State Bill Would Reopen Theaters, Restaurants and Gyms

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A Washington state Senate bill that would move all counties to Phase 2 reopening will have its first public hearing Wednesday.

The public may testify at the 8 a.m. hearing remotely from their homes or workplaces by registering at bit.ly/ReopenHearing up to an hour before it begins.

Currently all counties are in Phase 1 to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, after Gov. Jay Inslee announced a new Healthy Washington — Roadmap to Recovery on Jan. 11 that rolled the state back to a revised Phase 1.

Moving them automatically to Phase 2 would allow indoor dining, indoor fitness centers use, and movie theater and other indoor entertainment businesses to open to the general public. All would be restricted to 25% capacity.

In addition, indoor gatherings with up to five nonhousehold members would be allowed.

The bill's 16 co-sponsors include Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick; Sen. Perry Dozier, R-Waitsburg; and Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville.

It has bipartisan support, including from Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, who introduced SB 5114 with Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia.

Brown said that reopening businesses is a priority for most of the people in her legislative district, which includes Kennewick, Richland and West Richland.

"Families are suffering," she said. "Across the Tri-Cities, and across the state, there are family-owned restaurants that have either shut their doors permanently or may soon have to close."

In Benton and Franklin counties, 40 restaurants have permanently closed since March, according to the Washington Hospitality Association. However, it hasn't said which ones.

One recent closure was Barley's BrewHub in Kennewick, which was featured by Guy Fieri on an episode of The Food Channel's "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" Beef, Belly and Bratwurst.

Gym owners also are struggling and their employees need to support their families, she said.

"This bill is about giving those employers, workers and families hope again," she said.

Restaurants and COVID

Brown says that restaurants and gyms are responsible for less than 2% of all COVID infections.

The Washington Hospitality Association called the new Roadmap to Recovery "a near-complete collapse of main street neighborhood restaurants and hospitality businesses."

It predicted two months ago when Inslee ended indoor dining across the state that cases would continue to rise because people would hold private social gatherings through the holidays.

"We have spent the better part of a year working with the governor and his team on some of the strongest indoor dining protections in the nation, which contact tracing data showed limited the spread of the virus," it said in a statement Jan. 5. "We've now been shut down again for eight weeks and cases have only continued to grow."

Restaurants provide a safe place with effective protections for people to gather, it said.

But public health officials say that eating in restaurants poses a risk.

The Jan. 4 Statewide COVID-19 Outbreak Report said there had been 239 outbreaks since the start of the pandemic at restaurants and food service establishments, more than any other public, non-healthcare setting.

"If you have to remove your mask to eat or drink, that increases the risk," said Seattle and King County Public Health in a blog post. "Since the beginning of the pandemic, multiple reports of clusters and outbreaks of COVID-19 associated with patronage at restaurants and bars have been published in the scientific literature."

Indoor seating at restaurants and bars or going to a gym or movie theater are considered high risk activities for COVID transmission by the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in September that adults with positive COVID-19 test results were twice as likely to have eaten at a restaurant as those with negative test results.

Brown said her email inbox has been full of messages from people begging the Legislature to reopen businesses.

"It is heartbreaking to hear what this pandemic and the governor's shutdown orders have done to them," she said. Wednesday's hearing is their chance to speak to the entire Legislature and let them know exactly how they feel."

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