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Nov. 28, 2020

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Clark County businesses see dark days ahead after state mandates more COVID-19 restrictions

By , Columbian business reporter
4 Photos
Decorations celebrating the season surround the indoor dining area at Beaches restaurant as customers get in one last lunch on Monday before COVID-19 restrictions on dining go back in place. Gov. Jay Inslee announced Sunday that restaurants would need to halt indoor seating for a month in response to a statewide spike in COVID-19 cases.
Decorations celebrating the season surround the indoor dining area at Beaches restaurant as customers get in one last lunch on Monday before COVID-19 restrictions on dining go back in place. Gov. Jay Inslee announced Sunday that restaurants would need to halt indoor seating for a month in response to a statewide spike in COVID-19 cases. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Gov. Jay Inslee’s Sunday announcement of a new set of statewide COVID-19 restrictions has left Clark County business owners across multiple industries — particularly restaurants, gyms and movie theaters — wondering whether they’ll survive the winter.

“The downward spiral is now happening,” said Bryan Shull, owner of Trap Door Brewing in Vancouver. “The thing we’ve been talking about for months, we’re in it now.”

Inslee’s order, issued in response to a spike in novel coronavirus cases, requires restaurants to stop indoor dining and switch to outdoor seating or take-out, and it requires public venues including gyms and movie theaters to close entirely. The order will be in effect until Dec. 14.

The new guidelines are more narrowly targeted than the initial statewide shutdown in the spring, and a handful of industries that were hammered by the first closure appear to be largely unaffected this time around.

The construction industry isn’t mentioned at all in the order, and the only new restriction for the real estate industry is a prohibition on open houses. That’s not likely to slow things down much, according to Terry Wollam, managing broker at Wollam & Associates in Vancouver — Clark County’s housing market is currently experiencing record-low levels of inventory, and customers have already proven willing to adapt to more limited viewing options.

“People looking during this time frame tend to be more serious,” he said.

The real estate industry was a downstream casualty during the first shutdown because of the construction freeze, he said — new construction accounts for nearly a third of Clark County homes on the market. This time around, it appears construction will be able to continue.

Retail restrictions

Clark County retailers might also have a slightly easier time because the new restrictions don’t represent a huge change from what was already in place under Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan. Retail occupancy was previously limited to 30 percent of each store’s fire code capacity; now it will be capped at 25 percent.

Vancouver Mall general manager Tracy Peters said the 5 percent reduction would be a minimal difference. Fred Meyer spokesman Jeffery Temple noted that the grocery store chain had already been limiting occupancy to 30 percent.

Retailers with larger buildings have an advantage in that they rarely, if ever, reach 100 percent occupancy. Full occupancy at the Winco Foods on Andresen, for example, would be 2,350 people, according to Vancouver deputy fire marshal Chad Lawry. The mall has been counting traffic in and out during the pandemic but hasn’t had to enforce an entry queue so far, Peters said.

Entry queues have popped up at some smaller retailers, and they’re likely to become more common in the coming month. Korey Wilder, manager of Chuck’s Produce in east Vancouver, said the store will extend its curbside pickup hours and open earlier in the morning to try to avoid hitting the occupancy limit, but the staff have placed umbrellas outside and are prepared to enforce entry queues if needed.

“We’ve done the math and we see that (the 25 percent limit) may indeed have an impact,” she said. “Fortunately we’ve got a tremendous amount of square footage in our store.”

‘Bullet to the head’

In other industries, the news is grim.

The new lockdown includes a total closure of all movie theaters, and it couldn’t have happened at a worse time, according to Elie Kassab, owner of the Battle Ground Cinema multiplex.

“We were kind of expecting it, but not like this,” he said. “Four weeks going into Thanksgiving and the first half of December is just a bullet to the head.”

Battle Ground Cinema and other theaters were able to reopen at 25 percent capacity about two months ago. Business since then has been reasonably good, Kassab said, considering that many studios have opted to delay the releases of upcoming blockbuster films. The new lockdown puts an end to that.

The Washington Fitness Alliance issued a press release Monday urging Inslee to reconsider the total shutdown of athletic facilities, and arguing that many small gyms and fitness centers wouldn’t be able to survive the monthlong pause.

The restaurant industry is also bracing for impact, and the reactions of local owners range from resigned to pessimistic. There’s a sense of disappointment in the industry because of the amount of effort many restaurants have put into adapting their spaces for safety, said Mark Matthias, who owns Beaches Restaurant and WareHouse ’23.

“Our industry’s hope is that it just bounces back quickly. But even a four-week shutdown is going to create a lot of hardship on a lot of small businesses,” he said.

Some full-service restaurants might have difficulty switching to take-out and choose to just shut down for the month, he said. And even for the ones that are able to flourish on a take-out model, the loss of in-person dining inevitably means having to reduce staff head counts.

‘It’s just ugly’

The winter weather is one of the biggest problems, because it ruins much of the outdoor seating that carried the restaurant industry through the summer. Trap Door Brewing owner Bryan Shull said the uptown brewpub has been working to build semi-permanent weatherproofing structures for its patio seats, but it’s going to cost upwards of $5,000 to finish the job and provide heating.

“Now indoor seating is gone again, and in order for us to survive, we have to spend money we don’t have to cover our patio, to heat the patio,” he said.

Outdoor seating is a balancing act between making a space enclosed enough to retain heat but open enough for a safe level of airflow. Inslee’s guidelines specify that outdoor structures can only have walls on two sides unless they have a large enough opening to create ventilation.

“If (restaurants) are lucky enough to have outdoor seating, this third side’s a big deal,” Shull said.

The new shutdown comes at a time when there’s far less financial help available. Battle Ground Cinema and Trap Door Brewing both received Paycheck Protection Program loans to make it through the first round, but that pot of funding is gone, and Kassab said the $600 billion Main Street Lending program has too many requirements to be accessible.

Kassab and Shull both expressed frustration over the lack of congressional action toward a new federal economic relief package, and Shull also criticized what he characterized as a lack of state-level action to protect businesses from what is expected to be an enormous jump in unemployment insurance costs.

Shull said he spends much of his time now applying for smaller grants. Trap Door’s large patio space is going to allow the brewpub to stick around, he said, but he expects to see a significant number of restaurants close their doors in the coming months.

“We’re going to survive this,” he said. “It’s just ugly. It’s really ugly.”