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WA Hospitality Association: Reopening date gives restaurant, hotel workers ‘security’

An outdoor dining set-up during the COVID-19 pandemic in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood. (MyNorthwest photo)

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many restaurants have struggled to keep their doors open while dealing with the changing restrictions. Now there’s a push by the Washington Hospitality Association for the governor to fully reopen Washington state by June 15.

Washington is one of two states without a plan or date to fully reopen

Anthony Anton is the CEO of the association, which represents restaurants and hotels. He says the June 15 date came about after Gov. Inslee’s freeze of the reopening plan.

“When we listened to the press conference, he was very clear that while we had a plan to roll backwards, there was no plan to roll forward,” Anton said.

Washington is just one of two states that’s not already open and has no plan to fully reopen. Fellow West Coast state California has set June 15 as a reopening date, Anton said.

“So we started looking at, does that make sense for us? And pretty quickly determined by the beginning of June, everyone who wants a vaccination will have had one, we’ll be really close to President Biden’s goal of 70% of adults being vaccinated, and then that gives us time to plan — plan for weddings, graduation ceremonies, and plan for a summer that starts feeling a little more normal,” Anton said.

While he’s not sure what the governor’s reaction will be to the petition, he wants to be an optimist.

“The governor has come out and done things along the way that have been helpful. He’s talked a lot about how much pain small businesses felt, and the damage that just being isolated by ourselves causes to our kids and other things,” he said. “And so I want to be an optimist that if we approach this as let’s work together on a plan, that we can get there.”

Anton shared that restaurants and bowling alley have extremely small margins, averaging at 4%.

“These are basically kind of someone’s dream to pursue and own their own business, but the average operator at 4% is maybe making 40K, high forties a year,” he said. “So the amount of debt that has been collected over the past year for your average operation is going to be north of $140-150,000.”

“They’d have to work three years right now to get out of this without taking any penny for themselves,” he added. “And that’s the burden moving forward that the longer we wait, the more that debt is built up, and the more reducing small businesses’ chance to get out of this thing.”

That said, many restaurants have expressed that it’s been difficult to get enough workers to return. So will they be ready by June 15?

“That’s one of the reasons we want to get this date on the calendar,” Anton said. “… A lot of our workers took two, three months to get into the unemployment insurance system, and they went months without a paycheck, and they’re telling us, ‘I don’t want to come back and get kicked out of the system only to be laid off again in two or three weeks. I’ll come back when I know that I have my job,’ which is a fair ask. They’ve been on and off again for 14 months.”

“And so by having a set date, our workforce, which we’re still down 100,000 workers, can actually plan for security, and plan to move forward, and not worry that … the governor is going to lay them off again two weeks later and then they’re taking two months to get in the system again,” he added. “This provides security and a chance to move forward.”

There have been people who left for other industries as they can’t be sure their job in hospitality will be secure or if their work will be able to remain open.

Anton says while some may wish they were paid more, he’s not hearing that as a major reason why workers aren’t returning, but rather that it’s the lack of stability.

“The stability, the unknown, the competitiveness from other industries, those are the reasons that people are hesitant to come back, which are all reasons we need a date for stability,” Anton said.

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For hotels, Anton says the percentage of lost employers is equal to that of the full-service restaurant side.

“I think what makes me worry further on [the lodging] side is they’re going to be in a two or three year hole before they come back,” Anton said. “And so for the lodging, having the ability to say, hey, you can come here and have a date is huge. We are losing conventions, small meetings, weddings to other states that, for many of these lodging properties, were their bread and better. So by having a date on the calendar, after we’ve had a chance to vaccinate and give everyone the chance to have access and get information about vaccination, gives lodging that chance to start moving forward.”

“And it’s as important to them, if not more than many of the other parts of hospitality,” he added.

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