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By Jana Hill
Mill Creek Beacon Editor 

Dining moves back outside as weather turns damp

COVID restrictions hand a second round of challenges to local, state restaurants


Last updated 11/25/2020 at 10:33am

Rain washed over the Mill Creek Town Center's Main Street the night before its restaurants would shift to outdoor dining and take-out options, in response to state restrictions, put in place to rein in COVID-19 infection rates.

The current two-week rolling case count in Snohomish County is 281 per 100,000 residents. The goal is less than 25. When the last shutdown was issued, the numbers were creeping up to 100 per 100,000.

On Tuesday night, an employee from Cold Stone Creamery in Mill Creek hung a sign on a window describing social distancing and take-out limitations. Northern Public House had indoor customers inside at tables, for one last night out before the limitations.

Under the indoor dining ban, restaurants can continue to offer take-out and curbside pickup, or outdoor dining.

Shawn Roten owns Northern Public House on Main Street. As many absorb new rules for state restrictions, he already knows the rules on the sale of cocktails. He offered curbside and take-out during springtime restrictions, and saw that cocktail change roll in. For take-out orders, cocktails are taped shut. This time, he has revised his menu to omit nachos, because they do not travel well for take-out orders.

His business depends on indoor seating and normally does well, walking distance from so many residential homes. During the last shutdown, the usual $3,000 to $3,200 daily sales dropped dramatically. Growlers were sold, but those sales did not measure up to pre-COVID sales.

"Most days (during the last shutdown) were about $150, which is not enough to pay even the employee working here," he said.

Roten is preparing outdoor seating comforts for his customers, with heaters and tents – an extra expenditure as the new shutdown plays out. Some heaters should arrive Friday, Nov. 20.

With the current restrictions, "we have no bar seating, (and) our bar is 45 feet long. So, all that was taken away, and then the other seating was down to 60%."

He said patio service helped in the spring, but "then when the weather turned, and we just had inside -- that made it really difficult."

Savings is used up and support from grants is spent, he said.

"For restaurants, it is going to be really, really difficult for everyone," he said.

For Frost Doughnuts, though, the changes have less of an impact.

Del Hernandez, owner, said his business is usually take-out anyway. Bakery items and coffee do not require a seated experience.

"We've been through this already. So we know what to do," he said, speaking of the last shutdown, when health-related restrictions were new. He said no one knew what to expect.

"Everybody was so scared. Nobody knew what was going on," he said. This shutdown is impacting his shop, but "not that much."

He said one change is that more people are using DoorDash and other delivery services, and those businesses take a 30% cut.

Bequest Coffee was a new business when the pandemic hit. The crew of five is working 12-hour days to keep the business going. Andi Gomes is one of three owners. She said the second shutdown is pretty scary for them.

They were only open four or five months before the spring shutdown, "and now we (will) have to shut down again. So we know the numbers (are) going to drop. We're doing our best to keep serving our customers."

She said they have outdoor seating that is covered and heated, with tables 6 feet apart. They added more heaters to keep people comfortable.

La Palmera in Mill Creek's Town Center endured a temporary closure recently for positive COVID tests and successfully reopened all three sites: Mill Creek, Everett, and South Lake Union. Now the family-owned business is preparing for the impact of the newest indoor dining ban.

"We have decided to no longer open for lunch," said Yuli Mendoza, who is part of the general management and administrative offices for the family business. La Palmera is focusing on happy hour and dinner service. "We are installing tents on our patios today, so we will be able to offer covered, heated, outdoor patio seating, as well as take-out and delivery."

Asked about the lease, she said the business worked out a deferred rent plan with their landlord, and have heard that other businesses have been able to get rent discounts.

"I think it just depends on the price and the relationship with their landlords, and each restaurant's situation varies a lot," she said. Beyond that, she wanted to issue a pep talk: "Hoping everyone is able to stay safe as covid cases continue to rise."

Greg Johnston's business was temporarily closed for COVID-19 about the same time as La Palmera. "Feels like we barely got reopened, and now here we go again," he said.

On the indoor ban, he said, "I am not super stoked about it, but I get it. Some people haven't taken this pandemic seriously, and unfortunately everyone has to deal with the consequences. I look forward to reopening fully one day, but until then we will continue to reinvent, create and carry on."

He said the preparation is already done for people to sit outside.

"Our island style back patio is equipped with heaters, tents and TVs," he said. "Definitely not a bad spot to catch a Hawks game or take a long lunch."

His to-go menu is ready too, with cocktails, wine and growlers. Holiday fare is on the menu including Pumpkin Pecan Bourbon Pie as a pre-sale item "with pickup the two days before Thanksgiving."

Necessary limits

Snohomish County is 10 times above the target rate for COVID-19 cases, Executive Dave Somers announced in the Joint Information Commission briefing this week, with 280 infections per 100,000 people. Hospital capacity is at risk – officials have said consistently since the pandemic began that if hospitalizations from COVID-19 infections overwhelm medical resources, staffing will not be enough to handle other emergency care, such as heart attacks and car wrecks. Important medical care that occurs onsite at hospitals – chemotherapy, kidney dialysis – can also face limits if hospitals are overburdened.

The indoor dining ban lasts four weeks, unless infection rates fail to drop, and then it may resume.

According to a Snohomish County report, 203 outbreaks were reported since late October, and officials have repeatedly warned of indoor gatherings, unmasked, creating a higher risk of contraction due to droplets called aerosols.

Scientists say aerosols from COVID-19 hang in the air for three hours after someone breathes, coughs or talks From late October through November, cases doubled in the state and hospitalizations have risen sharply, "putting our people, our health system, and our economy in as dangerous a position as we faced in March 2020," the document spelling out new restrictions states.

The spike in cases of COVID-19 in recent weeks have outdone the infection rates in March that led to a statewide shutdown of businesses, and sheltering orders that limited all but essential activity.

Mathematical modeling studies show infection rates are higher in indoor settings, said Dr. Chris Spitters, of the Snohomish County Health District. "So indoor settings with masks off is just not something that our overall society can tolerate at this time. With due sadness and compassion for the restaurateurs, this is an incredibly difficult blow for them, but we don't know what else to do," he said.

"We're not alone in this. All across the country and the world, at moments like this, closing down virtually all indoor gatherings in public spaces is part of the recipe for trying to navigate out of the vortex we're in."

In his announcement of new restrictions, Gov. Jay Insee spelled out a timeline of attempts to quell the virtual spread: with springtime sheltering orders, a July 2 halt on phase advancement for counties, and a mask mandate on July 24.

Snohomish County is in Phase 2 of 4. Phase 3 has an element that is the foundation of catering businesses – the phase that allows for larger groups to gather for weddings and events.

Guidance on restrictions is posted by the governor's office, here:

More information from Inslee's office is here:

Are you making changes to endure the new indoor dining ban? What has worked? What did not work? Share with your neighbors, by telling the Mill Creek Beacon: [email protected].


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