Whenever dining rooms open in Seattle there will be some dramatic changes. This week, Governor Jay Inslee’s office released detailed guidelines for restaurants in phase two of Washington’s economic reopening plan, which allow restaurants with 50 percent capacity to resume dining service, with no more than five people at each table. Additional requirements designed to help contain the spread of COVID-19 include one-way meals, a six-foot social distance between employees and customers, a restriction on one employee at a time to look after a table, and the need to Log all guest information, including phone number, email address, and arrival time, for the purpose of contact tracking. Employees must also wear personal protective equipment (PPE). Cloth face masks for customers are recommended but not required.
King County released its own reopening restaurant criteria, largely based on the state criteria, although Seattle recently said restaurants are allowed to turn away diners who are not wearing masks (even if there is no law mandating their use). Employers must also screen workers for symptoms of COVID-19, including a fever, ensure a six-foot gap between workers both behind and in front of the house, and postpone work schedules as much as possible, allowing more specific clarifications on state guidelines represents.
There is still no precise timetable for when these measures will be implemented: small rural counties in east Washington are expected to move into phase two faster than other parts of the state, particularly King County, which is likely weeks away from the next development relatively higher number of COVID cases. But when the requirements and recommendations are at play here in Seattle, they won’t be easy to implement, as local chefs and owners confirm.
“The rules make it sound like the worst dining experience ever and a cross-border invasion of privacy,” said Logan Cox, head chef and co-owner of the renowned Beacon Hill Restaurant Homer, which is currently open to take away. Inslee tried to resolve the privacy issue related to the logging of guest information in a press conference on Tuesday. The data collected by restaurants would be deleted when not needed and only used for the purpose of contact tracing. But the governor also said the exact logistics are still being discussed with industry leaders.
Even if more details are released, Cox is unlikely to reopen its doors when Seattle enters phase two, as the half capacity restriction would be too damaging financially and the distance in Homer’s little dining room – which also has an open kitchen Heard – gives cause for concern about health hazards. “Many of our employees don’t feel comfortable when they come back to work because they don’t feel safe interacting with multiple people in close proximity,” he says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Homer’s take-out program was a reality until 2021 or longer.”
Recent James Beard Award finalist Rachel Yang of Fremont’s Korean Steakhouse Joule and the laid-back Revel agree with Cox, although she seems more resigned to the new regulations, particularly customer protocols, that would require information to get from everyone at a party (not just the one making a reservation). “This will be a more intense version of the reservation, waiting list, check-in or whatever you call it,” she says. “It will never feel safe enough until we develop a vaccine. These guidelines will help us feel a little more secure in the meantime. “
Likewise, Miki Sodos – owner of Cafe Pettirosso on Capitol Hill, Bang Bang Cafe in Belltown, and Bang Bang Kitchen in Othello – is ready to abide by the new rules in the hope of bringing the dine-in to the current take-out Programs. “I have ordered non-contact thermometers for all three restaurants, all employees in front of the house are already wearing masks and I have ordered barriers and free-standing barriers whenever possible,” she says. “We can easily provide a digital menu that customers can download and tables can be taken away.”
Even so, the requirements for maintaining social distance between staff and guests can be challenging, as the new rules state that restaurants must have a six-foot distance between all staff (and customers) at all times in all interactions. Sodos calls it an “impossibility because we would have to hand over the food to the customer and for obvious reasons we would not allow the customer to get their own food.” She hopes the government will provide more guidance on this.
Chef David Nichols of Green Lake’s farm-to-table restaurant Eight Row also sees these restrictions on social distancing as a potential sticking point and is not preparing to resume dine-in services in phase two, but rather the current options for Continue takeaway. He also points out the limitation that only one employee is required per table. “Service would be slow; Guests at the same table would not receive their food at the same time, ”he says. “It’s a lot more work for a lot less income. And we would have all the additional costs for PPE. And we wouldn’t have any cash receipts. However, the customer log doesn’t seem to be a deal breaker: “It adds to the overall work, but no more than other limitations.”
Most of the chefs and owners Eater has spoken to over the past few weeks seem to be approaching the reopening with understandable caution. The majority say they won’t reopen for dine-in services right away, but will either continue the take-out service indefinitely or wait until the final stages of the reopening plan for restaurants to reopen for greater capacity can. In contrast to other states, especially in the south, where the reopening was chaotic, there is at least some time to plan on site, even if the future of the industry is still precarious.
“I assume that most restaurants can’t do this,” says Sodos. “That being said, I don’t think there is a restaurant or shop that’s worth a single human life.”