For the first time in more than 15 months, businesses across Clark County were able to open their doors Wednesday with no COVID-19-related occupancy limits or social distancing restrictions in place.
June 30 marked Washington’s official “reopening,” allowing all businesses previously restricted under the Healthy Washington – Roadmap to Recovery reopening plan to resume operations at pre-pandemic levels.
The only exception is large indoor spaces hosting more than 10,000 participants, none of which are located in Clark County. Businesses are still required to ensure that unvaccinated employees wear masks while working indoors, according to the Washington Department of Labor & Industries.
For many bars and restaurants, the primary reason to celebrate is the return of counter seating, which has been off-limits throughout all of the various phases and operating guidelines issued over the past 15 months.
At other businesses — retailers with small storefronts and movie theaters that rely on sold-out auditoriums, the biggest change will be the total number of people allowed.
“We have been ‘selling out’ at 50 percent capacity and having to turn some people away during peak hours, so when the restrictions lift tomorrow, we still expect to be busy at full capacity,” Marina Gephart, director of communications and media at Battle Ground Cinema parent company Prestige Theatres, wrote in an email Tuesday.
The end of restrictions frees restaurants to restore their original table configurations instead of the socially distanced arrangements dictated by the pandemic guidelines. But some owners might not add tables immediately.
Mark Matthias said his staff and guests have gotten used to the wider-spaced grid at Beaches Restaurant and Bar. Strong sales, coupled with the restaurant’s parking lot patio seating area and the returning bar top, means there’s no hurry to squeeze together more tables.
“It just feels better with a little more spacing between tables,” he said. “This could become a permanent change for us.”
Other restaurants may be more eager to return to their original setups, he said, particularly if they didn’t have a large amount of outdoor space to convert to seating.
Labor availability will prevent some restaurants from pivoting to pre-pandemic operations.
Beaches’ staffing is still only about 80 percent of where it would normally be at this time of year, Matthias said, but all restaurants are having a tough time finding enough workers.
“Everybody’s kind of having the same problem right now, working from a skeleton crew,” said Jason Fish, owner of Main Event Sports Grill in downtown and east Vancouver.
The only immediate change to the seating options at Main Event will be the return of the barstools, he said. The limited response is directly dictated by the struggle to find employees to fill out both its front- and back-of-the-house staff.
The return of bar seating poses an added challenge, he said, because it’s not as simple as just asking someone to tend bar. Bartenders need extra training.
“The next two or three weeks are going to be pretty crazy for people who have any type of bar business,” Fish said.
Restaurants and other hospitality businesses will face pressure to rebound quickly, according to Washington Hospitality Association President Anthony Anton. Not only will customer demand likely surge, businesses need to recoup pandemic losses and reopening costs.
“There will be a bit of a race against debt that we’re facing,” he said at a Tuesday press conference.
The biggest challenge to recovery will be the ability to add workers, he added. The hospitality industry is still short about 80,000 workers statewide, he said, and he called on customers to be mindful of the pressure the labor shortage is putting on existing staff.
Unemployment has fallen to 5.3 percent, he added, so hospitality sector managers are going to be navigating a competitive environment as they work to rehire.
He said it may take the rest of the summer to get a sense of how fast the rebound will be.
Cleaning protocols stay
At Vancouver Mall, the lifting of occupancy restrictions won’t make a big difference in the common areas, according to General Manager Tracy Peters. The mall has so much internal space that it never exceeded its maximum occupancy even with pandemic limits in place.
Individual stores are a different story. Many of the mall’s tenants have operated with entry queues delineated by tape outside their entrances, and Peters said those lines were being removed Wednesday. The mall’s food court and restaurants will also return to full occupancy.
The mall will continue to offer masks and urge unvaccinated customers to wear them in accordance with Gov. Jay Inslee’s guidance. The mall won’t check customers’ vaccination status, although individual stores could choose to set their own policies, she said.
The impact at the Burntown Fitness studio in east Vancouver will be minimal, according to owner Kisar Dhillon, because the studio’s classes are fairly small.
“It’s the smaller things we’re excited about,” he said, such as freeing space by removing the sign-in station by the front door, and the return of shared workout stations.
During the restrictions Dhillon used tape to divide the studio into a grid of individual spaces. He may keep that feature to help organize certain classes.
Enhanced cleaning protocols have been part of the new normal across nearly every industry during the pandemic, and many owners said they don’t see a reason to ditch them.
Burntown will leave signs up encouraging visitors to wash their hands after working out, which Dhillon said is always a good gym habit. Hand sanitizer stations and some pandemic-era cleaning protocols will remain in place at Vancouver Mall for the time being, Peters said.
“Some of them may stay in place permanently,” she added. “I mean, you can’t be too clean.”
Matthias speculated the past year will result in a permanent change to how restaurants approach sanitation, adopting some of the protocols as new baseline standards.
During prior stages of the reopening process, several Clark County restaurant owners expressed trepidation about being too quick to scale up their operations in case a subsequent surge in COVID-19 cases prompted a renewed wave of restrictions.
This time, the mood is a bit more optimistic. Inslee has been one of the nation’s more cautious governors when it comes to lockdown measures and reopening speeds, Anton said, so his approval of Wednesday’s reopening is seen as a good sign.
“I think everybody is cautiously optimistic, but for the most part what I’m hearing is they see this as the end and they’re really ready for it to be the end,” Peters said, referring to the mall’s tenants.
Matthias said he also felt that the restaurant industry had proven its ability to adapt to new health safety operating rules, making any full-scale shutdown unlikely in the future.
“We’re safe, and I would be shocked if we were ever shut down again,” he said.