In what has now become a weekly routine, all eyes were on the Washington State Department of Health’s “Roadmap to Recovery” report dated Jan. 22, pending possible news about the reopening – but the story remains the same. None of the state’s eight regions have qualified for the second phase of Governor Jay Inslee’s reopening plan on the latest COVID metrics. This means that restaurants are not allowed to reopen until February 1 with a capacity of 25 percent, for the most part.
Recently there was an exception to the rule. As part of the complex outdoor and open-air seating guidelines, some very drafty indoor meals are permitted. If a restaurant has roller doors, bay windows, or large windows that can be opened to allow significant ventilation of the outside air, it can accommodate customers under its permanent roof with a capacity of 25 percent. The caveat is that any facility trying to do this must use a CO2 monitor to track airflow in the dining room. A restaurant and bar industry seminar was held on January 22nd to sort through the new guidelines, and several places in Seattle have already taken advantage of the regulations.
However, in order to reopen 25 percent of the time in closed dining rooms, a region still has to advance into the second phase. To do this, the COVID cases have to decrease by 10 percent over a period of 14 days. a 10 percent decrease in hospital entry rates; Intensive occupancy below 90 percent; and overall COVID test positivity below 10 percent. When all of these marks are reached, the area will automatically advance. It looks like two of those four numbers were trending in the right direction in the Puget Sound area on Jan 22nd, but the 14-day case rate is increasing and the hospital admission rate has decreased sufficiently.
Even if all the numbers improve soon, it can be difficult for each region to get the exact numbers required. That means most restaurants, bars, and cafes are still on standby – and frustrations are mounting. On January 20, state lawmakers tabled a bill to immediately reopen all businesses with 25 percent capacity. If passed, the new law would essentially bypass the current health department conditions and move straight to the second phase, regardless of what the data looks like in all eight regions. And it would allow lawmakers to format additional stages of reopening instead of leaving everything to Inslee, which essentially limits its emergency powers.
Inslee has resisted the legislative efforts. In a press conference on January 21, he said that while he empathizes with restaurants and workers, which have been badly affected by the recent COVID measures, he continues to be aware of the dangers of eating in an enclosed space as the mask is used to eat and drink must be removed.
So far, it looks like the new Senate bill to speed up the reopening timetable is unlikely to get very far. Only two of the 16 co-sponsors are Democrats, and there is little evidence of mass support within a predominantly democratic legislature to override the governor’s emergency powers.
However, with the two-phase reopening plan stalling week after week, there may be an appetite to recalibrate the details of future mandates or benchmarks. That may all depend on how good the efforts are to vaccinate more Washingtoners, as Inslee recently announced a new goal of 45,000 vaccinations a day that even Starbucks is stepping in. In the meantime, restaurants in Seattle have to sit down and wait at least another week before the next batch of relevant COVID numbers comes in.