Washington restaurants are so famished for business that a few crumbs seem like a full-course meal. A slight easing of pandemic restrictions is beneficial, but more must be done to protect an industry that is largely driven by small, local businesses.
Throughout Southwest Washington, restaurants are now allowed to open for indoor dining — at 25 percent capacity. Gov. Jay Inslee last week announced that all regions of the state are moving into Phase 2 of Washington’s reopening plan, reducing some restrictions on indoor businesses.
The reason for a slow reopening is self-evident. While coronavirus infections have declined statewide, an average of more than 1,000 new cases are reported daily. More than 4,700 deaths in Washington have been attributed to COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic.
Restaurants have responded to restrictions by increasing takeout business and establishing outdoor dining areas. It has been an effective-but-imperfect stopgap, with outlets simply hoping to outlast the pandemic.
While coronavirus has created difficulties for every sector of the economy, dining is often a harbinger of larger issues. When times are good, people have money to spend on dining out and restaurants thrive. According to the Washington Hospitality Association, eating and drinking establishments employed about 250,000 people in Washington prior to the pandemic.
All of that points out the importance of restaurants and how they reflect the economy at large. It also points out how a partial reopening of indoor dining is essential to the local economy — fortuitously arriving as a weekend snowstorm made outdoor dining less comfortable for patrons, even inside a tent.
“Indoor dining brings more atmosphere and more added space,” Michael Perozzo of beer marketing firm Zzeppelin told The Columbian. “There will be a return of customers that may have not wanted to have a beer outside.”
But, proprietors stress, opening at 25 percent capacity is not a sustainable business model. Because of that, the Legislature must be open to providing assistance.
One important step was taken last week when Inslee signed a bill addressing unemployment insurance tax. Washington businesses faced a huge invoice to cover last year’s unexpected surge in unemployment payments; that has been delayed. While the legislation covers all companies, it is particularly important for small businesses in struggling sectors — such as restaurants.
Lawmakers also should be included in devising guidelines for reopening the state. A bill that would have moved all regions into Phase 2 is now moot, but legislative involvement will be important for providing input from regions of the state that often are unrepresented at the executive level. So will legislation to provide economic assistance when necessary.
In addition, the state’s Employment Security Department requires oversight as it continues to struggle with getting unemployment assistance where it is most needed. Restaurant employees — often hourly wage workers — have been among those most impacted by businesses’ shutdowns, and the bill signed last week will increase payments to the state’s lowest-paid workers.
Federal and state coronavirus relief packages have provided some assistance for restaurant owners and employees, but the situation remains fragile. While allowing indoor dining at 25 percent capacity is helpful for proprietors — and diners — it is a not a panacea for a struggling industry.