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May 16, 2022

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Indoor dining ban ‘the death of business’ for eateries in Clark County?

State COVID-19 restrictions prompt scramble as winter nears

4 Photos
A roof protects customers in Little Conejo’s outdoor dining space in downtown Vancouver on Wednesday afternoon.
A roof protects customers in Little Conejo’s outdoor dining space in downtown Vancouver on Wednesday afternoon. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

With precautions against coronavirus again closing indoor dining in Washington, restaurants say their survival depends on serving customers outdoors — difficult to do in cold, wet weather without some sort of shelter.

Restaurants seeking to create winter-ready outdoor dining areas are frustrated that state COVID-19 guidelines prohibit more than two walls.

“Might as well hand out umbrellas,” Trap Door Brewing owner Bryan Shull said.

Shull and other local restaurant owners have participated in weekly meetings with government officials since summer to try to come up with a solution. It’s impossible to heat a space with wind and rain coming through two open sides, Shull said. He doesn’t expect to get any customers willing to sit outside in the freezing cold to drink a beer.

After unsuccessfully pressing for change on the state level, city of Vancouver officials from a variety of departments have been working on guidelines for outdoor, heated dining spaces that they hope will both protect public health and aid local restaurants. They expect to issue the guidelines soon.

“We want to be in a position to help these folks out as much as we can,” said Ryan Lopossa, Vancouver’s streets and transportation manager.

The city is ready to approve any two-wall outdoor structure, assuming it doesn’t totally obstruct the sidewalk. If a restaurant wants a structure with more than two walls, it will have to get approval from the Clark County Health Department. The Vancouver Fire Marshal’s Office will review any enclosures exceeding 400 square feet to make sure the heating system is safe.

Vancouver officials have tapped two restaurants to serve as test cases. Mighty Bowl in downtown Vancouver is seeking a permit for an small outdoor space with three and a half walls heated by propane heaters. Owner Steve Valenta is looking for a contractor and awaiting the city’s response on his Nov. 12 application. La Sorrentina in east Vancouver will serve as a model for a larger outdoor area.

Meanwhile, the city of Ridgefield is moving along with the permitting process for a permanent 50-by-20-foot outdoor structure with three drop-down sides, windows and overhead heaters for Taps Beer Reserve, a pub that opened near Rosauers Market in mid-July.

It’s not the permitting process but obtaining supplies that has complicated the project, said Taps Beer Reserve owner Kevin Summers. Everything is on back order, he said, and the price of materials, particularly steel, has doubled due to tariffs and COVID-19. He ordered his heaters two months ago. They cost $6,000 each. Summers estimates the entire project will cost $80,000. He hopes that creating this large outdoor space will improve his bottom line.

“I’m just trying to keep the doors open after weathering the storm. I’m hoping to make it profitable,” Summers said.

Outdoor dining areas may not be enough to solve restaurants’ problems, said Michael Walker, president of Vancouver’s Downtown Association. The customers still may not show up.

“Some people don’t feel safe eating out whether it’s indoors or outdoors,” Walker said.

Big office buildings downtown that were once filled with workers are mostly empty. People working from home aren’t eating and drinking downtown. As a result, some businesses don’t have enough customers to make outdoor space necessary, Walker said.

Nonetheless, Walker is helping restaurant owners create outdoor space. He worked with Little Conejo’s owner Mychal Dynes to augment the taqueria’s outdoor dining area. Walker is offering technical assistance to seven businesses and expects them to open winter outdoor seating in the next month.

Some businesses are beginning to lose hope. Shull has been vocal about the need for some governmental guidance for building outdoor structures. He said decisions aren’t being made fast enough for him to stay in business. Shull moved forward with his plans to add an outdoor structure to his Uptown taproom on Main Street.

“If you can’t fill your place up, you can’t pay bills and all these new expenses,” Shull said. “That’s the death of business.”

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