Since the return of in-store retail, each day begins at Sweetwater Paper & Home with owner Robin Consani hefting out a large sidewalk sign that tells potential customers her shop is open.
Then as she returns inside her business she locks the door behind her.
It may sound counter intuitive to both welcome guests and lock them out. But as customers return downtown — and now seemingly in droves from counties outside the area — Consani wants to make sure the rules of her store are clear before anyone steps inside.
A post on the door outlines expectations inside in the name of health and safety. Primarily: masks must be worn by those who want to enter.
“It’s gone extremely well,” Consani said. “What little money I might have lost by the few people walking away is going to be more than made up by the people appreciating it.”
The open doors of retailers, restaurants and tasting rooms are drawing customers back to businesses. So much so that guests are ignoring the nonessential travel limitations still in place in most counties. Many are coming from the Tri-Cities, where counties have not yet advanced out of the Phase 1 restrictions of Gov. Jay Inslee’s Safe Start reopening.
While the majority of visitors and local customers are exercising prudent guidelines, the influx of people has some business operators grappling between economic restoration and public health concerns.
“It’s a Catch-22,” said Public House 124 co-owner Matthew Price-Huntington. “You want the business but you also want to maintain a safe and healthy working environment for staff, for customers and for our families.”
On Wednesday, Public House had nearly 155 meal covers, he marveled. That’s a high number for the middle of the week, especially with limited capacity.
“Normally I know the names of 80% of the people in here. I didn’t recognize most of the people,” he said.
Price-Huntington said the business has maneuvered strategically to try to offer the hospitality for which it is known while following the guidelines required by the state.
Maintaining 6-foot distances, for instance, may be more difficult at night when guests have had drinks and are feeling social. So Public House switched its hours to add lunch service not previously offered. Rather than stay open late, the business closes around 8 p.m.
Price-Huntington would like guests to wear face masks when they’re not eating, but it isn’t mandatory. He wishes it was.
“Do you know how much easier that would be?” he posed.
Now he must keep a watchful eye to make sure guests are maintaining the distances required by the state. Masks would help create another layer of safety, he said.
While some organizations, such as the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation, are taking a stronger stance with their messages on masks by asking guests downtown to wear them, there is no countywide proclamation or directive for them at this point.
“Businesses can establish that rule at their door if they’d like,” Commissioner Todd Kimball said Thursday during the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce’s Town Hall webinar series on Phase 3 openings.
Most businesses already have anecdotes of guests who have made known their opposing feelings on masks. The polarization is challenging as operators try to meet the demands set forth for them by the state and while case counts rise.
Walla Walla has 16 active cases with one person hospitalized as of this morning. The Benton-Franklin Health District reports 76 people are hospitalized in the Tri-Cities area with confirmed COVID-19 or its symptoms.
Kathryn Witherington, executive director of the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation, said businesses need support from local leaders in their coronavirus guidelines as they try to make up for three months of lost income with customers filling downtown.
“I don’t want to actively discourage visitors, but I want to make sure when they do come they respect guidelines,” she said.
Masks are a new habit that may become more acceptable for some as they’re normalized in our culture, she said.
On Thursday, Time & Direction Wines founder and winemaker Steve Wells posted new guidelines for his Colville Street tasting room on social media. Among them: the requirement of face masks at the boutique tasting room when not seated at a table. He will not accommodate groups greater than five people even at separate tables.
“Allowing groups of more than five people is directly contrary to the state of Washington’s Safe Start plan, and I will not allow it to be deviated from,” he wrote. “I want my business to remain open after three months of being closed, so I am following everything that I need to do to remain open.”
Furthermore, those living in counties not yet advanced to Phase 2 are asked not to visit the tasting room, or for that matter Walla Walla, Wells wrote.
“Your county is still not allowing nonessential travel, and while most of us believe wine is essential, there is a reason why your county has not been allowed to move into the next phase.”
Wells is not alone. Designated marketing organization Visit Walla Walla has tried to encourage potential visitors to consider traveling to the community when the time is right.
“Travelers from outside of the immediate area are discouraged from visiting Walla Walla County during Phase 2, and are reminded by the Washington state secretary of health that ‘staying home is still safest,’ and to ‘stay local’ when venturing out,” the organization’s site says. “Visit Walla Walla looks forward to welcoming guests from outside the area once non-essential is not only permissible in Walla Walla County, but also in the traveler’s county of origin.”
The decision to abstain from promoting economic prosperity through tourism — the organization’s mission — was difficult, said Justin Yax, partner and public relations manager for Visit Walla Walla’s Bend-based contract marketing firm DVA Advertising & Public Relations.
“But it is one that Visit Walla Walla has chosen to follow from both a moral and ethical perspective,” Yax said,
Getting back to business for those in hospitality has been a blessing, said Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen co-owner Island Ainsworth. It’s also more work than it was before the pandemic in terms of maintaining guidelines.
When she can’t serve guests the way they’d like, the interactions are emotionally exhausting.
“This is how it always starts out: ‘I know the rules say only five people,’” Ainsworth said.
The rest of the sentence can be filled with an array of requests for exceptions — anniversaries, birthdays, the occasion of a vacation after three months at home.
No one relates to the constraints of distance more than she does, she said.
“I am a hugger. Everyone who knows me knows I hug,” she said.
But she worries about the number of people coming from out of town and the number of people opposed to wearing masks while not eating or wanting to break from the state guidelines.
“I’m not taking away your rights. I’m asking you to be courteous and wear a mask when you’re walking through a common area in my business.
“I have hand sanitizer. I’m wiping things down constantly. How much of what I’m doing is in vain if people come in willy-nilly? It’s kind of heart-breaking.”