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Jan. 20, 2021

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Outdoor dining cold comfort for struggling Clark County restaurants

While customers gather under temporary structures, restaurant owners say expense of complying with virus restrictions keeping them in the red

By , Columbian Assistant Metro Editor
Published:
3 Photos
Restaurants will remain restricted to outdoor seating or take-out until at least Jan. 11, forcing many owners to choose between closing or operating at a loss. Main Event's two Vancouver locations remain open. "We're trying to stay relevant," said co-owner Jason Fish.
Restaurants will remain restricted to outdoor seating or take-out until at least Jan. 11, forcing many owners to choose between closing or operating at a loss. Main Event's two Vancouver locations remain open. "We're trying to stay relevant," said co-owner Jason Fish. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

While customers gather under temporary structures, restaurant owners say expense of complying with virus restrictions keeping them in the red

Under a white tent on a December Friday night, Sarah Anderson sipped her cocktail as she visited with three friends. Although it was cold outside, the tent’s interior felt cozy; Christmas lights strung from trees illuminated the inside, and patio heaters warmed the clusters of chattering folks at tables.

“It’s not as cold as you’d think,” Anderson said, wearing a hoodie and leggings. “It’s comfortable.”

While patrons like Anderson bear the unpredictable atmosphere of tent dining in a windy, cold and rainy winter, there’s little evidence that restaurants’ indoors are prime transmission sources of COVID-19, and no studies show tents are safer than indoor dining. However, Gov. Jay Inslee’s restrictions on indoor dining will continue for at least eight more days.

“It’s difficult to say whether (and how much) restrictions on food establishments and other businesses have prevented COVID-19 cases and impacted the COVID-19 activity in our community,” Marissa Armstrong, spokesperson for Clark County Public Health, wrote in an email to The Columbian. “We know the virus spreads through close contact with someone who is infected. The restrictions imposed by the governor are aimed at limiting opportunities for people to gather in close contact with others.”

2nd round of loans offers lifeline for small businesses

Program prioritizes companies with less than 300 employees

The biggest safety line for restaurants is the second round of Paycheck Protection Program loans, signed into law by President Trump last week. The Small Business Administration will hand out $248 billion in forgivable loans to businesses. The first round awarded $525 billion to more than 5 million businesses.

The second round specifies that the money will be prioritized for smaller businesses with fewer than 300 employees, compared with a 500-employee limit in the first round of PPP loans. Also, restaurants will be prioritized because loans are given according to the amount of revenue lost; restaurants have lost more money during the pandemic than most businesses.

Most restaurants in Clark County will be eligible to apply for the PPP loans, and most, if not all, restaurant owners see it as the biggest factor in helping them keep their business alive.

Consultant Eric Sawyer of Vancouver-based BBSI has been working with restaurateurs since the pandemic began. He said that it was imperative that Congress and President Trump got a lifeline into the water to save as many drowning business owners as possible. 

“I like the focus this time on the small business owner, less than 300 employees, because that’s what most of us have been saying all along,” Sawyer said. “I like Costco and Safeway and Lowes as much as the next person, but they’ve grown during the pandemic, and so have a lot of the national fast food franchises. I know many owners of franchises, and they take NO satisfaction in the fact that they’re profiting at record numbers while local mom-and-pop restaurants are dying every day.  The focus of this funding on the smaller businesses, was vital!  And another correct step was insuring that the PPP subsidies are not taxed; that was huge.” 

— Will Campbell

Tent dining

Anderson’s Friday night was the best that local restaurateur Jason Fish, co-owner of Main Event, could conjure under a stifling set of pandemic rules. The rules include a 6-foot distance between tables and at least two open “walls” to the tent for ventilation, which reduces the chances of COVID-19 spreading.

Only a fraction of the restaurants in Clark County have put in the effort to open outdoor dining since Gov. Inslee announced the rules on Nov. 15. He extended them on Dec. 30 to expire on Jan. 11.

Many dining establishments decided to offer takeout or delivery only under these November rules, and some restaurants closed temporarily – all while the list of permanently closed restaurants increases; Vancouver Pizza Company in Uptown Village was the latest, the owners announced Monday.

Tent dining is expensive for restaurants, and it doesn’t always work well, especially when it’s cold, windy and rainy. According to Fish, his rented tent at Main Event’s eastside location costs $4,000 a month.

“We got a deal on it,” he said. “It’s not perfect, but it serves its purpose.”

In late December, Main Event’s downtown location put up an outdoor structure with heat for about $3,200, built by Fish and his brother. But for many other restaurants, including Farrar’s Bistro, it isn’t worth the cost of buying or renting a tent for a sub-par dining experience, said owner Debbie Belden.

Regardless of the outdoor dining, Main Event is seeing a net loss, Fish said. A nonprofitable business model, even with indoor dining, is the status quo for most restaurant owners who have been interviewed by The Columbian during the pandemic.

“The other option is to close,” Fish said. “We’re trying to stay relevant.”

Restaurant rules

The state’s rules of two “walls” or sides to the outdoor-dining tents aren’t strictly being followed by some of the restaurants in Clark County — which is obvious to passersby in downtown Vancouver.

One Clark County restaurant owner, who asked to remain anonymous, said that his restaurant’s outdoor tent has three walls up because he doesn’t expect regulators to enforce the rules, but if the state attempted to, he would comply.

Dina Lorraine, spokesperson for the Washington Department of Labor and Industries, the agency in charge of enforcing the rules, said the state has “a handful of restaurants” that continue to disregard the rules.

“We handle those in priority of how many employees they have,” she said. “Most are complying with the order or shut down when we contact them.”

Only three Washington restaurants have had restraining orders issued against them because they ignored the state’s Order and Notice of Immediate Restraint (OIR). They are Spiffy’s, Farm Boy and Fairway Cafe — none of which are in Clark County. The restaurants were in court with the state in late December to address the charges.

Clark County Public Health has received about 10 complaints regarding outdoor dining since the governor’s restrictions were implemented in November, according to Armstrong. All the complaints stemmed from insufficient ventilation for outdoor tents.

Where people gather

The idea to limit restaurants to tent dining has in a way contributed to the effort to “flatten the curve” of COVID-19 cases. But Mark Matthias, owner of Beaches, said it’s driving gatherings into people’s houses, where the air doesn’t circulate and people don’t wear masks – a more risky place to catch the virus.

The vast majority of health experts and epidemiology scientists agree that the virus is less likely to be spread outdoors because wind blows away the microscopic water droplets carrying the virus. Indoors, the air is more likely to circulate viruses.

But Fish and other Clark County restaurant owners speculate that the science isn’t solid enough to say that each individual tent, all of which have different airflow patterns, are safer than indoor restaurants.

“The science isn’t there,” Fish said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July stated that people who were infected were twice as likely to state that they had been to a restaurant compared with people who weren’t exposed to the virus. But the study did not differentiate between outdoor or indoor seating.

Clark County Public Health states that 46 percent of local cases were contracted through an infected household member and 19 percent were contracted at private social gatherings of 10 or fewer people. Restaurants contributed to 1 percent of cases; Public Health did not differentiate between outdoor and indoor dining.

In New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said that about 74 percent of new cases between September and November came from household gatherings, according to a study of 46,000 points of data gathered by contact tracers. Restaurants and bars accounted for less than 2 percent. Regardless, Cuomo banned indoor dining on Dec. 11 due to a surge in cases in New York.

What’s next?

The holidays are over, and if people gathered privately without taking precautions, then Clark County may see a case spike soon — with relatively no blame on the restaurants that are taking the biggest revenue blow from Inslee’s restrictions.

The COVID-19 activity rate in Clark County (number of cases per 100,000 people over 14 days) has decreased each of the last two weeks, wrote Armstrong in an email to The Columbian. Prior to that, the county hadn’t seen COVID-19 activity decrease since August. However, the rate remains significantly higher than anything we saw in the summer (The rate was about 64 cases per 100,000 in early September; this week it’s 386 cases per 100,000).

“The recent decreases are encouraging, but we will be keeping a close eye on the numbers in the coming weeks, when we would expect to see any potential impacts from holiday gatherings,” she wrote.

Anderson, Main Event’s patron, said she has visited multiple outdoor dining spots every week since November, and she said not all tent dining experiences are great.

On rainy occasions, she’s been in restaurant tents where water is flowing below her feet, but even still, she appreciates seeing friends outside of her home for a drink or a meal.

“People appreciate having somewhere to go,” she said. “It’s like ‘Cheers.’ You have to have a spot to go.”

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