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.”
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.”
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.