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Washington bars, alcohol
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WA bar, restaurant owners want to serve alcohol after 10 p.m., say there is no data to support ban

Washington bars are required to stop serving alcohol after 10 p.m. (Photo by Miikka Luotio on Unsplash)

Current mandates only allow Washington restaurants and bars to operate at 50% capacity, and it’s no secret that they’re struggling. But for many owners who respect the importance of keeping the community safe through social distancing, the nail in the coffin is that they can’t serve alcohol after 10 p.m.

Dan Austin owns Flight Path, a bar in Burien, and Peel & Press, an Italian restaurant in West Seattle. He sent a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee’s office, including more than 150 signatures from other bar and restaurant owners, asking him to reconsider.

“We don’t know if this regulation actually does what it’s supposed to do,” Austin said. “We don’t have data on it, we don’t have evidence that says closing [early prevents the spread of COVID]. We do know that it’s financially devastating and we’re like, ‘hey, we’ve given up a ton to try to reopen and survive and to serve the community safely, but this one piece we have to ask a question about.'”

He says forcing bars to close at 10 p.m. automatically kills 30% of business, and most restaurants and bars are already making about 70% less than they used to. Plus, with all the cleaning protocols and social distance mandates in place, he argues a bar or restaurant could be the safer alternative.

“I bartend, because I can’t afford staff, and when I call ‘last call’ at 9:30 p.m., I start seeing the gatherings in the parking lot and the debates of whose house we’re going to,” Austin said. “So we’re taking people out of a safe, regulated environment that follows all of the protocols that are provided by the state and sending them into the wilds of the house party, the house gathering. That concerns me. There’s transmission happening when you’re in those environments, and you’re killing business off to have someone go do something harmful when they can continue to do that in a location regulated by a sober staff.”

He says his customers happily wear masks and comply with social distancing; in all of these months he’s only had to ask one person to leave. Austin and other owners want the governor’s office to give them at least a couple more hours to operate and make money.

“A great first step in this reopening process would be a 12 a.m. reopen. If we could get those two extra hours back it would let us claw back quite a bit of our late-night sales,” he said. “And we’re not busy late night; I don’t want to come across like that’s when the bars are packed and it’s a bar scene from Florida that you’ve seen photos of. It’s still roughly 30-40% capacity with social distancing protocols. We need those hours back. I pay a lease for those hours and I can’t generate income off of it. I pay insurance to cover those hours and I can’t generate revenue off of it. My staff relies on those hours to be able to pay their bills and I can’t pay them for hours that don’t exist.”

It’s not just bars. Many restaurant owners, including Austin, are losing the late-night dinner crowd when they can’t sell a bottle of wine to accompany a nice meal.

“Well, you came in to order at 9:15 p.m. and I’m going to drop a bottle down on you, you have 45 minutes to pound it! So customers don’t come in when they know they can’t have a glass of wine with their pasta and it’s about closing time,” he said. “Ethan Stowell and Tom Douglas both signed on — it’s hurting their businesses in that aspect that they can’t get that third turn at the end of the night. We need every possible 50% of our tables to be sat in and utilized as much as we can.”

Austin sent Gov. Inslee his letter over a week ago and has yet to hear back.

“You know, if my business is going to die, I at least want to talk to the guy who’s helping make the decisions on why I can’t stay open to operate,” he added.

If you’re a restaurant or bar owner in Washington who wants to get your name on Austin’s letter to the governor, send him an email at [email protected]

Edited 9/23/20 to include this response from Governor Inslee’s office:

“Many states including Texas, Alabama, Pennsylvania, California and Oregon have placed restrictions on alcohol sales, including ending consumption earlier,” said Nick Streuli, external relations director from the Office of Governor Jay Inslee. “Restaurants continue to be the number one non-healthcare outbreak setting in Washington state with multiple new outbreaks announced every week. So that really gives us a pause for concern.”

“We have heard from local law enforcement and public health during a series of round table discussions with colleges and college students about how helpful the alcohol consumption cutoff and, specifically the bar restrictions, have been in managing COVID transition in those communities,” Streuli continued. “For all of those reasons we think what we’ve got is the right thing to have in place for now. But I always want to acknowledge that we’re working tirelessly to try and find ways, and look for opportunities, and watch the data, and look for trends to modify those restrictions and make sure there’s as much ability to have as much economic activity as possible.”

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