From Forks to Brinnon, restaurant owners and managers are slowly reopening their doors under relaxed COVID-19-related Safe Start restrictions that took effect Monday — and requiring employees to wear face masks.
Under Gov. Jay Inslee’s Phase 2 rules, eateries that, since March 16, have been closed to all but take-out service can revive indoor seating to 50 percent of capacity with tables 6 feet apart — minus bar and counter seating.
The new restrictions also apply to taverns.
Jefferson County officials, who received approval May 23 for Phase 2, had agreed to move to that level of opening the economy at the same time as Clallam County, which was notified Thursday it was good to go.
Restaurant employees are required to wear face masks, a rule that applies to all statewide businesses operating under Inslee’s Safe Start plan beginning June 8 except for jobs in which there is no in-person interaction.
Under Phase 2 guidelines, restaurant owners are required to post signage at their entrance to “strongly encourage” customers to wear cloth face coverings as well when they are not seated at a table.
“We’re all wearing them,” Amy Gehrke, a server at Halfway House restaurant in Brinnon, said Tuesday, adding she is making them available to patrons.
Gehrke, whose parents own the eatery, said she can open 40 percent of her 48 seats under the 6-foot rule.
For the time being, she’s keeping the same staff that was on duty when only take-out service was allowed; she can’t bring everybody back.
That could change by the end of June or beginning of July, when Phase 3, if it’s approved, would allow 75 percent capacity.
Gehrke said Halfway House was unable to obtain federal COVID-19 relief funds in the first go-round because funding ran out. She’s waiting for word on funding from the second program.
Halfway House relies on tourists and campers who visit and stay at nearby Dosewallips State Park, which reopened for day-use Monday but remains closed for camping.
“Summer is how we make our money to get through the winter,” Gehrke said.
“We are optimistic, but it’s going to be slow going for a while.”
On top of a cap on customers, Gehrke said hamburger is up to $6.40 a pound and steak has doubled in price, a struggle for the restaurant when the menu serves a clientele whose income largely relies on Social Security.
Dee Gardner, owner of Joshua’s Restaurant and Lounge in Port Angeles, can still seat close to 100 customers, but she has the advantage of four different rooms to separate customers while leaving the sit-down counter empty.
Her staff uses paper napkins when delivering plates, and they disinfect salt and pepper shakers after every seating.
Gardener said take-out service included alcoholic beverages to go — allowed by the state Liquor and Cannabis Board — to the satisfaction of one customer who came in every night for his White Russian.
But take-out-only was not like having the door open for customers.
“We just are really happy to be open and to see our people,” Gardner said Tuesday.
“They were excited last night to be able to come.”
At Sully’s Drive-In in Forks, the restaurant has had enough take-out orders to stay open with a full 13-person staff, but Monday added four booths for indoor dining, said Stacy Gaydeski, an assistant manager.
Sully’s shut down for five weeks through May 3, and it returned to an outpouring of customers hungry for the restaurant’s famed burgers.
“The community has been fantastic,” Gaydeski said.
Tables are being sanitized after every meal, but she is not looking forward to wearing a face mask, figuring she can tolerate it for her five-hour shifts.
“I think it’s kind of silly, in my opinion,” Gaydeski said.
Server Shannon Kennedy said business was slow Tuesday at Hi-Way 101 Diner in Sequim, where the 93-person-capacity restaurant had 43 seats at 13 tables, all 6 feet apart.
Customers may be “a little nervous” about going out, Kennedy said.
As one sanitation measure, servers took care of their own customers, unable under Phase 2 restrictions to cruise around to fill empty coffee cups and otherwise help their fellow workers.
Nine counter seats were empty, but the staff was back to full strength, Kennedy said.
Not all restaurants are able to open this week.
H20 Waterfront Bistro owner Young Johnson said her business, a block east of the Black Ball Ferry Line dock in Port Angeles, has been hit hard by an overall lack of tourists and the shutdown of the Coho ferry, which fell victim to Canadian COVID-19 travel restrictions on foreign visitors.
“Tourism is down, and we’re still under the threat of COVID,” Johnson said Tuesday.
“It isn’t realistic to open up full-time and bring my employees back on and take them off unemployment.
“I can’t guarantee them the hours.”
Johnson fears the virus may come roaring back in the fall, as health officials have suggested.
“I’ll wait and see what it looks like during Phase 2 and then reconsider closer to Phase 3,” she said.
Phase 2 guidelines for restaurants, churches, recreation and other activities are at tinyurl.com/PDN-ActivityGuidelines.
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].