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Gig Harbor restaurant owner says ‘it’s time that we start turning that dial up’

Pizzeria Fondi in Gig Harbor has been adapting to the changing rules during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Pizzeria Fondi on Facebook)

With all the different phases and frequently changing rules intended to limit the spread of COVID-19 over the past year in Washington state, many small business and restaurant owners are frustrated. Chris Olsen, owner of Pizzeria Fondi in Gig Harbor, sent a letter to KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross and provided some insight as to what local restaurant owners have been dealing with during the pandemic.

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“I’ve been open this entire year. We’ve been flexible and trying to make everything work through all of the different stages of this last year,” Olsen explained.

He did give a shoutout to the economic specialists and the economic development department in Pierce County, which he says has been helpful in distributing money from the CARES Act and taking care of small businesses and restaurants in Pierce County.

“I cannot say enough about how wonderful they are, from creative thinking to something called a Restaurant Rally, which actually fell right in the middle of the shutdown in November,” Olsen said. “… They’ve done many different things from handing out air scrubbers, handing out PPE, gloves, face masks, sanitizer.”

“There’s just been an increased cost of everything this entire year,” Olsen continued. “And so my frustration is back in March, we laid off half of our team. They were all from the front of the house. And many of our people in the restaurants are younger or in school, and so they don’t get any stimulus from the federal government because they’re in education or because their parents claimed them the prior year on their taxes. And you’ve heard through the news, there’s been many delays in unemployment.”

It’s heartbreaking, Olsen says, to have employees begging you to come back to work.

“Three of our people literally moved out for the very first time on their own the beginning of March, right when COVID and the shutdown first started, and now they’re out of a job,” he said. “So it’s been a challenge.”

Additionally, Olsen says it’s hard to see grocery stores open at 25% with so much square footage that they’ll rarely, if ever, reach the capacity limit, even in their busiest times, yet local businesses and restaurants can’t open.

“The day after the Seahawks lost the playoffs, super sad, I happened to be at the local Costco, and there was 300 people in line for checkout,” Olsen said. “TVs going out the door. People spending their stimulus checks. And the local businesses here are closed.”

What does Olsen think the state should have done?

“That is a good question. And right now, I would say as an example where you’re watching, Oregon has been open for a little while, California recently reopened. Chicago, Michigan, and New York are all reopening,” he said. “I think the small dial that everyone keeps talking about, I think it’s time that we start turning that dial up. There’s going to be some risk, but if we all wear our masks — we’ve all been doing this for a year, we all know how to make it work.”

“We have the playbook, open the playbook, pull it back out,” he added. “But I think there’s a way to open up your restaurants, and I don’t think 25% is enough. I think it needs to be closer to 50%.”

Hopefully, Olsen says, in two weeks from now, Pierce County and its neighbors in the Puget Sound region will get to remain in Phase 2.

“On February 15, when the new checklists come out for the different regions of Washington, it would be very sad to see the Puget Sound and the West districts shut down from something that they were already working on,” he said. “People need to work and people need to pay their bills.”

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He does not think shutting down the restaurants again should be an option.

“… I’ve reopened my dining room five times this year,” he said. “That is a huge undertaking and a challenge every single time.”

He’s expressed this to authority and public officials, but says it doesn’t seem like anyone is willing to listen, including the governor. That said, he’s optimistic that there are better days ahead.

“The weather here in Washington is wonderful, and wet, and gray, and sunshine is coming down the road. So there’s the light at the end of the tunnel, as well as the vaccines,” he said. “… There’s a lot of hope in the future as to what’s going on.”

Listen to Seattle’s Morning News weekday mornings from 5 – 9 a.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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