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.”
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.
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.”