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Struggling Washington state restaurants defy closure orders

By LINDA DENG in Seattle | | Updated: 2021-01-15 06:19
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Despite the arrival of two vaccines and recent grants, restaurants in Washington state are still struggling to survive, and some are ignoring state orders related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Farm Boy Drive-In in Olympia, and Spiffy's Restaurant and Bakery in Chehalis reopened their dining rooms in December, publicly defying Governor Jay Inslee's November coronavirus order that prohibited indoor dining.

The owners of the two restaurants will continue to rack up fines and face legal proceedings until they stop serving meals in their dining rooms, Thurston County Judge Chris Lanese ruled.

State Labor & Industries has fined Spiffy's $57,834 and Farm Boy Drive-In $38,556. If Rod Samuelson, the owner of Spiffy's, does not close his dining room, he could face a contempt charge and additional fines.

In November, Inslee issued stricter coronavirus restrictions amid soaring cases, including a mandate to close all indoor dining establishments to slow the spread of the virus.

"It is beyond a reasonable doubt that infections take place in restaurants because it's the place where people speak to each other in close proximity for a prolonged period of time, the governor said. "That is just a scientific reality — there is no dispute about that."

The first in the state to be held in contempt for violating to adhere to this lockdown order, the owners are supported by many restaurants that believe they are providing a safe location for people to gather because they are following strict COVID-19 guidelines.

Jane Boglivi, the owner of Gold Bar's Mountain View Diner, a restaurant that has been in business for 27 years, was asked by King5 News if she was concerned about the health and safety of her customers and staff.

"Of course," she replied. "But in the same breath, we need to make a living. We need to support ourselves. We need to survive."

According to a survey released by the Washington Hospitality Association in December, nearly 3,000 restaurants across Washington closed during the first six months of the pandemic, and the numbers are still growing.

Seattle was the hardest-hit city in the state, with 624 bars and bistros having closed permanently from last March to September. Among the closures, independent restaurants represented an overwhelming majority.

Consumer spending at Washington restaurants remained well below normal in October, with sales down about 37 percent on average from 2019. Only 3 percent said they expected sales to improve over the next three months, and 46 percent feared they would be out of business in six months without additional relief funds from the federal government.

In December, the state announced a $100 million grant prioritizing small businesses, the third and largest grant to date. Two earlier Working Washington grant rounds were for $10 million each. About 1,400 businesses received Round 1 awards, and 1,570 businesses received Round 2 awards.

Anthony Anton, CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association said on Jan 5, however, it's not enough to help the businesses.

The state Department of Commerce launched the fund application portal on Dec 2 and received more than 28,000 applications by Dec 16.

Inslee announced a new COVID-19 recovery plan on Jan 5 that splits the state into eight regions based on healthcare resources.

There are two reopening phases, and every region is starting in phase one. While a few restrictions will be relaxed for indoor gyms and entertainment in Phase 1, indoor dining remains prohibited until a region advances to the second phase, when it would be allowed at 25 percent capacity.

"It's been a challenge, and to hear that announced today was disheartening. It just doesn't seem right why restaurants are being punished or closed when we're doing everything possible to reopen up, Theo Martin, the owner of Island Soul in South Seattle, told KOMO News.

On Dec 21, the US Congress approved a $900 billion pandemic stimulus package.

"Anything will help, and hopefully there will be enough to go around to everybody who needs it," Thomas Wilhite, owner of Palmers East in Redmond, said to King5 News.

The National Restaurant Association said that more than 110,000 restaurants have closed permanently during the pandemic. In a letter to Congress, the organization declared that "more than 500,000 restaurants of every business type — franchise, chain and independent — are in an economic free fall."

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