By: Anthony Anton
Throughout the pandemic, thousands of restaurants across the state have reinvented their business models to continue serving food and comfort with safety. Throughout the summer, this has included outdoor dining, which has been a lifeline for many of our restaurants.
But as summer turns to fall, wind, rain, and cooler weather will return and restaurants will lose the option for outdoor seating. If our state’s COVID cases remain above 25 cases per 100,000 residents in a two-week period, restaurants cannot open indoor dining and will have no choice but to close back down. Many of those will never reopen.
In my role as CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association, I have spent every day of this pandemic talking with restaurant owners, operators, and employees in every city and town in Washington whose livelihoods are hanging by a thread — or, you could say, hanging by a mask strap.
When I talk to people who have dedicated their lives to serving others through hospitality and now face losing it all, it’s heart-wrenching. And it makes me concerned for our state’s recovery: The hospitality industry is the largest private employer in our state. Before COVID, restaurants, and hotels employed about 300,000 people. The most recent numbers from the Employment Security Department show that 114,000 of our team members are no longer working. And for every dollar spent at a restaurant, 96 cents is put back into the local economy. Our state’s economic health and the health of our hospitality industry truly go hand in hand.
Regardless of party or politics, we can unite over a common interest to return to thriving communities as quickly as possible. I don’t know anyone who loves wearing a mask – but I also don’t know anyone who wants to miss out on social gatherings, family, sports, music, and travel while we wait this out. And I do know many restaurants simply cannot afford to lose outdoor seating to the fall rain, be limited to 50% seating, and expect to reopen ever again: They are literally in a race against the season, and relying on all of us to continue wearing our masks to help.
It’s my responsibility to my members to have the best data possible so I can advocate for what’s objectively best for our industry and our state. So I built a spreadsheet at the start of the pandemic to track daily COVID counts in every county. I cross-reference the data to what’s happening in the communities — a mask mandate, a phase change, or surges of social gatherings. I’m not an epidemiologist, but what I’ve found matches what every single public health expert in the country has said: Wearing a mask helps reduce the spread of COVID. And when we work together, we can bend the curve quickly.
Take Yakima County. Two months ago, they had more than 850 cases per 100,000 residents. By increasing mask-wearing, they dropped to 350 cases per 100,000 within a month. In Skamania County, they dropped from 109 cases per 100,000 to fewer than 20 in just two weeks.
Our cases are dropping in the state because we’re working together to keep each other safe. But now is not the time to let up. When I coached little league baseball, I had to constantly remind my players to stay in the game until the last out. COVID is no different: We must keep wearing masks and being smart so we can reopen and stay open.
So here’s the game plan: If we want our state’s economy to thrive, we need thriving restaurants. If we want thriving restaurants, we need more indoor seating for fall. And in order to get our case counts low enough to accommodate indoor seating in just a few weeks, we need to wear masks now and keep wearing them.
The Washington Hospitality Association is part of a coalition of a dozen industry groups to promote mask-wearing. Our message is simple: Your mask today saves a job tomorrow. You can join our campaign by posting a picture of yourself to social media using the hashtags #StaySafeWa and #MaskUpWa. We also have frames for your Facebook profile you can find by searching the hashtags. Together, our masks today can save tens of thousands of jobs tomorrow when we need it the most.
Anthony Anton is the president and CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association, the state’s trade association for restaurants and hotels.
Photo courtesy of JWatch photography.