When Gerald Simonsen re-opened Islander at the start of June, he was feeling good that things were looking up for the Bainbridge Island bar.
At the time, COVID-19 cases were dropping and people were starting to venture back out again. Sales were getting better, even if they weren’t what they were pre-pandemic. Rearranging the place and gearing up for service took some effort, but Simonsen was hopeful the plans to reopen safely might just work.
That all changed after COVID-19 started to make its rebound more than a month ago. Kitsap County added 360 new cases in July — more than triple cases of the county’s previous peak during the pandemic’s first month in March.
“Since it was getting bad again people were getting scared,” Simonsen said. “They were hardly coming at all.”
In mid-July, Simonsen voluntarily decided to shut the joint once again, out of concern not only for declining sales, he said, but more for people’s health. “There was really no choice. It just wasn’t safe,” he said.
Across Kitsap County, restaurants and taverns are still open under the state’s coronavirus reopening plan, but with reduced capacity and other health rules that have only grown tighter in recent weeks.
On Tuesday, Gov. Jay Inslee extended the pause indefinitely on Washington counties moving ahead under the state’s “Safe Start” plan and issued new requirements for restaurants and taverns. That includes a cut-off on alcohol service at 10 p.m. and limiting indoor tables to people from the same household. (People from different households can sit at the same table outside.)
Restaurants have found themselves stuck in a tricky spot: they are allowed to be open, but that doesn’t mean they will have enough customers for it to stay that way.
With no end to the pandemic in sight, restaurants are figuring out new ways to serve customers.
Islander, which heavily relied on its late-night bar services, has now rolled back to takeout and delivery only through local service IslandBite. And Simonsen has been using the space to run a new “virtual” Italian restaurant, Gloria’s, which is set up solely for people to order takeout online.
Even still, there’s debt piling up and Simonsen says he’s not sure the Islander is going to make it through the end of the crisis.
He doesn’t think he’s the only one: “I don’t believe that the restaurant and particularly the bar industry is ever to go back to normal.”
Other restaurants have also run with the online-only concept, like The Shop at 2712, which offers takeout meals from a commercial kitchen in Bremerton.
Started in April, the takeout restaurant was the idea of two local food stand owners, John Lynch, who runs a burrito stand outside the Bremerton shipyard, and Ben White, who had been cooking pizza and other dishes from the kitchen.
When the COVID-19 crisis shut down both stands, Lynch and White started talking about how they could continue cooking up food and serving it to people. “We know we’re going to need to feed people, and a takeout restaurant was going to be the only way we could do it,” Lynch said.
Lynch sees takeout as the new norm for the restaurant industry — and that owners and cooks will need to think outside of the box and adapt to survive.
“We’re never going to go back to the way it was in January,” he said. “It’s not going to be what it was. People have been essentially trained to do takeout… anybody who isn’t doing that is going to be in trouble.”
Others have shifted focus more toward outdoor dining, an effort aided by cities like Bremerton and Poulsbo, which both started offering restaurants public space to expand outside seating areas.
On Thursday, Bremerton Mayor Greg Wheeler announced an emergency order that lets restaurants use public on-street parking spots to expand their outdoor seating. Poulsbo City Council approved a similar ordinance July 1.
“We understand what these restaurants have been up against, and we hope that this can help get them through until we’re free and clear of this pandemic,” Wheeler said.
Under the order, restaurants can apply for a free permit to use public parking spaces adjacent to their property for outdoor seating. Businesses will need to submit a sketch of the area that includes the location of fences, temporary ADA ramps, tables and chairs in the area.
The city can deny a permit for safety reasons, but staff will work with the business to adjust the plan to make it work, Wheeler said. The order and any permits issued under it expire Oct. 15.
“We’re treating this with urgency because right now we’re in the sweet spot of the year where every day is a potential outdoor dining opportunity,” Wheeler said.
Four Bremerton restaurants already have plans to expand outdoor seating: The Manette Saloon and Hound + Bottle on 11th Street; and the Horse & Cow Pub & Grill and TNT/Tacos N Tequila on Fourth Street.
Hound + Bottle co-owner Jodi Davis praised the change. Since the shutdown began in March, the bar and restaurant have been surviving by serving weekly Friday night pick-up dinners. When phased reopening began, Hound + Bottle opened with limited seating on its outdoor deck and indoors.
The new emergency ordinance “does a lot for us, it literally doubles our outdoor capacity,” Davis said.
Many regular customers asked Davis to expand seating outdoors into several of the parking spots along 11th Street. Once approved, the restaurant will add four tables, plus chairs and umbrellas, to the space.
“This is the great thing about our community, about Bremerton, is they really, truly want to support small businesses, and we have to give them the opportunity,” Davis said.
The timing of the ordinance coincides with the busiest time of the year for many restaurants. If the plan works and restaurants are successful with the additional capacity, the city may look to add permanent rules governing expanded outdoor seating.
“If we pivot and adapt well, this looks like it’s something that might stay around after the pandemic is over,” Wheeler said.
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