It’s not a comeback if they never left.
But rising instances of COVID-19 infections have led to major changes locally, including pausing most of what little in-person school was being …
It’s not a comeback if they never left.
But rising instances of COVID-19 infections have led to major changes locally, including pausing most of what little in-person school was being allowed, modification of many people’s holiday plans, and a second government-mandated prohibition on indoor dining in restaurants.
However, breakfast, lunch, dinner (and happy hour), much like the proverbial show, must go on.
To that end, a number of local eateries are adapting outdoor seating for use in the colder, wetter months with tents and heaters that protect diners from the elements even as spacing and air flow protects them from COVID.
Kris Nelson, owner of several Port Townsend bars and restaurants, including The Old Whiskey Mill and Sirens, among others, has long been working with the city to keep the streeteries open and devise a plan that allows restaurants to use tents to continue outdoor dining.
Nelson now has tents up at Alchemy Bistro and Wine Bar and The Old Whiskey Mill, with arrangements at Sirens in the works.
The customer response was effusive and immediate.
“As we were opening people were sitting,” Nelson said. “We’re hanging the lights up and people are sitting down.”
“People really want a place to go and get waited on and have their food on plates, not in a box, and have a drink and be out and about. But they don’t want to freeze and they want to be safe,” she said. “So you have to make sure to tick all those boxes.”
As part of her preparation and permit filings, Nelson visited other cities in Washington to see other restaurants and streeteries and learn about tents — design, construction, wind resistance.
Not exactly “Restaurant 101.”
“I thought that all I had to master was plumbing,” she laughed. “No, I did not think engineering was going to be on that list.”
Preparations were also begun early at the Spruce Goose Cafe, at Jefferson County International Airport, which has added heaters and covering to its patio area.
“At the end of summer was when we decided to put the cover on,” said owner Andrea Raymor.
“We decided to do that and [add] the heaters because we were concerned that 50 percent capacity inside in the winter was not going to carry us through. So we kind of got that ball rolling just in anticipation of that current status and it became — we didn’t realize how really, really important it was going to be become,” she said.
Already crucial, outdoor dining is obviously that much more important given the second ban on eating inside and an uncertain future, Raymor said.
“It’s the make-or-break for us,” she said.
Customers seem happy to make use of the opportunity.
“[Thursday] we were at least full or mostly full a good portion of the afternoon,” Raymor said. “It was good and the response to the heaters was great.”
All the hoops and hassles are worth it in the end, both owners agreed, if it means safe and happy customers and, just as important, safe and happy employees.
“It is my job and responsibility to make sure that my staff has work,” Nelson said. “It is my job and responsibility to look forward as much as humanly possible and to recognize that things are not always going to be perfect and what is the next thing coming so that you’re not quite so surprised.”
Outdoor dining, she said, has been “literally critical” to her businesses staying open this year.
“As soon as they allowed the streeteries we … were able to get back up to about 80 percent of our normal sales,” she said. “Otherwise, remember we’re restricted inside to 50 percent. And people, frankly, are just more comfortable outside and I really respect that. I understand that, so I want to do everything possible to get people outside where they feel more comfortable.”
And it is, Nelson said, actually quite comfortable.
“Yes, you still have to wear a coat,” she said, “but it won’t be like parka and full-on gloves while trying to eat your burger.”
The second prohibition on indoor dining in restaurants was predictably controversial, with a group of lawmakers and a major hospitality association imploring Gov. Jay Inslee to reconsider his four-week ban, claiming the economic effects will be devastating, and others alleging the hospitality industry is insufficiently concerned with workplace safety.
Nelson’s reaction to the order was disappointed confusion, and she said a complete ban was unnecessarily harsh as there have been no new infections linked to restaurants in the state.
“I really thought that he would say OK, here are some more strict guidelines, we’re going to drop your occupancy a little more or we’re going to make these things more stringent,” she said.
“But I didn’t think he would shut indoor dining altogether because the restaurants have been doing so well at following the rules.”