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Democrats ask Inslee to lift ban on indoor dining

They want to try to scaling back on occupancy before forcing an end to inside service

OLYMPIA — A group of Democratic state lawmakers want Gov. Jay Inslee to consider replacing his ban on indoor dining with stricter limits on how many people restaurants and bars can serve inside at any one time.

Seven senators and two representatives sent Inslee a letter Monday in which they agreed on the need to respond to a recent explosion in coronavirus infections. But, they wrote, shutting down indoor service “is not the right first step” because it will put thousands out of work and damage the foodservice and accommodation industry.

“While we understand that the current trajectory of COVID cases is unsustainable and that a pullback is necessary and appropriate to save lives, the impacts of this specific measure will leave lasting holes in the economic and cultural fabric of every community across the state,” reads the letter, which was delivered to the governor Monday.

They ask the governor to consider letting restaurants operate at 25 percent of their indoor capacity. They also suggest that he reinstate limits on how many people can sit at one table and require only people from the same household to eat together.

State Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, was one of several Democrats asking Gov. Inslee to lift a ban on COVID-19 restrictions on indoor dining. (Washington State Legislature photo)

State Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, was one of several Democrats asking Gov. Inslee to lift a ban on COVID-19 restrictions on indoor dining. (Washington State Legislature photo)

Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, who owns a pizza restaurant, authored the letter. Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, signed on. So, too, did Sens. Christine Rolfes of Bainbridge Island, chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, and Rebecca Saldana of Seattle, the Senate deputy majority leader.

“We’ve got to try to find a compromise here,” Hobbs said. “We don’t want the pandemic to spread. We don’t want businesses to fail. This could be a solution.”

Inslee imposed the ban on indoor seating Sunday, along with several other restrictions intended to slow and reverse the rise in new cases. Those measures include the closure of gyms, bowling alleys, movie theaters and indoor activities at museums, aquariums and zoos. Attendance at weddings and funerals is capped at 30 people, and no receptions are allowed.

All the restrictions, including the indoor seating prohibition, are in effect through Dec. 14. Restaurants can still do takeout and serve customers outdoors at tables with a limit of five people.

The governor has said he will work with lawmakers to ease the impact on workers. He’s also announced he will use $50 million of the state’s allotment of federal CARES Act dollars to help businesses in the hardest-hit industries. Of the total, $20 million will be for short-term cash assistance and the remainder available as loans.

Inslee has defended the indoor service ban as a proven step in helping blunt the virus’ spread. He cites the rapid decline in new cases after he issued a similar ban in March. At the time, the state did not have a mask mandate nor much experience with safety protocols for restaurants.

“We are strongly persuaded by the science of COVID-19,” wrote Inslee press secretary Mike Faulk in an email. “Beyond the published science on outbreaks at restaurants, we know both anecdotally and based on how the virus spreads that it’s clear indoor situations where people aren’t wearing masks (restaurants) or are creating a lot of aerosolized particles through heavy breathing (working out) are inherently higher risk.”

Lawmakers said they were surprised by the governor’s action on the indoor seating ban. They contend that recent data show that restaurants are not fueling the latest surge in cases, largely because of strict adherence to safety protocols.

Inslee will meet with some of the letter-signers Friday afternoon, Mullet said.

“I want to have a policy discussion,” he said.

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