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Group of Democrats side with hospitality association on indoor dining ban

A member of the staff prepares a table at a restaurant in Manhattan on August 31, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Washington state heads into the final weekend before Thanksgiving with many bars and restaurants once again closed due to the new round of COVID-19 restrictions Governor Inslee issued this week that ban indoor dining.

Gov. Inslee: Washington can’t meet ‘urgent and dire’ COVID needs without federal aid

“We know that restaurants are the number one non-healthcare settings for COVID outbreaks,” Inslee said Tuesday, adding it would simply be too dangerous to allow them to continue with indoor service in the current COVID situation.

The Washington State Hospitality Association firmly disagrees with that, pointing to data in Pierce, Walla Walla, and Clark counties as its evidence.

Letter from Washington State Hospitality Association

“Based on contact tracing in three counties, less than 1 percent of cases are actually connected to our industry. Whether you are using state DOH data or contact tracing data, hospitality is not a leading setting for cases,” the WHA said in a statement Wednesday.

“It would be accurate to say that if you exclude all healthcare settings, exclude long-term care facilities, all household spread, spread from social gatherings or any other non-work setting, [that] hospitality has the most outbreaks as defined by two or more people from the same location contracting COVID within two weeks of each other,” the statement continued.

“It is not, however, accurate to say hospitality has the most cases of any industry, nor that restaurants are the most common site of an outbreak,” it added, stressing the need for Inslee and health officials to get it right and not overstate the industry’s contribution to the spread.

The WHA sent a letter to Inslee urging him to reconsider Wednesday, but members of Inslee’s staff say WHA is wrong because the data does not paint the full picture.

“The fundamental disagreement here is whether COVID spreads in restaurants. It does. Period,” Mike Faulk, a spokesperson for the governor’s office wrote in an email to The Seattle Times. “Even with incomplete outbreak data due to the limitations of voluntary contact tracing, restaurants remain the number one non-healthcare [industry] where COVID spreads.”

The governor maintains that indoor settings where people gather without face coverings – as is necessary when people eat or drink – is where the threat is and what is driving this decision.

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

The real human impact of the shutdown

Inslee has faced increasing criticism this week over the move from the WHA, restaurant and bar owners forced to close, lawmakers on both sides of aisle, and servers and bartenders who are once again off the job, many still not made whole after the first shutdown, and all just in time for the holidays.

“The best way to describe it is emotional whiplash,” said Suzanne Redmond on Wednesday as her employer, Fire and Vine Hospitality, once again was forced to shut down the causal fine dining farm-to-table restaurant she works at, Aerlume’s, near Pike Place Market.

“It just got back into the swing of what feels like more normal business, guests are feeling more comfortable to come outside their homes, and they’re finally getting excited about going out to eat, reestablishing those connections with their family and friends in a public setting,” she explained. “When we first reopened, that wasn’t the case. People were very apprehensive, and understandably so. But I feel like in the last three to four weeks, we’ve just really started to thrive again, and now we’re on another break.”

Redmond and her co-workers were not shocked about the restrictions after hearing about the increase in case counts over the past few weeks, followed by the early leak of information about the specifics last Saturday.

“It’s a very anxious feeling. Your whole life is kind of up in the air and you’re pretty much like, should I be storing away as much cash as possible? Am I going to be working for the next few months? And then it turns into fear. Am I going to be able to pay my rent next month? And it’s just a lot of unknowns,” she added.

The last time restaurants closed, many of her co-workers got by working with food delivery apps like Door Dash or Uber Eats, sold their belongings to make rent, and did whatever else they could do to get through. Redmond was fortunate the first time because her boss, Fire and Vine Hospitality CEO Chad Mackay, decided to close about five days before the actual order came, so she was able to get into unemployment and file before the masses and before all of the chaos, backlog, and fraud.

“But I have many friends in the industry, some of [whom] still haven’t received [their] unemployment benefits from that three month’s worth of time,” Redmond said.

Like most collecting unemployment that time, she benefited from the extra federal dollars that came with it, but that extra $600 a week expired for everyone weeks ago. In just a few weeks, federal benefit extensions of an extra 13 weeks of benefits, and a program that includes those who would not normally be able to collect unemployment, such as independent contractors, will also expire. It leaves little for those in the industry to be optimistic about as most only bring in a few hundred a week on regular unemployment. But without action from the federal government, those expire Dec. 26, and currently those efforts have stalled in Congress.

Redmond is married and the couple will be OK at first, she says, even though her husband was also laid off just before this happened, so it’s definitely going to be tight. She feels their industry was unfairly targeted, adding that workers and owners went above and beyond to make sure safety protocols were followed.

Mostly, she is looking for answers, unhappy the trigger was pulled on restrictions with no plan from the state on how to help them and those they work for.

“There’s no plan, we’re just, you know, we’re hanging up on a prayer here,” Redmond said.

And, if this is another prolonged shutdown beyond Dec. 14, her co-workers are going to be in real trouble, and Redmond will likely be as well at that point.

“It’s scary,” she said, “Someone, somewhere, because of this happening, is going to have to choose, do I want to pay my car payment? Do I want to pay my rent? Can I pay my phone? Or am I going to pay for my car insurance? They’re going to have to choose and, inevitably, it’s going to have a very negative impact on people’s finances, on their credit, and it’s just unfortunate,” Redmond said, adding that she and others feel there is a disconnect between the governor and the real human impact of the situation.

Capping delivery fees

Many businesses were barely hanging on after the last shutdown, then had to survive through the time it took for people to feel safe enough to come back into restaurants once they started re-opening with safety measures in place this summer. Takeout and delivery were helpful then, and will be relied upon again as indoor dining is not allowed.

In an effort to provide some relief to restaurant owners during this shutdown, Governor Inslee on Thursday said that the state will be limiting what third-party delivery services can charge businesses during the pandemic, capping delivery fees on UberEats, Door Dash, Grubhub, and similar companies at 15%, and total fees at 18%. Several local cities, including Seattle, have previously enacted similar rules.

$135 million to help

Gov. Inslee also vowed to distribute $50 million to help affected businesses and workers in his Sunday address, but announced Friday that number has been more than doubled at $135 million.

The breakout is as follows:

$70M in grants for businesses
$30M for a recovery loan program
$20M for rental assistance, including for landlords
$15M utility payment assistance for low-income families

Democrats’ letter to Gov. Inslee

The relief package is not good enough for most Republican lawmakers, but also for a handful of Democrats who signed a letter sent to Inslee asking him to reconsider the restrictions.

Democratic Senator Mark Mullet is among the nine state lawmakers who signed that letter.

“My life outside the Legislature is I own six pizza restaurants and three Ben and Jerry’s ice cream stores. So I’ve been in the restaurant business for the last decade plus, and with the letter, basically, was hoping that we could go from 50% to 25% capacity for indoors as opposed to 50% to zero. That was the big focus I was trying to say,” Mullet explained, pointing out that restaurants had done a really good job of actually making sure people are wearing masks and following safety guidance.

Mullet added that what they’re hearing is that most of the spread is happening in people’s private homes, where the state can’t control the spread or enforce safety protocols.

“We had some fear that if you close indoor dining at restaurants, such a shift would lead to more people dining in private homes where you have even less control over what kind of rules they’re following,” Mullet said. “And that was the hope, was to try to figure out a middle ground instead of just having no indoor dining.”

Democratic Senator Joe Nguyen also signed the letter to the governor.

“The whole point for me signing on largely was to ensure that we’re being mindful of the workers that were going to be impacted. Me personally, I do support the science and the governor’s decisions, and I think he’s done overall a good job in trying to mitigate this pandemic. What I do think that we can be better about, is to have these conversations more broadly with the Legislature as well, because we have to talk to our constituents and help them plan for this pandemic,” Nguyen said, adding that he also wanted to clarify the science, and figure out what was driving Inslee’s thinking on the indoor dining ban.

He says Inlsee provided clarification after getting the letter, and Nguyen felt it was sufficient.

But it was not for Mullet, who was on a call with Nguyen and the other Democrats behind the letter Thursday fighting for small businesses, and hoping to convince Inslee to at least allow 25% capacity indoors. That did not happen, but Mullet says Inslee did indicate he’d be announcing more relief for businesses Friday, which he did.

“It sounded to me like it’d be more in the zip code of $100 million dollars, so I think that we’re waiting for the details and what that looks like,” Mullet said earlier in the week. “I think my point to the governor was you’re racing against the clock, the clock is really December 1 when restaurant owners have to pay their rent. And when you’re shut down, it’s really hard to pay rent — it’s that simple.”

“There is no PPP,” he added. “We’ve already taken out loans to get to this point in the year, and so hopefully they move with a sense of urgency of that. I don’t know, I honestly don’t know how you can get $100 million dollars out by December 1. I just know without it, it’s going to be a real challenge.”

That doesn’t even take into account people like Redmond, who need more unemployment.

“Yeah, they’re crushed, crushed. It’s going to be really tough. I think it’s a really tough situation. I tried. I couldn’t try any harder than I did,” Mullet said, pointing to the diverse group of lawmakers from across the Democratic spectrum who signed onto the letter.

No shortage of offers to help

Sen. Nguyen is advocating for a swift call for a special session, as are Republicans who all have bills they want to get going on that offer of relief.

“I would support having a special session, even before January, as soon as possible to help get local stimulus funding out to the workers who need it the most,” Nguyen said. “But it would have to be paired with progressive revenue to help pay for it. Obviously, we’re not the federal government, and if they were able to just pass the HEROES Act that’s currently sitting in the Senate, it would make a huge difference in getting relief to people in Washington state. But knowing that is not quite a possibility, at this point, given what’s happening nationally, I do believe that legislators should be doing everything we can to help folks here right now, because the crisis is happening right now.”

There is certainly no shortage of opinions and offers to help, the latest coming from Challenge Seattle, and some of the largest employers in the Seattle area, including Microsoft, Expedia, and Alaska Air.

Former Governor Christine Gregoire, CEO of Challenge Seattle, sent an urgent letter to Inslee on Thursday detailing an offer to work with Inslee in a public-private partnership on a six-point plan for recovery.

The plan:

1. Increase testing and contact tracing
2. Provide targeted assistance to low-income Washingtonians
3. Provide more financial help to small businesses
4. Commit to a plan to reopen schools in January if COVID rates fall
5. Broaden collaboration and strengthen public communications
6. Prepare for vaccine distribution and build public confidence

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