“Definitely not ideal.”
“Rock and a hard place.”
Those were the reactions from the owners and managers at several Vancouver-area breweries, taverns and tasting rooms when asked how their businesses would be impacted by Gov. Jay Inslee’s announcement Thursday that bars statewide must suspend indoor seating and service.
The new policy, which takes effect July 30, was part of a series of rollbacks that Inslee announced on Thursday, modifying the rules for Washington’s phased reopening plan in response to a recent rise in COVID-19 case rates both regionally and nationally.
Clark County is currently in Phase 2 of the Safe Start Washington plan, which has allowed restaurants and bars to resume in-person operations as long as indoor seating is at less than 50 percent capacity, all tables are spaced at least 6 feet apart and no more than five customers are seated at any one table.
For restaurants, the Thursday announcement added only one relatively small wrinkle: customers seated together at indoor tables must all be from the same household. That also applies to brewpubs, such as Vancouver’s Heathen Feral Public House and Washougal’s 54?40′ taproom, which are legally considered restaurants.
But other tap houses and tasting rooms such as Brothers Cascadia Brewing in Hazel Dell or Trusty Brewing in Vancouver lack restaurant licenses, and those establishments have found themselves suddenly forced to reckon with the imminent loss of all of their remaining indoor seating.
“It cuts us in half again,” said Emily Balland, manager at the Maryhill Winery Tasting Room and Bistro at The Waterfront Vancouver.
The tasting room will lose about 15 tables inside, she said, leaving 16 on its outdoor patio. That’s still enough to keep running, she said, but it will be challenging, especially during peak hours when the tasting room’s seating was already routinely filled.
Several other taverns and tasting rooms have patios or other outdoor seating areas, and those owners said they thought they’d be able to find a way to make it through the challenge.
Fortside Brewing Company in Vancouver has already been seeing heavy use of its tasting room patio area, according to co-owner Mike DeFabio, and the bar staff plan to try to move some additional indoor tables outside. The bar hosts a food cart outside to provide meal service, so DeFabio said he’s hoping that to-go orders for both food and beer will help make up for any losses due to the reduced seating.
“We’ll make it through this — we’re small and nimble and can adapt — but it’s unfortunate,” he said.
Bryan Shull, co-owner of Trap Door Brewing, said the brewpub got lucky on timing — thanks to updated rules from the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board, staff were recently allowed to remove the bar’s patio fence, adding another 30 outdoor seats — exactly the number the bar stands to lose when the indoor seating closes.
“On a sunny day, our net seating is going to be the same,” he said. “And on a rainy day, we’re screwed.”
The next priority will be finding a tent or canopy for the patio, he said.
Richard Tiffany, general manager at Brothers Cascadia, said the bar has already been making improvements and expansions to its patio during the pandemic, so the indoor seating only accounts for about one-third of the bar’s total capacity.
But not everyone has outdoor space ready or available. Heidi Griggs, manager at the Waterfront Pepper Bridge Winery and Amavi Cellars tasting room, said the establishment already had a patio plan in the works, but is currently limited to indoor seating. The new rules will probably force the tasting room to drop to curbside-only service for a week or two while the patio construction is fast-tracked, she said.
Even the local breweries with restaurant licenses may still feel an indirect sting, according to Devon Bray, co-owner of Loowit Brewing. The new indoor seating household restriction might cut into the restaurant’s business, he said, because Loowit tends to be a destination for groups of friends. And the brewery may still face a decrease in wholesale orders from other bars and restaurants.
“We’ll see a sales hit on both sides there,” he said.
Some of the brewery owners also said the new rules seemed somewhat arbitrary, especially when it comes to the split between bars and restaurants. The restaurant license has suddenly become a major distinction among a group of businesses that otherwise operate on fairly similar models.
“We sell more food than we do beer, dollar-wise — that’s what delineates us as a restaurant,” said Sunny Parsons, co-owner of Heathen.
“We feel just awful for our brewery brethren that only have a brewery license,” said 54?40′ owner Bolt Minister.