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WA Hospitality Association CEO: Restaurants are ‘not the problem’ as COVID cases spike

Artwork covers the windows of a closed business in the Ballard neighborhood during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. (MyNorthwest photo)

Restaurants and bars in Washington state are facing another shutdown as no indoor dining will be allowed until at least Dec. 14 and outdoor dining is limited, forcing many to rely on takeout and delivery.

Anthony Anton, president and CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association — of which KIRO Nights host Mike Lewis is a member as the co-owner of a bar in Seattle — says the association was working well with the governor up until this recent round of restrictions.

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Earlier in the pandemic, Anton says they stood by the governor and understood the decision to close.

“Then, as we started working through it, we started talking about turning the dials and how we can do things better. When the pandemic first broke, none of us had ever lived through a pandemic before, so we didn’t know the right way to do it,” Anton said. “And then over the next few months, we worked with the governor’s office and the health districts and Liquor Control Board to find the right mix of rules that could help us open back up again. And we did, and were doing that well.”

“Then we started having our second spike after the Fourth of July, … and we came to the governor and said, governor, if you need to close, or if you need to take action again, work with us,” he added. “And honestly, we designed a really good series of steps, so we worked with the governor’s office to keep our businesses open … and we saw the virus come back down again.”

The Washington Hospitality Association represents bars, restaurants, golf courses — almost anywhere people gather for food, drink, or entertainment.

What Anton says is disappointing with the latest set of regulations is that the data they’ve collected from multiple counties in Washington state showed that less than one half of 1% of cases were coming from restaurants, but yet restaurants now have to close.

“You’re like, well, wait a minute, that doesn’t make any sense, because the national news says it’s all about dining and sitting in,” he said. “And the problem is the rest of the country has not worked as well with their governor in the other areas, to have the set of regulations that we had before Sunday’s announcement.”

The virus is spreading mostly in social settings, in private homes and unregulated areas, Anton explained.

“It’s easy to blame fraternity parties and they’re certainly up there, but the wine parties we have in our home, the other things we do when we’re going out into unregulated areas, and predominantly in post high school to 29. Then that group brings it home and is spreading it to households, so households is a big number because that first group is a big number,” Anton said.

“We’re frustrated because we know we’re not the problem. The data now says we’re not the problem in Washington state, and we’ve been working together so well up to that point,” he added.

Anton does recognize that some action had to be taken, but thinks it didn’t have to be a closure of all restaurants and bars.

“The governor had to take action because the cases were spiking, not debating that. You should wear a mask and you should make good choices in private settings, absolutely,” he said. “Restaurants are safe and should have been left open, and move from there. That’s where our frustrations really became heightened. And now we’re looking at 100,000 of our workers unemployed right before the holidays.”

Comparing Washington’s transmission data to the country

Anton says the hospitality association has been working with local health departments across the state, and received the epidemiological report from Clark County, which showed who has the virus and where they got it.

“When we looked at the data starting in August, September, we noticed, wow, a half a percent are coming from restaurants,” he said. “We would have thought that had been higher, so let’s check this out.”

“So we did public information requests of the Pierce County Health Department and the Walla Walla Health Department that we thought would be completely different than Clark County — different demographics, different areas, different parts of the state,” he added. “And the numbers came out exactly the same for our industry.”

In more than 2,800 cases that confirmed where the virus came from, less than one half of 1% were from restaurants, Anton said.

“I’d like to say it surprises me, but the compliance in our industry has been so high. The investment in safety and training and sharing of best practices has been so passionate, that I think we got to a place where the public could really have confidence in us,” he said. “That’s where, again, very frustrated in this decision.”

The general feeling from the governor’s office when presented with this data, Anton said, is that the association wasn’t able to track all the cases.

“And until we can track all the cases, we don’t know that we can rely on the data. But 2,800 cases is a heck of a sample size, and let’s go get everybody else’s,” he said.

The governor’s office seemed to be relying on CDC and national data, Anton explained.

“Well, in the South, there’s no mask mandate,” he said. “In many areas of the country, they didn’t have an 11 [p.m.] cut off time. They didn’t have a single use requirement for everything at your table, and they didn’t have the no mingling rules that we had. So comparing Washington to the CDC recommendations where none of those protections are in place is a misrepresentation of what science should be. And that’s where we weren’t able to reach agreement.”

“In the speed of what the cases were increasing in the ICU room, they decided to go with the national data versus what’s proven out here in Washington,” he added.

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How to help your favorite restaurants survive

Anton says the main thing people can do to help their favorites places reopen is to use the simple tools against the virus that have been proven to work.

“Masks work,” he said. “We saw in Yakima County when … adoption of mask wearing finally started to take hold, the rates dropped dramatically. And the thing is, we’re wearing them now when we go to restaurants, when we’re in grocery stores, but we’re not wearing them in personal house parties or other areas, and that’s where we’re seeing more spreading. So until the vaccine is widespread, find the mask that’s most comfortable for you and really be dedicated about wearing it.”

“And social distancing,” he added. “Six feet away from other people in any time you’re going to be with them for 15 minutes or more, and people that are not your family, or outside your household.”

They are simple tools, he recognized, but “they’re effective.”

“I’m just asking people to take it seriously, make good choices,” Anton said. “… I get these are not easy conversations. I get people feel like they’re losing out on big parts of their life. I do understand all that, but we’re going to be able to get back to having our favorite outlets and restaurants and getting back to having our favorite burgers and steaks and other things when we all get back to doing that and taking it seriously. We’ve committed, and then I think we got a little lax, and now we have to recommit.”

While restaurants and small businesses are still open, the rest of Tuesday for in-person, or takeout and delivery for the next month, Anton says support them however you can.

“As you go into the holidays, consider what you can do to support your favorite places to keep them open, whether it’s ordering to-go products, or getting gift cards for your friends for Christmas, all these things can help,” he said. “And if you have any conversation with elected officials, talk to them about making relief for hospitality a serious part of their conversations, whether it’s Congress acting on Triple P or the restaurant act, or whether it’s the state Legislature acting on tax relief and and tourism investment to get us restarted. All these things could be really, really helpful. We just we need to rally around a community right now that’s hanging by a thread.”

Listen to KIRO Nights weeknights from 7 – 10 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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