Wednesday, February 24, 2021
Feb. 24, 2021

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Vancouver restaurant owners ask lawmakers to speed reopening for businesses

By , Columbian business reporter

Washington restaurant owners and industry groups are calling on the Legislature to allow them to reopen their doors, but if they were hoping for fast action, they’re going to be disappointed.

A couple of Vancouver restaurateurs joined more than a thousand people who signed up to testify in support of Washington Senate Bill 5114, which if enacted would allow businesses statewide to move to Phase 2 of the Healthy Washington Roadmap to Recovery Plan.

The Senate State Government and Elections Committee held a public hearing Wednesday morning to consider it, but the committee adjourned without taking any action.

The bill has been a recurring topic of discussion in recent weeks at the Restaurant Roundtable, a recurring virtual meeting of dozens of Clark County business owners. The majority who testified during the roughly one-hour hearing Wednesday were restaurant owners or representatives from other heavily impacted industries, such as fitness studios and bowling centers.

Gov. Jay Inslee instituted a statewide ban on indoor dining in November in response to a rise in COVID-19 cases, and Phase 1 of the roadmap plan maintains that moratorium. All regions of the state are currently still in Phase 1.

The bill was introduced Jan. 7, one day after Inslee announced the Healthy Washington plan and outlined the restrictions for the first two phases. Sponsors included Sens. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, and Ann Rivers, R-La Center.

It’s unclear whether the bill has any chance of passing in the long run. In response to an email earlier this month from Mark Matthias, owner of Beaches Restaurant in Vancouver, Rivers mentioned the bill but noted that it would need support from Democrats to pass.

During testimony at Wednesday’s hearing, Matthias argued that since indoor dining was already shut down during the latest wave of COVID-19 cases, the restaurant industry is being unfairly blamed for the spike. Matthias and most of the other industry representatives stressed that they intended to follow established safety guidelines for operation.

“Only a few industries are held accountable for a spike that we didn’t create,” he said.

Mychal Dynes, co-owner of Little Conejo in Vancouver, also testified in support of the bill and spoke about the economic difficulties caused by the ongoing closure. Little Conejo had to lay off some of its staff after its first Paycheck Protection Program loan ran out, he said, and the business didn’t qualify for a second one.

Not all of the public testimony was in favor of the bill. Several health care workers testified in opposition, arguing that medical staff are already overtaxed and hospitals are nearing full bed capacity. Lacy Fehrenbach, deputy secretary of health for the state’s COVID-19 response, said the state was not ready to go to Phase 2.

“If we open the state too early, it will open the floodgates to my hospital and further overwhelm me and the caregivers I work with,” said Kat Wood, a health care worker at St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma.

Neeru Kaur, a respiratory therapist at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, stated that communities of color have already been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, and reopening the hospitality industry would cause further disproportionate damage because of the number of community members who are employed in the industry.

The committee cut off public testimony and adjourned at 10 a.m. without a vote or any other action on the bill. As of Wednesday, the bill remains before the State Government & Elections Committee.