STEVENSON — Clark County is inching closer to Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s Safe Start plan, which will include an all-important rule change for restaurant owners: the ability to resume limited seating and in-person dining service after nearly three months of takeout or delivery.
It’s a step toward normalcy for restaurateurs, but it comes with a whole new set of rules. In the Columbia River Gorge, businesses in Skamania County have spent the past two weeks settling into the Phase 2 routine. Their experiences offer a glimpse at what the local restaurateurs and patrons can expect when Clark County makes the transition.
“We’re starting to feel a bit of a sense of a flow again,” said Mercedes Lux, front-of-the-house manager at Big River Grill in Stevenson.
Seating capacity is the biggest Phase 2 challenge at almost every restaurant. Dining rooms are limited to 50 percent of their usual occupancy in Phase 2, and all tables must be either separated by a physical wall or spaced far enough apart to maintain 6 feet of distance between guests at different tables.
Outdoor seating is already prime real estate for restaurants in the scenic Columbia River Gorge, but it’s become even more important in Phase 2 because the outside tables don’t count toward the 50 percent occupancy limit. Lux said the Big River Grill’s cozy interior limits the number of tables the patrons can use, so the outdoor patio has made a huge difference.
Outdoor or nothing
Down the street at Big T’s Grill, owners Tim and Holly Dudley said outdoor seating is their only option. The restaurant is built into the ground floor of a house, and the floor plan would have forced them to drop from their usual 15 indoor tables to only five — too few to cover the cost of bringing back the rest of the restaurant’s staff.
The Dudleys said they opened their deck seating area when Phase 2 began, but aside from that they plan to stick with their delivery-focused Phase 1 operating model until Phase 3 rolls around.
Big T’s began offering delivery service throughout the lower county when the pandemic began, Tim Dudley said, and it’s been popular enough to maintain the restaurant’s normal profit margin.
“In a single day, I’ll put more than 300 miles on my car doing deliveries,” he said.
A few miles up the road in Carson, Backwoods Brewing Company spent the Phase 1 downtime building a second patio next to its original outdoor seating area. Co-owner Tom Waters said the patio plan had been in the works before the pandemic, but the timing worked out perfectly.
Despite the lack of stools at the bar and tables in the center of the floor, the restaurant’s interior space still had a lively atmosphere on Thursday afternoon, with the air filled with the smell of pizza and the voices of guests at every one of the brewpub’s wall-separated booths. On the patio, every picnic table was in use.
Out-of-town guests are common at Gorge restaurants, but staff at all three restaurants described even more tourist traffic than usual in the past two weeks — much of it from Clark County or the Portland metro area. When Big River Grill opened Thursday, the first customers were a group of friends who had driven out from La Center.
Memorial Day weekend was a particular high point, coming about a week after most of the Skamania restaurants began to restart their in-person operations.
“The Saturday before (Memorial Day), we actually had a record day,” Waters said. “It was the best day we’ve ever had.”
Customer traffic has remained steady since then, and any slowdown tends to get canceled out by the reduced seating. In fact, Lux said she’s hoping Clark County’s jump to Phase 2 will take some of the pressure off tiny Skamania County.
“We’ve looked at really extensive wait times for tables,” she said.
Most restaurants have recalled at least some of their employees, but the traffic isn’t quite enough to fully restaff — and Lux said some restaurant owners appear apprehensive about pulling all of their staff off of unemployment, in case a new round of COVID-19 pushes the county back into Phase 1. A full staff return appears to be a common expectation for Phase 3.
Lux, Waters and the Dudleys all said customers have generally been patient and understanding when it comes to new COVID-19 safety rules. The only exception was a rule requiring restaurants to keep a log of the names and contact details of all customers for contact tracing purposes.
Many customers were unwilling to provide all the information, Holly Dudley said, and it was a relief when Inslee issued a memo on May 15 that changed the contact log from a requirement to a recommendation.
Delivery-only options aren’t always sustainable, and Phase 2 represents a critical lifeline for businesses that are struggling to hold on. Backwoods Brewing is part of the Northbank Brewers Alliance, a brewery guild that includes many Clark County brewpubs, and Waters said he’s eager to see his colleagues get the chance to open their doors.
“I’m excited for them,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of friends who own breweries and taphouses, and they’ve been hurting.”