As Skagit County restaurants await the green light to reopen their dining rooms under COVID-19 restrictions, many say they don’t expect a quick return to normal, and are adapting accordingly.
During the two-month shutdown, many restaurants have reworked their business models, menus and physical dining areas to prepare for the new normal — whatever it looks like.
Under Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s four-phase reopening plan, restaurants would have to limit their dining rooms to 50% capacity, limit tables to a maximum of five people, and space tables at least 6 feet apart.
Restaurants must ensure employees wear face coverings, and screen them for COVID-19 symptoms at the start of each shift, according to the requirements.
Phase 2 is set to begin statewide on June 1. However, Inslee said Friday that counties that continue to have large number of cases may not be able to move to Phase 2 on this date.
On Friday, Skagit County officials urged Inslee to adjust his criteria to allow the county to apply for a variance to move to Phase 2.
Under the current criteria, larger counties would need to have fewer than 10 cases per 100,000 residents over 14 days. Skagit County, which has a population of 129,200, would need to have 13 cases or fewer over 14 days.
For the May 3-17 period, Skagit County had 65 new cases — a rate of 50 cases per 100,000 residents, according to data compiled by the governor’s office.
However, the county’s infection rate appears to be slowing. Saturday marked the fifth consecutive day the county has reported zero new cases, according to Skagit County Public Health.
The county has had 426 confirmed cases and 15 deaths.
In four letters to Inslee, county officials made the case that although the number of new cases disqualifies the county from moving to Phase 2, the county is more than equipped in testing, contact tracing and hospital capacity.
Skagit River Brewery owner Mike Cavanaugh said on Saturday he isn’t banking on being able to reopen June 1.
The Mount Vernon restaurant built a order/pickup window for takeout, which it opened on Friday after a two-month closure.
Cavanaugh said a Payment Protection Program Loan helped put his staff back to work, but after the eight-week period covered by the loan is up at the end of June, what will happen?
He said if he isn’t able to bring the restaurant to at least 75% capacity (allowed under Phase 3) by July, it will be tough to pay a full staff.
“Even if the economy opens up, we’re not viable that way,” he said. “We might as well make a change and make a go of that.”
Supply chain issues are also forcing restaurants to adjust their menus.
Cavanaugh said the restaurant has had trouble finding beef and pork to purchase, and that prices have skyrocketed.
On Chuckanut Drive in Bow, Chuckanut Manor recently built an outdoor kitchen and outdoor seating area with picnic tables it plans to open during Phase 2.
Owner Meagan Pickett said the restaurant is utilizing its large amount of outdoor space to help customers feel safe.
During Phase 1, the restaurant has allowed customers to buy takeout food and dine inside their cars.
Pickett said the seafood restaurant also plans to reopen its indoor dining room when allowed, but many questions remain.
“I have no idea if people will run to their favorite restaurants or still stay home,” she said. “But we’ll be ready.”
In Anacortes, A’Town Bistro plans to continue with its “supper club” (take-and-heat to-go meals) and resume in-person dining when allowed, owner Tim Moffitt said.
“It will be a hybrid,” he said. “That will allow us to continue supper club for community members who aren’t comfortable going out right away.”
He said the restaurant will likely limit indoor dining to those with reservations, while keeping outdoor seating open to walk-up customers.
The city of Anacortes plans to help local restaurants expand their outdoor footprints by purchasing seating to be placed on sidewalks, Anacortes Mayor Laurie Gere said during a virtual meeting Thursday for Anacortes Chamber of Commerce members.
In Burlington, Nick Crandall, owner of Train Wreck Bar & Grill and Railroad Pub & Pizza, also questioned whether operating a dining room at half capacity was viable.
“Everyone has to be at full 100% to pay bills and pay employees,” he said.
Even if restaurants are approved to resume in-person dining, Crandall said he isn’t sure if he will jump on it right away.
He said it’s been challenging to secure the new equipment — such as thermometers for employee temperature checks — required under Phase 2.
But Crandall believes it’s high time restaurants are allowed to reopen, and ultimately it will be a customer’s decision whether to dine at a restaurant.
“I’m not going to force anybody,” he said.