Shortly after several southwest Washington restaurants took home hefty fines for reopening indoor seating, lawmakers from the region have devised a longshot plan to reopen.
Sen. John Braun, R-Chehalis, said restaurants are growing more and more desperate to reopen and earn income, even as they say they aren’t major contributors to COVID-19 transmission.
“The data shows it’s private interactions in homes, in private settings, that pose most of the challenge (of COVID-19 spread),” he said. “That’s not going away by being harder on restaurants.”
Braun, the Republican leader in the senate, co-sponsored a bill for the 2021 legislative session – which started Monday – alongside Issaquah Democrat Mark Mullet. The bill would allow restaurants to reopen immediately.
It’s among the first opportunities lawmakers have taken to try and change statewide COVID-19 restrictions, which have largely been passed through Gov. Jay Inslee’s office.
The bill, if passed, would effectively put restaurants and other industries, like small gyms, in the second phase of the state’s new “Healthy Washington” reopening plan.
“I think it’s time for the Legislature to weigh in and provide their input on this,” Braun said.
The reopening plan went into effect Monday and starts every region of the state at phase one. To advance, a region must show demonstrable decreases in COVID-19 cases and hospital admissions, an availability of ICU beds and a low rate of positive tests.
The Southwest Washington region hits two out of the four marks. It has enough ICU beds open and COVID-19 cases dropped 27% from Nov. 29 to Dec. 12, according to Clark County Public Health.
But many restaurants throughout the region are getting impatient.
In recent weeks, several restaurants along the Interstate 5 corridor reopened in defiance of state orders. Those included Brock’s Bar and Grill in Woodland, Stuffy’s II Restaurant in Longview, Spiffy’s Restaurant and Bakery in Chehalis, and Farm Boy in Olympia.
The restaurants’ defiance led the state department of Labor & Industries to issue hefty fines and slap them with court orders to stop. Agency officials said they rarely have to take such measures and are trying to protect public health.
“Some people will say, ‘Well you tried to shut them down.’ We are not trying to shut them down,” said agency spokesman Tim Church. “We are trying to get them to comply like almost all the other restaurants in the state are.”
Yet those punishments aren’t deterring other restaurants. Days after the fines, Mark Matthias, owner of Beaches Restaurant & Bar in Vancouver, planned to lead a number of restaurants to reopen, as well. They planned to reopen Monday, the same day the Legislature started.
Matthias on Friday issued a lengthy letter to politicians in the region and the state saying he and his industry have been “shut out.”
“All of the data that is accessible to us shows restaurants are not the high-risk narrative that keeps getting communicated to the public,” he said.
Matthias told OPB he communicated his plans to Labor and Industries, too, saying he’s not taking this step with any political motivations. He said restaurants are safer than if people gather in small groups at private homes.
“We sanitize the entire facility constantly. We have one person assigned to that,” he said. “It’s like painting the Golden Gate Bridge – once you’re done with it, you just start over again. It’s a constant process.”
After seeing the proposal, Mathias called off his reopening plan. He said he wanted to give the bill a chance first.
Restaurants, Braun said, feel like they have no other choice.
“There is a level of frustration and despair that will drive these decisions,” he said. “We need to give them better options.”
Responding to Matthias’ letter, Republican lawmakers pointed to Braun’s legislation. Ann Rivers, R-La Center and a co-sponsor, said it’s been in the works for a while. Rivers’ own son managed a restaurant before it closed, and Braun’s daughter was laid off twice due to restaurant shutdowns.
Rivers noted the legislation has bipartisan support and it could get fast-tracked to a vote in the Senate sometime this week.
“There is some pent-up frustration on both sides of the aisle,” Rivers said. “We were one of the few Legislatures through the United States that didn’t have a special session.”
Still, Democrats who control both chambers of the Legislature have not publicly shown interest in reopening restaurants. But the bill, Braun said, will provoke discussion.
“You can’t be a legislator very long without being an optimist,” Braun said.