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Some Pierce County restaurants open dining rooms under new open-air rules

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Like a lot of restaurant owners this weekend, Kerry Vetters is shopping for a carbon dioxide monitor. 

The carbon dioxide monitors can give air quality measurements that will be one vital measure for Pierce County restaurants that want to open their dining rooms under new Washington state “open-air” guidelines announced this week. 

“That’s why I’m getting the reader to make sure we will qualify. And if we don’t, then we don’t do it,” said Vetters, co-owner of the Tipsy Tomato, a bar and restaurant with a killer pizza menu in Tacoma’s Oakland neighborhood. 

 “It’s different everyday but we are trying to survive and be safe at the same time. It is frustrating spending so much money for the rules that change every week. But if I can get more butts in seats in a safe environment, then I will,” said Vetters.

The Tipsy Tomato is open with outdoor dining right now, but Vetters is hopeful her restaurant will meet the new requirements to offer open-air dining in her dining room. 

ABOUT THOSE GUIDELINES

At least one of the four guideline options mirrors what’s been allowed for a few months – outdoor dining under covered temporary structures – but two of the new options give a pathway, in certain circumstances, to open dining rooms for 25 percent capacity.

But there are catches. Lots of catches. And the rules are complicated. Dining spaces must fit a narrow criteria to qualify as open-air spaces. That criteria includes dining rooms that have permeable walls, meaning something like large bay doors that can be flung or slid open, or a large bank of windows providing large-scale airflow.

Additionally, those options require constant air monitoring. The new requirements say the measurement for carbon dioxide must be consistently below 450 parts per million when diners are inside. Capacity in an open-air dining situation must be at 25 percent. Seating must be six or fewer from no more than two households and tables must be well spaced. 

And the list of guidelines goes on and can be read in their entirety here on the state’s website. There is more guidance here. The guidelines were released this week on the state’s web page for reopening businesses.

Those new guidelines left Pierce County restaurant owners spinning over whether their bank of windows or bay doors could be considered a permeable wall, or whether they could get their carbon dioxide readings below 450 ppm at 25 percent capacity. 

The Washington Hospitality Association, which has been pushing for more leeway for restaurants to reopen, lent its assistance to restaurant owners with an online toolkit with guidance on the newly released open-air guidelines. 

PHASE ONE IS STILL IN EFFECT

These guidelines are not meant to replace the phased guidance given by Gov. Jay Inslee two weeks ago. The open-air guidance is in addition to those guidelines. The “Healthy Washington – Roadmap to Recovery plan” divides Washington state into regions and once a region hits enough criteria to enter Phase 2, that opens a pathway for indoor dining without meeting the open-air restrictions. You can read all about the Healthy Washington plan here. Pierce County currently is in Phase 1 of that plan. 

RESTAURANTS ARE ALREADY OPERATING UNDER OPEN-AIR GUIDELINES 

Pierce County restaurant owners reported that regulatory agencies that inspect restaurants – including the health department and Liquor and Cannabis Board –  told the owners there could be more information available soon to help owners interpret the new open-air rules. I’ll update this story as I hear more about guidelines provided to restaurants. 

The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department added links on its website to the new state open-air guidelines.

It’s important to note these regulations are new and as has been the pattern over the last nine months of pandemic restrictions, it takes a handful of days for regulatory agencies to interpret the new guidelines and to distribute information to agents that do the inspecting.  

Restaurants aren’t waiting for that guidance to activate their open-air dining spaces. Several businesses with roll-up doors, banks of windows and other permeable walls are opening now. Already open with limited open-air seating are Duke’s on Ruston Way, Rock the Dock and Dock Street Deli on the Foss Waterway, Fierce County Cider in South Hill, The Spar Tavern in Old Town and Hank’s in the Stadium neighborhood. 

Bring a mask and wear a heavy jacket. Restaurant owners report their open-air dining rooms are just as chilly as dining outdoors. Do not expect dining to be at a comfortable temperature because to follow regulations, doors and windows must be left open. 

WHAT THE RESTAURANT OWNERS SAY 

I checked with multiple restaurant owners on how they’re interpreting the guidelines. 

Here’s what restaurant owners said. 

The rules seem clear enough to owners who say that they think their large bay doors or their wall of windows ensure safe operation. Plus, restaurant owners interviewed for this story are monitoring air quality with carbon dioxide meters. 

Adrielle Flinders, a third-generation Tacoma restaurant owner who operates The Spar Tavern, Gallucci’s Catering and Dock Street Deli at her West of the Waterway Events Center, reopened The Spar and her deli for open-air dining with limited seating three days ago. 

The Spar has a bank of windows lining an entire wall that Flinders is leaving open. At Dock Street Deli, a large collapsible glass wall slides open, providing an unfettered floor-to-ceiling opening that spans dozens of feet. She has a monitor measuring air quality continually. 

“The health department has told us we interpreted the rules correctly but won’t give us anything In writing. The liquor control board said they don’t know anything about this but aren’t fining us. We are just rolling with it,” said Flinders. 

The  Washington Hospitality Association  recommends restaurant owners get approval in writing that their spaces quality for open-air dining. Restaurant owners said they’re working now to get that in writing, but the guidelines are so new, they’re being told that the rules are still being interpreted. 

“We have every window and door wide open, but people are loving it. They are still wearing their masks, social distancing and following all rules. We care and want people safe,” she said. 

John Thorburn, co-owner of Fierce County Cider in South Hill, opened Friday for 25 percent capacity at his cider production and tasting facility. The space is equipped with oversized floor-to-ceiling roll-up doors that provide excellent air flow. He also is offering outdoor dining in a covered patio space. 

Said Thorburn, “Yesterday (January 15) was our first real day of having people in the open air seating. Everyone was respectful of the new rules and capacity limits. I think people are really excited to see any progress toward more indoor options. Hopefully it’s the first step to reopening.” 

He added, “The monitors are not all that expensive, though there are more expensive models out there. We’ve easily spent more than that just in propane alone to keep the outdoor patio comfortable since November.” 

Gwendolyn Stence, owner of Rock The Dock, one of my favorite places in Tacoma for a pastrami sandwich, opened up for indoor service. An entire wall of her restaurant consists of sliders that open fully to the waterfront. 

“I am open inside at 25 percent and very carefully following all safety protocols,” she said. In addition to the wall of sliding doors being open, she also has other doors in the restaurant open as extra precaution. 

She’s relieved restaurants have an option for some level of service in their dining rooms. The guidelines, however, are tricky to navigate. “We, as bar and restaurant owners, have been relying on social media and news media to let us know what the current rules are,” she said. 

That leaves restaurants in a vulnerable position of having to hope they’re right about their interpretations. “When you are drowning, literally treading water and gulping for air, when you see a lifeboat drift by, you don’t stop to read the rules of boarding. We’ve all scrambled aboard and we are playing the beg forgiveness rather than ask permission angle out of sheer survival.” 

She added, “I feel horrible for the venues that have spent countless dollars on each new lifeboat only to be told to get out.” 

She’s hoping this one sticks. 

RESOURCES FOR RESTAURANT OWNERS 

BORROW A METER: Steve Ramsey, co-owner of Stink Cheese + Meat in Tacoma’s St. Helens neighborhood advises restaurant owners to borrow before they buy. I’m looking into the Co2 monitors but I’m cheap. So I think I’m going to borrow one to test our PPM,” he said. 

CALIBRATE THE METER: Krista Linden, who is offering limited-capacity seating in the open-air event space at her Farm 12 restaurant in the Puyallup Valley, recommends that restaurant owners be sure to calibrate their carbon dioxide meters.

WEBINAR: The Washington Hospitality Association is co-hosting a webinar on open-air seating at 10 a.m. on January 22. Find details here –https://wahospitality.org/blog/event/webinar/?instance_id=887

OUTDOOR SEATING LIQUOR PERMIT: For those with liquor licenses who want to add outdoor seating, visit this page to start your research. 

READ THE REGULATIONS 

Washington state’s new open-air and outdoor dining rules are listed on this page: https://www.governor.wa.gov/issues/issues/covid-19-resources/covid-19-reopening-guidance-businesses-and-workers 

Here’s a direct link to the Washington State revised guidelines on open air and outdoor dining: https://www.governor.wa.gov/sites/default/files/COVID19%20Outdoor%20Open%20Air%20Seating%20Guidance.pdf

And there’s more guidance from the state here: https://www.governor.wa.gov/sites/default/files/COVID19%20Restaurant%20and%20Tavern%20Guidance.pdf

Here’s the Washington Hospitality Association toolkit for open-air dining: https://hub.wahospitality.org/coronavirus-resource/toolkit-how-to-set-up-outdoor-seating/

The Tacoma Pierce County Health Department has links to open-air dining here on its website – https://www.tpchd.org/healthy-people/diseases/human-coronavirus/covid-19-information-for-restaurants

SOME DINERS WILL WANT TO CONTINUE DINING OUTDOORS

Check out my list of Pierce County restaurants with outdoor dining in structures that are covered and heated here.

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