Washington state restaurants need more relief, not premature reopening plans

Nearly 2,400 restaurants in Washington permanently closed in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing shutdowns and restrictions. While some eateries have tried to make do with take-out and outdoor tents for dining, unemployment in the industry is high; over 71 thousand jobs were lost in hospitality between Nov. 2019 and Nov. 2020 (Employment Security Department of Washington).

Across the state, vaccine rollout in the state is lagging while new, more virulent forms of the virus have been identified, but restaurants are now being encouraged to reopen at 25% capacity for indoor dining, in a reversal of an earlier, more stringent policy.  In parts of Washington state–which has failed to provide relief to eateries and the hard-working people employed by them–armed fascist organizations have encouraged small restaurants to defy public health measures. 

The impact of closed restaurants is more than just a shortage of tasty, cooked food served somewhere other than your own home. “A restaurant is an anchor of the community. Ideally it is a place where people connect and feel welcome,” explained Washington resident Manuel Macias, a chef and restaurant industry veteran. 

In Washington, public health measures have made it hard for restaurants to stay in business. As a result, restaurant owners, especially in more conservative parts of the state, have provided a fertile ground for fascist organizers to take advantage of their plight. Along with “anti-mask” rallies, groups such as Patriot Prayer, Washington Three Percenters, and the Proud Boys have supported some restaurant and bar owners in defying the restrictions, even going so far as to physically threaten state employees attempting to enforce public health orders.

On February 1, seven counties in Washington state–comprising the state’s largest population centers and biggest businesses, including a massive restaurant and food service industry–moved forward into “Phase 2” of the state’s reopening plan. Under the new rules, restaurants may resume indoor dining with a 25% cap on capacity. These counties moved into Phase 2 after the state relaxed its own rules around reopening. 

Initially the state had set four metrics that counties must meet before moving on to the next phase. These metrics required drops of 10% in infections and hospitalizations due to COVID-19, ICU occupancy rates under 90%, and a test positivity rate of under 10%. Just a few weeks later, the state amended its rules and allowed reopening in counties meeting just three out of the four metrics.

This is despite the state’s haphazard vaccine rollout and new, more contagious strains of the virus. The past three months were the deadliest Washington state has seen, with hundreds killed by the coronavirus and thousands more infected.

While restaurants are being allowed to open for indoor dining at 25% capacity, restaurant workers are not included as essential workers in the state’s vaccine schedule for Phase 1b Tier 2 (essential workers over 50) or in 1b Tier 4 (essential workers under 50). This despite research showing that line cooks have the highest COVID-19 mortality rate of any profession. (University of California-San Francisco study

The policy pivot came after months of defiance of public health measures by some small restaurateurs, as well as opposition from the food and dining lobby, and Republicans and corporate Democrats. In late January, the first hearing was held for Senate Bill 5114, which would have immediately moved all counties in Washington into Phase 2, and would have taken authority over COVID restrictions from the governor and instead placed it with legislators. SB 5114 was co-sponsored by 14 Republicans, two Democrats, and, of the 1637 people who registered for the hearing online, 1500 people indicated their support. The bill is currently in committee in the Senate. 

A year of inadequate relief programs  from all levels of government have left communities and individuals fending for themselves. Much of the  Paycheck Protection Program loan program, intended to stem job losses by providing cash to businesses for payroll, ended up in the pockets of much larger businesses who lined up at the trough

A fully-funded Paycheck Protection Program would have made a huge difference for restaurant owners and workers. Macias explained to Liberation News, “In normal times the restaurant industry has about a 6% return on investment on a good day. So every dollar you spend, you get six cents back. It’s not a great investment and that’s if everything is working right.” 

Instead many have now lost their jobs. “A lot of my friends are restaurant employees and there are no tips, there are no hours. People are struggling.”

“You have to choose between barely making it or going on unemployment, and we know how unemployment has been going in Washington,” he said, referencing the massive fraud and general chaos that befell the Washington state unemployment system at the beginning of the pandemic.

In response to the move towards what may be a risky and premature reopening for indoor dining, Macias stated, “It’s irresponsible of the state to make us make that choice. We have to put food on the table. We have to pay our rents, our mortgages, when they could just cancel them and we’d be safe.” 

Feature image: Liberation collage of photos by (left to right) lasse bergqvist  and Melanie Lim on Unsplash

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