As a bar owner, there are two topics he steers customers away from arguing, says Cole Street Brewery owner Sean McDonald: Politics and religion.
Now, he’s added a third to that list: COVID-19 rules.
While most customers are great, a few on both sides of the mask-wearing mandates have clashed with each other in his bar. His rule: Take it outside.
“You can ask any business owner in town,” he said. “It’s such a hard line, where 50 percent of people are pro-mask and 50 percent are anti-mask. … I make no judgement either way. I prevent anybody from making judgements against those other people, and I don’t let that happen in my establishment.”
In Washington, the COVID-19 death rate has hovered around a third of its winter peak for months. Nearly half the state is fully vaccinated. A spike of cases around late April is waning. The state is on-track for a full reopening by the end of the month.
In this transitional stage of the pandemic, customers, employees and business owners alike are calculating when and where they feel comfortable coming inside, bumping shoulders and ditching masks.
Here’s how a few of them have navigated.
EYES ON THE PRIZE
Washington plans to lift “the vast majority” of COVID-19 restrictions by June 30, per Gov. Jay Inslee. Most public spaces will return to full capacity, but it won’t end Inslee’s state of emergency declaration, which affords broad power to issue public safety orders.
The Sequel Books in Enumclaw plans to allow customers to sit inside and drink coffee at that time, co-owner Susan Lissy said. This week, she and her husband Michael are bringing back their sole employee who they had to lay off last year.
They’re excited to see things open up and hope more people choose to get vaccinated.
“We’re just really happy,” Lissy said.
The Sequel closed for a couple of months in the late spring last year and briefly offered curbside service before reopening in June. Hard work and good luck helped along the way.
Their landlord – Enumclaw City Attorney Mike Reynolds – forgave two months of rent, Lissy said, and they used their shut-down time to inventory books, which required the store to be closed anyway.
On an early June day, Colette Sweers took her boyfriend Trevor Curley to visit The Sequel. It was Curley’s first time walking around downtown Enumclaw.
“It feels really nice to walk around a store like this, and be able to look at books again,” said Curley, who is from Tacoma. “I’ve been trapped in my room for like over a year now. It feels so good.”
Visiting stores early on in the pandemic felt weird, Sweers said, given the intense mask-wearing, social distancing and time-limit rules. It’s nice to be able to browse at a bookstore without getting kicked out after 15 minutes, she said.
“About a year ago I came in, and only two or three of the shops were open in Enumclaw,” said Sweers, who is from Federal Way. “Almost every shop … is open now.”
Morgan DeKnight, general manager at Jackson’s in Enumclaw, said it’s “definitely been a struggle” for the restaurant, but they’ve adapted and kept their heads above water – to the surprise of some who mistakenly thought they’d gone out of business.
“I still run into people at the store, and they’ll ask me ‘What are you doing for work now that Jackson’s is closed?’ We’re not closed. Just open five days a week.”
Jacksons was already moving from a “pizza-and-pasta” type restaurant to a steakhouse, and the pandemic hastened that decision, DeKnight said. It allowed them to tighten up the restaurant’s large menu, a necessity given the staff has fallen from about 40 people pre-pandemic to 10 currently.
The majority of DeKnight’s staff now are teenagers. It’s an excellent crew, but they need a lot of training, he said, and the June 30 reopening will be a test of their skills.
“I’ve got a chef back there, very very young, who cooks amazing food,” DeKnight said. “And he’s building up his team back there. So we’ve got almost a month before we get to that point.”
McDonald took over Cole Street Brewery’s new, second location in July 2019 but wasn’t able to open until March of last year. Ironically, he finally got his permit from the city the day Gov. Jay Inslee shut the state down.
“I got the permit at 11, and the bars were shut down at noon,” McDonald said.
But business is starting to “perk up,” especially with the vaccine roll-out, he said. The pandemic spurred businesses to talk and work together more. And as vaccinations increase and rules loosen, the tensions between pro and anti-maskers are starting to flatline, McDonald said.
STAYING SAFE, STAYING OPEN
“Unfortunately, to shut down a business like mine, you basically take the business out,” said David Bozich, who has owned Enumclaw Music since 2012. “We have 14 or 15 teachers in here. … If they don’t have lessons, they don’t get paid.”
Seven of the store’s eight employees were laid off around the beginning of the lockdowns, and federal relief funds weren’t enough to sustain the business forever. But the pressure COVID-19 put on his business isn’t unique, Bozich said. It’s thrown the same challenges at him that any competing business would: How do I respond to losing customers? How do I adapt?
“If I had another music store open down the street, I would be in the same exact situation that I’m in now. … Blaming it on COVID is not what a smart business person does.”
So the store pivoted to online commerce where possible. They kept fixing instruments, which didn’t require customers in the store. Online lessons worked for some, though not all, of the instructors. Bozich brought the store back to three employees.
“We had to be as careful as we could, but still … serve our customers, and stay open,” Bozich said. “And remarkably, we had enough money to stay open, and pay our bills.
Bozich won’t ask for proof of vaccinations, which from his perspective would be discriminatory and would divide his customers. And he said he couldn’t afford to turn away non-mask wearing customers.
“It’s not a game. It’s life and death, and it’s life and death for them, too. They have to make a decision (as to) whether or not they feel comfortable wearing a mask.’
Like many across the food industry, DeKnight and McDonald have had trouble hiring experienced employees.
Between both brewery locations, McDonald has five employees out of the 20 he’d like to have. And it’s hard to compete with the regular unemployment benefits many laid-off food service workers are receiving, McDonald said.
“I don’t have any bargaining room,” McDonald said. “I’m at the point where there’s nothing to give.”
McDonald said communication from health officials has been lacking and that he’d like more advance notice when the rules do have to change.
“Obviously when this first happened, we didn’t know what was going on and it was an emergency,” McDonald said. “We now have an idea. … (I’d like) having some lead time, so we can make a game plan so we know how to pivot and get through it.”
Announcing the June 30 reopening a month in advance was a good step, he said, though on the other hand, it would be nice to rip the bandaid off now and get more customers in.
In general, the health guidelines have been clear to Lissy. The Sequel owners know what they’re supposed to do and get updates from the county every week or so outlining the rules.
Up until late May, The Sequel required all customers to wear a mask. Now, Lissy said, they’re still asking customers to wear one but not requiring it.
“Wearing a mask is not a big deal,” she said. “We have a daughter (who is) a nurse who puts on heavy gear every day and manages to save people’s lives. We can certainly walk around the with a mask on.”
But “following the science” goes both ways for Lissy – the June 30 date seems later than necessary to her. Nonetheless, she said the store will follow the rules as laid out.
“I know everybody’s really down on Inslee, but I think he did the right thing,” she said. “I think we needed to shut down. We’ve had family members get sick, we’ve had family members die.”
As the effect of the virus – and the restrictions it spawned – continue to slowly decline, Lissy hopes the division it’s caused starts to wane, too.
“(It’s) caused a lot of people to be angry at each other, and we’re hoping that will resolve.”
A RIGHT TO PRIVACY
Reasonable privacy concerns remain when it comes to masks, vaccinations and other anti-COVID steps.
Central to many of these concerns is HIPAA, or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. It’s a landmark healthcare law which protects the privacy of patient medical records.
And it’s an extremely complicated “behemoth” of a law, said Patricia Kuszler, vice dean of the University of Washington School of Law. She holds degrees in, and is a professor of, both law and medicine at the UW.
The law covers doctors, dentists, nursing homes, pharmacies and many others involved in the healthcare industry. But non-healthcare related businesses like restaurants aren’t covered under HIPAA, so the law has nothing to do with them, said Kuszler, who has taught public health law for about 25 years.
“The focus of HIPAA is not on a right to privacy in a more broad way … but a duty of the healthcare providers, and their business associates, to maintain the confidentiality of medical information that the healthcare entity has access to,” she said.
People have the right not to disclose information they see as private, Kuszler said, and businesses in turn have the right to turn them away.
“You have a right not to be vaccinated,” Kuszler said. “You have a right not to practice safe distancing and masking. But your rights start to ebb when you imperil someone else’s rights. … It is your personal right to do that, but then you lose other opportunities.”
In an email, a Department of Health spokesperson said it’s legal for businesses to require customers and employees to wear masks. As an analogy, just as a business can require new hires to take a urine or blood test, they can require employee vaccinations or mask wearing, Kuszler said.
And though the vaccinated don’t really need to wear masks anymore, she said, there are many who can’t be fully immunized who remain at risk.
“Unvaccinated people need to realize that a lot of people have health problems that are dependent on the population maintaining vaccination, so they don’t become inadvertent carriers of death to someone who had a kidney transplant last year. … We have not conquered this epidemic. That is a fact. We have not. This could come roaring back.”