Evergreen state eateries 'on the brink'

Hagadone News Network | January 4, 2021 1:09 AM

When Terry Eastman heard of Gov. Jay Inslee’s decision to extend a prohibition on table dining in the neighboring state of Washington, he said his heart continued to break for his fellow restaurant owners and their staffs.

“You don’t get into this business if you don’t want to serve people,” said the owner of Sargents Restaurant and Lounge in Hayden and O’Malley’s in Rathdrum. “You don’t get into this if you don’t want to help people. It’s unimaginable. I can’t imagine what they’re going through right now, and not just the restaurant owners, but their employees, as well.”

Inslee faced intense criticism from business owners and representatives of the state’s hospitality industry after announcing Wednesday he was extending his closure of in-person dining — along with gyms, museums, movie theaters and bowling alleys — and customer occupancy restrictions on retailers, hair salons and tattoo parlors. Set to expire Monday, the restrictions will now continue until at least Jan. 11.

The tighter restrictions in Washington has also driven paying customers east along the I-90 corridor into Kootenai County.

“We assume, most weekends, our customers are coming from out-of-town,” said Chris Jimenez, assistant manager at Rancho Viejo in Post Falls. “So we’ve had to make adjustments. In this business, you have to adjust. You can’t just take things as they come. You have to adjust.”

Those adjustments, Jimenez said, includes changing cleaning processes to adapt to changing rush hour, as well as altering schedules to allow for new weekend peak traffic, times that have remained in various states of flux since Idaho re-opened for business in May. But restauranteurs insist that — while Washington’s closed signs have certainly meant more business for Idaho — travelers aren’t only coming from the Evergreen State to visit.

“We’ve had people come through from Rhode Island, Vermont, places you’d never expect," Eastman said. "I think people are just happy we’re open.”

Woody McEvers said he felt nothing but sympathy for his Washington counterparts. The Coeur d’Alene city councilman and owner of Rustlers Roost in Hayden said closing down during the first month of the pandemic at the orders of Gov. Brad Little nearly broke his restaurant; how eateries in Washington weather the renewed restrictions, he said, is anyone’s guess.

“It’s unfortunate for those guys,” McEvers said. “I don’t know how those guys are going to survive it. It’s quite the dilemma, but it’s been going on for so long, and it doesn’t change. I think (Inslee) thinks he’s doing the right thing, but I just don’t know.”

Oscar Saucedo, one of the owners of El Chele, a Salvadoran restaurant in downtown Moses Lake, was blunt in expressing his view: “I hate it, I think we should be opening."

“We have the vaccine, I don’t know what we’re waiting for. We should be open," he said.

Saucedo said El Chele, which opened just as the pandemic hit in early 2020, has been doing just enough take-out business over the last six weeks to get by. But if the closure continues on much longer, he’s not sure how they will manage to stay open.

“Very slow. We haven’t been paying ourselves for so long now. We barely make it every month just to pay our bills,” he said. “If we are closed one more month, I don’t know what we’re going to do. We’ll probably have to find another job or something.”

Republican legislators were dubious about the continued restrictions, which have led to the permanent closure of one-fifth of the state’s 15,000 restaurants and bars and put a number of people out of work.

“The governor says we will get through this together, but he is arbitrarily, without apparent regard for science or data, leaving behind our restaurants and gyms,” said state Senate Republican Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, in a statement issued Wednesday. “He’s making these decisions from the comfort of a state salary that hasn’t skipped a paycheck during his shutdowns.”

Braun noted while it’s too late to “do no harm” to the state’s small business owners, it’s not too late to stop making matters worse.

“We can prevent further harm by ending these unwarranted and cruel restrictions. The governor should work with, rather than against, these businesses, many of which are family owned,” Braun added. “He should trust them to do the right thing — none of them want their customers to get sick.”

State Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, has submitted a bill to be considered during the upcoming legislative session that would require the governor to seek legislative approval for all emergency orders after 30 days.

“This legislation would simply include lawmakers in the decision-making process and ensure that voices from across our state are heard,” Wilson said in a statement.

Anthony Anton, president of the Washington Hospitality Association, said Inslee needs to offer a plan that will pull Main Street businesses “back from the brink.”

“When the governor substantially shut down the hospitality industry in November, he indicated cases would level off and we expected to see a detailed path to reopening,” Anton said in a statement. “Seven weeks later, neither of those things are true. Hospitality operators are falling deeper in the red, hospitality workers remain out of work, businesses are closing, and household bills are going unpaid.”

McEvers said he feels grateful Idaho’s businesses are still open, and that he abides by Little’s mandated health protocols. But he added that the freedom to eat in a restaurant — and the freedom to operate dine-in restaurants in the age of COVID-19 — is something locals see as a norm, while other states see Idaho’s laxed restrictions as a luxury.

“What’s weird right now is seeing new people coming in,” McEvers explained. “You can tell they’re from Washington; they’re a dead giveaway because they ask where they bathroom is. They’ve never been in before. Then we get to talking, and, they say, ‘Yeah, we’re from Washington.’ It’s surprising to watch when they realize that it’s OK to come inside, and that it’s OK to take your mask off when you get to the table, and that it’s OK to go to these places here and enjoy what we have to offer. I think, sometimes, we take it for granted over here. We’re very lucky to live where we live.”

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Charles H. Featherstone of the Columbia Basin Herald contributed to this report.