Stakes are high for restaurateurs and staffs as eateries open under COVID-19 Phase 2 rules

Got face masks? Got hand sanitizer? Phase 2 re-opening rules for restaurants require that and more as customers return to favorite businesses, including Pure Bliss Desserts. (Amy Nelson photo © 2020)

By Stella Harvey

— Restaurants and cafés in Whatcom, San Juan and Skagit counties are re-opening — to a profoundly changed environment — after weeks of being able to provide only take-out services due to statewide efforts to thwart the spread of COVID-19.

Since Washington State approved the three northwest counties for Phase 2 of the Safe Start Plan, local businesses have adapted their facilities and practices to meet the new health and safety rules.

The stakes, for failure as well as success, are high.

For business owners, successful re-opening opens means a resumption of much-needed cash flow and reconnecting with their communities of customers.

For employees, it means paydays and the ability to pay bills, along with the return of socialization with coworkers and clientele.

Failure means closing again, already a difficult reality for restaurants in some regions where the virus continues to spread rapidly, or when employees test positive.

‘Drastically changed … daily’

In March, when the state shut down all dine-in restaurants, Pure Bliss Desserts of Bellingham was among those implementing grab-and-go and delivery options for their customers. Owner Andi Vann said that at the beginning of the pandemic, it was difficult to adapt to the ever-changing circumstances. 

“We wanted to limit exposure at our shop, and we needed to be conscientious of who was coming in to work here and their health and [to reinforce our] sanitization process,” Vann said. “It was pretty rigorous and intense for about the first three to four weeks. I felt like something drastically changed on a daily basis.”

Vann said by the end of April, Pure Bliss stationed an employee outside so people could place their orders, pay and receive their goods without coming in contact with any surfaces. Now, the shop is ready to welcome customers back inside after weeks of tailoring their practices to the state’s new safety guidelines.

The team at Calico Cupboard, a bakery and restaurant with three locations in Skagit County, temporarily closed its doors when the pandemic began. General Manager Brenda Schmidt said after being closed for over three months, Calico Cupboard’s team was eager to re-open when Phase 2 began. 

Under Washington’s Phase 2 re-opening plan, restaurants and bars may now offer dine-in service at 50% capacity to parties of five people or less. Bar seating is prohibited, and tables and chairs must be placed far enough apart that people can maintain a six-foot distance from each other. For some small locations, that still means no indoor seating. With summer coming on, some restaurants are moving seating into available outdoor spaces, or considering requesting temporary street closures to create more.

Other changes customers can expect at all establishments include having condiments in single-use containers, using single-use menus and wearing cloth face masks whenever they are not at their tables.

Taking it seriously

In the first weeks of re-opening, restaurateurs are taking the regulations seriously, even turning away customers who arrive without face masks — a rare occurrence in some areas within the three counties but more common in others.

Under the re-opening guidelines, written procedures are required for dine-in service, but the state does not mandate a re-opening inspection. If businesses do not comply, complaints may be filed with Washington State’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH).

Mike Faulk, deputy director of communications for Gov. Jay Inslee, said that complaints will be referred to the appropriate state agencies, such as the Liquor and Cannabis Board, the Department of Labor and Industries and the Department of Licensing. 

The state has implemented a three-tiered process to enforce the new requirements, Faulk said. If a business is not complying, state agencies will first seek to educate the business and ask that they comply voluntarily. If the business still does not follow the rules, the state can suspend the businesses license. If the business continues to operate without making changes, the agency refers the case to the state attorney general, who may take the business to court. 

The new requirements also increase sanitation and safety protocols for restaurant workers. Employees must wear cloth face masks at all times, maintain a six-foot distance from other employees whenever possible and wash their hands and clean all surfaces frequently.

Employers are required to screen their employees for symptoms before they enter the workplace. 

Vann and Schmidt said that before every shift, they take each employee’s temperature and ask if they’re experiencing any symptoms. After they are cleared, employees put on a mask, enter the business, wash their hands and begin working.

Like a new job

Schmidt said after reorganizing each space to comply with state regulations, Calico Cupboard’s Mount Vernon location re-opened on June 4, starting with take-out orders and moving to limited dine-in on June 6. Schmidt said Calico Cupboard first opened with all management staff, and slowly brought employees back on as they got a sense of what the new normal would look like.

Norvel Rogers, manager of Calico Cupboard’s Mount Vernon location, said re-training employees has taken longer than he expected.

“The first day back they’re almost like a new employee again because there are so many different changes,” Rogers said. “The second week was a lot better than the first, just as you get used to the new changes and you feel a lot more comfortable in your job.”

Pure Bliss welcomed their first dine-in customers on June 8 after three weeks of preparation, according to Vann. She said bringing back their 26 employees involved a three-hour training on increasing sanitation and how COVID-19 spreads.

“Customers are going to be on a wide range of incredibly compliant to more resistant or needing to be educated. So I took [this training] really serious [because] we need to have our team on board and understanding why we’re doing this,” Vann said.

Leah Allison, kitchen manager of Pure Bliss, said the process of adhering to the new protocol has mostly been enhancing what Pure Bliss was already doing.

“It has been very strange, just [being in] all brand new territory,” Allison said. “We have always strived to work safe and clean, but I think there is a heightened awareness, particularly among one another. We’re thinking more about the distance we keep from one another, and keeping a clean workspace.”

At the Bellingham City Council meeting on June 8, Erika Lautenbach, director of the Whatcom County Health Department, said that as restaurants re-open, people might think they no longer need to be cautious of spreading COVID-19. Lautenbach said as Whatcom County moves forward, it is important to maintain strict safety precautions so counties can keep its case count low.

“At this point in time, our economy will move forward if businesses are supported and they are able to be safe, and consumers feel as though they have the confidence to go [out] and be safe,” Lautenbach said during the meeting.

Those face masks

Vann said Pure Bliss requires all customers to wear face masks before entering the restaurant.

Schmidt said that at Calico Cupboard, so far, most customers are not complying. 

“None of the customers coming in for [dine-in] wore masks, or very few,” Schmidt said. “We have signage up that requests people to wear masks unless they’re seated at their table, so that was kind of interesting.”

Schmidt said aside from customers not wearing masks, many of the new rules have been easy to tackle, such as frequently sanitizing all surfaces and keeping their capacity at or under 50%. However, other rules are raising unexpected logistical challenges. Schmidt said one of the main issues she sees is kitchen staff having to wear cloth masks for the entirety of their eight-hour shifts. 

“Having that mask on all day is extremely challenging in a hot kitchen when you’re moving around. Restaurant workers are very physical and they have to move quickly,” Schmidt said. “You perspire and get hot under those things and it’s really difficult to breathe your own breath all day.”

While uncomfortable, wearing a face mask for long periods of time is doable in the short-term, according to Schmidt. Schmidt said she has also noticed other challenges, like the unexpected increase in take-out orders. Before the pandemic, Calico Cupboard didn’t offer take-out services. 

Currently, Calico Cupboard’s Mount Vernon location is seeing about half their normal business, with the majority being take-out orders. According to Schmidt, it takes more employees to complete take-out orders, and with less business coming in, they may take a financial hit.

“Even on Sunday, we found that even more people did take-out than dined in,” Schmidt said. 

Even as more unexpected challenges arise, Vann and Schmidt said they are thankful to their customers for helping them weather the storm of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I hope that customers start feeling like it’s okay to start visiting their favorite restaurants because we need the support. If we’re going to be open, we have to have customers to continue,” Schmidt said.

Stella Harvey graduated from Western Washington University with a degree in journalism and women, gender and sexuality studies. She grew up in Seattle, and aspires to be a local government reporter and investigative journalist.