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Restaurateurs chew on how to operate amid closures

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Maple Counter

Dylan Schatz, the back-of-house manager at Maple Counter, prepares an order for lead server Bri Ruiz to take to a customer’s table this morning. On Tuesday the Walla Walla restaurant, along with other restaurants and bars in the state, will be limited to takeout orders only to slow the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 disease.

UPDATE: 11:35 a.m., 3/16/2020

Dine-in restaurant service is off the table for at least two weeks under the latest directive from Gov. Jay Inslee.

In a press conference that started after deadline this morning, Inslee extrapolated on his Sunday evening announcement to detail who's affected and the minimum timeline.

The governor said the executive proclamation expected to be signed today will temporarily shut down dine-in service at restaurants, bars and taverns, coffee shops, doughnut shops, ice cream shops, wine tasting rooms, and brewery tap rooms.

Beyond drinking and dining establishments, it applies to beauty salons, barber shops, nail salons, tattoo parlors, theaters, bowling allies, gyms and fitness clubs, youth sports organizations and youth clubs.

The change will be in effect until at least March 31. Inslee said it could be extended after that.

The measure is intended to curb the transmission of the novel COVID-19 coronavirus, which has grown to 769 infections in the state as of this morning, he said.

Washington state represents just 2 % of the U.S. population but 20 % of coronavirus infections, Inslee said.

He said physical distance is "our only weapon available to us right now."

"We are not powerless against this virus, but we have one effective means of defeating it," he said.

Inslee first announced Sunday the statewide movement that today temporarily shuts down restaurants, bars and entertainment/recreational facilities across the state.

All gatherings with more than 50 people will be prohibited, and those with under 50 will not be allowed unless criteria for hygiene and social distancing are met.

In today's press conference, he said event organizers who try to bring people together in smaller numbers are missing the point.

"If you’re thinking about having a group with 49 people, think again," Inslee said.

The changes will be felt by every person of every age. There should be no expectation for residents that life can carry on as usual.

"If we are living a normal life right now we are not doing our job as a Washingtonian," he said.

Places that will be allowed to continue are grocery stores, retail operations that observe the criteria for hygiene and social distancing, convenience stores, food banks and banks.

“I know there will be significant economic impacts to all our communities,” Inslee said in his announcement Sunday. “But every hour counts as we bend the curve of infection.”

In the immediate wake, restaurant and other operators began brainstorming how to continue with takeout and delivery options to continue service without devastation to their businesses and employees.

Many that serve breakfast woke this morning still open for business until more details, including timeline, are revealed.

“I was up all last night,” said Tommy’s Dutch Lunch owner Greg Elmenhurst.

The Pine Street landmark restaurant known for its home cooking employs a small crew of about eight people. But its primary customers are among those in the demographic identified as most vulnerable to the new virus.

Over the last two weeks sales have dropped about 25%, Elmenhurst said. He hopes to keep a small staff in rotation to offer takeout service. But he doesn’t expect his regular clientele to be among those driving in for such service either.

He encouraged employees to begin filing for unemployment.

A slew of operators took to social media Sunday to reassure customers they’ll remain open for business. Many have started posting specials as an enticement, too.

Sweet Basil Pizzeria said its First Avenue spot will remain on its usual schedule. The only difference is that guests will have to take their food to-go. The business is also offered free delivery, co-owner Stephenie Bowen said. Beer growlers and bottles of wine will be among the delivered items.

The impacts are potentially far-reaching as schools close, companies that can shift to work-from-home models, parents seek resources for their kids and fewer public spots are available to decompress outside of the home.

Restaurateurs said they understood the health protections but continue to need clarity on how financial resources will protect them and their employees.

At Ten Ton Coffee in Waitsburg, owners said on social media they’ll immediately close their dining room and offer takeout only of pastries. They’ll use the next two days to evaluate a plan moving forward.

The Port of Columbia and Dayton Chamber of Commerce planned to reach out to restaurateurs to see how they could work together on marketing services to the community for continuity.

In Walla Walla on Sunday, a new Facebook group was formed to serve as a channel for restaurants and eateries to share their plans.

“Walla Walla Local Curbside, Takeout & Delivery Restaurants” was started by Cole Massey.

“I think sharing things like this in public helps people process better,” Massey said this morning.

He said he envisions it serving as a directory to the general public, as well as a direct chain of communication from restaurants, breweries, tasting rooms, coffee shops and more.

He said he was first inspired to help spread the word on behalf of his many friends in the restaurant industry. Among them: Dan Thiessen of Walla Walla Steak Co.

Just Friday the business had announced its revision to close Mondays and Tuesdays and introduce new Family Dinner packages available for takeout and a “Dining In” delivery service that brings dinner from the business or sibling Crossbuck Brewing, along with a bottle of wine or crowlers or growlers of beer, to diners’ doors.

The service was just getting off the ground when restrictions were announced for restaurants.

“Walla Walla is a community built on close families and friendships, neighbors helping each other, and plain old-fashioned hard work” a responding post from the steak company said Sunday. “We are stronger together.”

The post was a reminder of the pickup and delivery services. It also served an update that the operation’s mobile kitchen, Angus Prime, is in the works as a drive-through food truck.

Wingman Birdz & Brewz owner Brendon Mendoza, too, had been making preparations at his downtown Walla Walla restaurant before Sunday’s announcement.

“We took half of our chairs and bar stools out to spread the dining room apart, removed table top items, and started slimming down staff each shift,” he said. “We didn’t see a dramatic fall in sales until after the school closure announcement and then every hour we felt it through the weekend.”

The sentiment was shared by several other operators who said the weekend’s drops in customers were a telling sign.

Mendoza said he began offering delivery service almost a year ago as a way to expand his business model. The fees are high, he said. As an auxiliary sales stream, though, it was worth it. Now that it’s the only way to operate, along with curbside service, he’ll evaluate best practices to sustain the business and the employees, he said.

“My staff has been great and supportive of everything we have tried to do to scrape by,” he said. “They all have families to support so I feel responsible for helping them for as long as I can …”

Inslee said today he is "intensely interested" in finding ways to financially assist displaced workers. He believes sick leave programs already in place in the state provide a foundation for that and should be utilized.

He also said he would like to see the federal government include pandemics under disasters that open the compensatory window to displaced employees.

How the timeline for the closures will work is not entirely determined.

Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, health officer for Public Health – Seattle & King County, said the outbreak will likely go on for months. Efforts made to curtail transmission today won't be measurable for at least a month, he said.

Past experience and the experience in other communities and countries with social distancing has made a difference, he said.

At the end of the month, officials will decided how to proceed by re-evaulating logistics associated with implementation and also whether residents are complying.

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Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 509-526-8321.

Vicki covers business and economic development, including tourism, the Port of Walla Walla and the Strictly Business column, as well as features. She has been reporting for the Union-Bulletin since late 2001.