When COVID-19 started spreading widely in Washington state in March, Governor Jay Inslee issued a stay-at-home order that mandated the closure of all non-essential businesses. Countless establishments shuttered their doors, while others had to adapt quickly to comply with the emergency order.
Now, with King County recently approved for Phase 2 re-opening, local businesses are tip-toeing cautiously towards opening their doors and normalizing operations, but with an ever watchful eye to avoid becoming the next source of COVID-19 spread.
Some of the first businesses to open back up have been medical providers, after Inslee lifted the ban on non-emergency medical procedures on May 18. But given the medical community remains on the frontlines, they are still operating under an abundance of caution.
Cindy Enyeart, the co-owner of Pine Lake Physical Therapy & Sports Rehab, explained that her business started taking precautions even before the first wave of the pandemic hit.
“We became extra cautious starting in mid-February,” Enyeart said. “We have always been very clean.”
Currently, her staff reserves extra time to sanitize physical therapy exam rooms and equipment. Where possible, they are still encouraging patients to consult via telehealth.
Phase 2 was also a gamechanger for restaurants, because it finally allowed dine-in services to resume at 50 percent capacity, but with no more than five guests per table.
Pine Lake Ale House, a 20-year-old restaurant at Sammamish Highlands shopping center, had to furlough almost all of their wait staff in the early days of the shutdown, but kept about 80 percent of the kitchen staff to handle a pick-up-only restaurant operation, according to Kevin Gattke, the owner. Now, they have called some employees back to work.
However, Gattke has changed a few things at his establishment to adhere to social distancing guidelines. Tables are more spread out to fulfill the 6-feet-distancing requirement, which actually prevents them from even reaching 50 percent capacity due to their space being small. In addition, guests must stay at their table, and refrain from walking over to talk to individuals at other tables which is a natural thing to do at a bar, Gattke said. They have also tweaked operations to achieve greater efficiency and cost effectiveness. Take-out customers must call first before entering. Wine is now served on draft, instead of from a bottle.
Across the shopping center, Nasai Teriyaki found a groove in going completely to a take-out model, given their dining area was small to begin with. During the shutdown, they stacked their chairs and added plexiglass protection for their service staff. Owner Sylvia Joo does not see a need to deviate, even with restrictions loosening.
“We may continue with take-out and it might be a while before we open for dine-in,” Joo said.
Phase 2 also allowed non-essential retailers to open in-store shopping at 30 percent capacity. Many stores are not taking any chances, and still encouraging customers to order online and pickup outdoors.
Progression Cycle in Klahanie still does not allow their customers to come inside, and they have locked their doors, according to their website. Instead, employees come out, with masks on, to fix bikes.
Pet businesses like Klahanie Center Veterinary Hospital, Sammamish Highlands Veterinary Clinic Hospital, and A Fur Affair Pet Grooming Salon now offer to pick up pets curbside, so owners do not even have to get out of their cars.
At Mud Bay Pet Supplies, a new hand washing station was added outdoors, and social distancing floor signage have been taped across the multiple aisles. Employees are required to wear masks, and the business continues to encourage customers to make online orders and pickup curbside.
Alex Gracia, a shift manager at Mud Bay, said he does not see any more casual visits from customers. Most know exactly what they want and spend minimal time browsing.
Many businesses are adapting to this new normal. Signage outside main entries constantly remind visitors to wear masks and to sanitize their hands. Larger than usual hand sanitizer bottles are strategically placed throughout stores. Social distancing signs serve as gentle reminders to staff and visitors that the coronavirus still lurks in the community.
What remains is an open question of whether enough customers will return to support their businesses, and whether they can survive with continued restrictions like reduced capacity. Just like we know very little about the disease and whether there will be further outbreaks, small businesses are also marching into this unknown, and taking it day by day.
For some business owners, just being allowed to open is a sign of hope.
“It is great that people are coming back,” Enyeart, the physical therapist, said.
“People have been very supportive, rallying around local small businesses,” Gattke, the owner of the Pine Lake Ale house, said. “We are looking to follow the guidelines and get to the next stage quicker.”