Local businesses react to governor’s COVID restriction extension

Posted 12/17/20

The latest round of governmental restrictions on businesses, gatherings, and events meant to combat the spread of COVID-19 will remain in place through Christmas and into next month at least.

Gov. …

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Local businesses react to governor’s COVID restriction extension


The latest round of governmental restrictions on businesses, gatherings, and events meant to combat the spread of COVID-19 will remain in place through Christmas and into next month at least.

Gov. Jay Inslee, at a recent news conference, announced an extension of the sweeping orders he’d implemented Nov. 15, including shuttering indoor dining and gyms and curtailing gatherings until Jan. 4.

In addition to stopping indoor service at restaurants and bars, Inslee’s order limits outdoor gatherings to five people from outside a single household. Gyms, fitness centers, bowling alleys, indoor movie theaters, and museums must remain closed.

Local restaurant owners, at least, were largely unsurprised by the extension.

Thomas Skipper, who along with wife Nikki owns and operates Tommyknocker’s Cornish Pasty in Port Townsend, said he’d been — and still is — assuming the worst.

“I wasn’t shocked at all,” Skipper said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes beyond what he’s got, beyond the Jan. 4 deadline as well. I’d be shocked if he brings back anything by that time.

“If it happens earlier, great news,” he added. “But it’s easier to transition back to inside dining than to be ready for this.”

In getting ready for the current situation, and however long it might last, Skipper, like many others, has erected a covered outdoor dining area in front of his Water Street restaurant. 

“It’s been really good, actually,” he said of customer feedback thus far. “It’s been really nice. We’ve had a lot of locals, lots of regulars coming out and enjoying themselves. It definitely helps. If we didn’t have it, it would be totally different. It would be like the first time, when we didn’t have any dining during the first lockdown.”

Takeout has also obviously become a significantly larger portion of his business, though perhaps not as much as some.

Skipper admitted he was frustrated with some inconsistencies in the governor’s mandate, but said he was too focused on running his business to concern himself with politics. He refused to classify the order as excessive, as many others have.

“I don’t really feel one way or the other,” he said. “It’s definitely tough, I’m not going to say it’s not tough. But is it overkill? I don’t think I’d go that far.”

“It’s better to be safe than sorry in the end,” he concluded.

Kris Nelson, owner of several Port Townsend bars and restaurants, including The Old Whiskey Mill and Sirens, among others, disagrees with the logic of the gubernatorial mandate, though she also has long been preparing for a lengthier prohibition on indoor dining.

“This time around, I’m not betting on anything until March,” she said. “I saw what happened last time, and last time every two weeks they gave us two more weeks. I would have done things differently and more smartly and I wouldn’t have done a little of this and a little of that — I would have been more creative and taken the time to do some more of the clever three-course dinners to go and better cocktail kits to go and more online fun party hosting things — had I believed it would have lasted as long as it did.”

Nelson has tents up at Alchemy Bistro and Wine Bar, The Old Whiskey Mill, and Sirens.

“We’ve made it through a couple of windstorms now, so that’s been good,” she laughed.

The extension didn’t surprise her “in any way, shape or form,” Nelson added.

Nelson said she wrote a letter to the governor out of frustration with what she views as a lack of collaboration in the administration’s current approach.

“We would come up with some really creative solutions,” she explained.

“If the issue is the correct amount of airflow inside, we could come up with some creative solutions. Tell us what the concern is and/or maybe it’s multiple concerns. But that would give us the opportunity to get creative because I think most of us in the restaurant industry are pretty creative and resourceful because we’ve had to be. We’ve had to be very adaptable.”

Nelson said much of the irritation, her own and that of her like-minded colleagues, stems from a feeling of inconsistency.

“In this state people are pretty disappointed because there hasn’t been any outbreaks or major cases related to restaurants,” she said. “[Inslee] spends a lot of time saying, ‘By the numbers,’ and it didn’t seem like he actually stopped and thought about it.”

Regardless, customer usage and response to the outdoor dining areas has been enthusiastic.

“What we’ve really seen is a lot of people who wouldn’t necessarily be comfortable dining in are going, ‘Hey, actually, I would eat here. I feel OK about this,’” Nelson said.

The effects of the restrictions extend beyond the hospitality industry.

Teresa Hoffmann and her Port Townsend Athletic Club are really feeling the sting from the extended restrictions, which once again saw the closure of all indoor fitness facilities and gyms.   

“I certainly have to say that I feel that the fitness industry particularly has been unfairly targeted and continues to be peddled as some sort of super-spreader, when there is no science to back that up,” Hoffmann said. “This determination of what businesses get to be allowed to be open [while] following the guidelines versus others, is really harshly unfair.”

Hoffmann created a GoFundMe for the Port Townsend Athletic Club, following in the footsteps of other Port Townsend businesses closed by the pandemic, such as the Rose Theatre. The owner said it was her hope that residents could recognize the value of her business, because “continuing to try to borrow is not a solution and we’ve pretty much tapped those resources.”    

Whether she believes the Port Townsend Athletic Club is poised to ride out the storm, the gym owner said that all depends on what lies just beyond the horizon.

“It depends on the ‘whenever.’ If we’re talking in January they let us get started up again, I can see us being able to pull through this,” she said.

“If they keep us closed for another six months, that’s going to require some real creativity that I haven’t figured out yet. I’m going to remain hopeful because it’s a waiting game.”

Though some areas of commerce have been less impacted than others, almost no corner of the economy has escaped the governor’s mandate unscathed.

The Tyler Street Barber Shop is one businesses that will go largely unaffected by the recent extension of the restrictions, but as owner Sean Dulaney says, just because he’s not being forced to limit his services now, doesn’t mean he’s not been feeling the squeeze.

“I’m pretty fortunate. I’m just a one-person shop so it doesn’t really affect me. If I had other barbers working for me I would have had to lay someone off,” Dulaney said. “I just do one customer at a time, appointments only, so there’s no reduction in capacity for me.”

That said, Dulaney noted that a large swath of his clientele are employed in the restaurant industry, and with restaurants in the lurch due to the extended restrictions he’s also seeing less walk-through traffic as fewer people are drawn to Port Townsend to visit.

“I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to hold on,” Dulaney said. “How long can I financially do it? How long can I emotionally do it?”

Barbers, much like bartenders and baristas, often serve supplemental roles as therapists of a sort. Dulaney said this aspect of his work has been hard on him and he’s seen firsthand the effects that isolation has had on his customers.

“That was the really difficult part, when we first went back. For a lot of people I was their first contact. I was hearing their war stories and how they dealt with the trauma that isolation presents to people that have never dealt with anything like this before.”

While small business loans and COVID relief funds have been made available to small businesses, Dulaney said he’s not made an effort to access some of these resources partly due to fear of the greater costs down the road.

“Eventually we’re going to have to pay it back, and I don’t know who’s going to have to do it, whether it’s going to be me or my kids, or my grandkids or my great-grandkids, somebody is going to have to pay these things back.”

To other businesses in the area that are feeling the sting, Dulaney offered his encouragement, saying that “this too shall pass.”

And while he may end up having to shutter his business, the barber counted himself fortunate that his livelihood depends on a service that everyone needs.

The Leader's Luciano Marano contributed to this story.