.

One local employer, that’s probably representative of hundreds, or maybe thousands of other companies in the same position, is Brown Bear Car Wash. Lance Odermat, the vice president of Brown Bear and son of the founder, returned to the Dori Monson Show Thursday.

In the release of Phase 1 of the governor’s plan to reopen Washington state, car washes were included on the list of businesses that would be able to reopen first. Brown Bear Car Wash, however, is still closed.

“[We got] conflicting communications from the state,” Odermat said. “We were told in an official state communication that we could open on May 5th. And then on the afternoon of May 5th, I was contacted by the state and told that we were not allowed to reopen.”

It wasn’t just Brown Bear. Odermat said he was copied on communication that was sent to his company, as well as to Costco. But Costco has since opened its car washes.

“We still are not allowed to be open, in fact, I think as of this morning, we’re the only car wash in the state … that is still not open,” Odermat said. “For whatever reason, maybe it’s because we’re the largest, they have singled us out, and we’re still at this moment waiting for permission to reopen. And it’s very, very frustrating.”

Every company has to have a COVID-19 safety plan. Odermat said Brown Bear presented its first plan at the end of March, then refined the plan as the virus situation changed.

“It was thoroughly vetted, very well thought out from every angle, and it was presented to the state last week,” he said.

Odermat also shared a letter with Dori that said businesses must have an industry-specific plan, and must get sign off from key agency stakeholders, including the state Department of Labor, the state Department of Health, and Gov. Inslee’s Office.

“It’s absolutely about control,” he said. ” … When it comes to COVID-19, it’s a serious deal. We’re all very aware of that. We’re all taking very drastic measures to curtail the spread. I think every business in the state is prepared to be very responsible about their reopening and how they interact with staff and customers.”

Last week, Odermat spoke with Dori hoping to be able to reopen soon, especially as a business where no human interaction is required. A majority of Brown Bear customers can pay without even rolling down their windows. Even if they do have to roll down their window, there is no interaction with employees as customers pay on an electronic screen at the tunnel wash locations.

“I don’t think you could find a doctor in the entire country that’s gonna say that going through one of our car washes is more dangerous than going and picking up your afternoon frappuccino at Starbucks,” he said.

Meanwhile, Brown Bear has continued to pay all of its nearly 400 employees full pay, at more than minimum wage, with benefits, since shutting down six weeks ago.

“We wanted to be proactive. We wanted to see how the situation was going to unfold. We didn’t wait for the state to tell us we had to close. We closed on our own,” Odermat said. “We’ve been responsible throughout this crisis, and it’s time to allow us to get back to work.”

Odermat said he is not sure when Brown Bear will be allowed to reopen.

“I’ve gotten conflicting information, maybe as soon as tomorrow, maybe over the weekend, maybe as late as the 15th,” he said. “It’s anybody’s guess, and that’s really frustrating from the standpoint of being a business owner. I’d like to be able to give our staff some ability to plan. They’ve got families. They’ve got lives outside of work. They need to be able to adjust.”

Other businesses, like the Stag barbershop in Snohomish, have decided to open in defiance of the stay-at-home order. Odermat admitted the thought has crossed his mind, but said he won’t open until he’s been told.

Defiant Snohomish barber says he’ll keep on cuttin’

“Maybe I’m a fool for not doing that, but my dad was a hardcore Marine and I was raised to respect the chain of command,” Odermat said. “I may not always like the orders, but we will adhere to them. And right now, we’ve got an order from the state to remain closed. I disagree with it, but we’re going to adhere to it until told otherwise.”

Listen to the Dori Monson Show weekday afternoons from noon – 3 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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