‘We can take responsibility for the safety of our community’

Mark Matthias, owner of Beaches Restaurant & Bar and Warehouse '23, crafts letter from restaurant industry leaders to send to elected officials, Gov. Jay Inslee

Photo courtesy of Visit Vancouver USA

It’s not secret that the restaurant industry in Southwest Washington has been hit – and hit hard – during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. And although restaurants have been allowed to reopen during the last couple of months, some of the new restrictions placed on food and beverage establishments have been even more detrimental to business than shutting their doors.

As a result of the hardship caused by many of these new restrictions, numerous restaurants in the Clark County area have been forced to close their doors, either temporarily or permanently. Some of these include Mill Creek Pub, Double Barrel Taphouse, Renegades Bar and Grill, Tip Top Tavern, Kilted Spirits and others.

Restaurant Owner Mark Matthias, who owns Beaches Restaurant & Bar and Warehouse ’23, both in Vancouver, recently authored a letter from leaders in the restaurant industry in Clark County with the intent to send it to numerous elected officials, Dr. Alan Melnick (Clark County Public Health Officer and Director) and to Gov. Jay Inslee’s office.

Here is the letter, in full:

To our Community, Clark County Mayors & Councilors:

The point of this letter is to ensure that those making, or influencing the decisions around Covid restrictions & rules, have a clear understanding of the road we are taking.

I certainly respect the difficult decisions that must be made by our State & Local Leaders. However, I think we can take responsibility for the safety of our community by applying a commonsense approach to guidelines around restaurants. It appears some of the restrictions are implemented to try & control those who do not want to comply, which in effect hurts those that do.  I suggest we focus on strategies around the businesses who are making good faith efforts to ensure the health & well-being of the public.  It is possible to achieve personal safety as well as financial success if we work as partners in fighting this pandemic. Let our industry set the example for safe social interaction.

I think we should step back and evaluate the rules & narrative around restaurants, which has some irony.  We are in a business that obviously promotes & attracts socializing with friends, family & business.  The people who choose to continue that behavior will do so either in a safe business environment like a restaurant, or, at a private residence, business, park, etc.  So the question becomes, would you rather they socialize in a place that reminds them of wearing masks, sanitizes for them continually, prepares and serves food & beverage safely, limits the numbers that can gather, and keeps them socially distanced from others.  Or, do you want them in their home or business where they are less likely to practice a safe environment?  We provide a service & education that helps our community- that should be the message from Leadership as to the value of our industry.

It has been a strain on restaurants already, but we are on a collision course of economic hardship that will create business closures & higher unemployment this fall.  The PPP loans that many of us received were intended to be a bridge to get past the most difficult times.  It appears now that those monies may be wasted if restaurants cannot operate at a capacity level that gives them a chance of survival.  Phase 2 guidelines with the additional constraints make it impossible to achieve 50% capacity, and even at 50%, it is impossible to be profitable.  To be blunt, we either change the current course of action or failure is inevitable.  Success will be a combination of additional financial help, and commonsense rules around our operations.

We need to alter some of the State guidelines and change the path of our community safety & viability.  I would like to propose we take a logical approach to the challenges we face and modify those guidelines slightly while continuing to provide safe, social environments.   In addition, we should PROMOTE the positive, safe environment we create in our industry versus this ‘risk’ narrative and negative perception with restriction announcements.  Social people will be social whether it is safe, or not.  Allow your business partners to provide the safe environment that will help control the spread of this virus, i.e. we can be part of the solution!

Let’s take a reality check around the social behaviors of people/friends/family:

  • They stay home and socialize:
    • Who is reminding them to wear masks?
    • Who is constantly sanitizing?
    • Who is serving them to ensure food & beverage items are safe?
    • Who controls the consumption of alcohol?
    • Who is social distancing them from people they may not know?
    • Who controls the size of the group?
  • When they come to a restaurant:
    • We mandate that they wear a mask anytime not at the table.
    • We constantly sanitize things they touch.
    • The food and beverage items are prepared for them & served safely.
    • We limit the amount of people they engage with.
    • We are the safety net around the virus at a much higher level than if they were at home with friends.
    • We have the capacity to work swiftly with Clark County Public Health & the Clark County Covid Team if there is an issue.  Several operators have proven our efficiency in safety.

Being social at a restaurant is far safer than a group of people at home.  We should be encouraging people to socialize in local businesses because we become the watchdogs of their health.  That is the business we have always been in; it just plays at a higher level now.  The guidelines that I feel are too stringent:

  • 6 foot spacing between ALL tables.  That 6-foot logic applies to a distance between people facing each other, without masks.  I recommend we allow spacing to be 3-4 feet apart if, and only if, the backs of the chairs run parallel to each other.  In that scenario, you have people facing the opposite direction which is better than two people facing each other at 6 feet.  That creates an 7-8 foot distance between the person facing the other table, and the back of the first person at that next table. This gives us a chance of achieving the 50% capacity, and eventually higher.  This has been reviewed with the Washington Hospitality Association, a group of restaurant owners, and a local respected Health professional.  We were all in agreement.
  • Dining for 6 people instead of 5.  That initial number of 5 seems arbitrary.  At least allow 3 couples to dine together.  It would be ideal if we went to 10 like the State of Oregon so that we slow down the business crossing the river that we need right here at home.
  • Eliminate the restriction for inside dining to people in the same household.  This is impossible to manage and has simply created an environment of deception.  Many operations do not have a reasonable patio option, and if it rains, it literally kills every restaurant.  A high percentage of our business is NOT the same household, so by this fall when the weather changes, its over for everybody!  (The tent idea floating out there does not work in inclement weather if you cannot close it up at any given time.)
  • Eliminate the arbitrary exclusion around breweries/wineries/distilleries from the restaurant category.  They are also a social gathering place that provides a safe and sanitary experience for the public with adherence to all safety guidelines.  There is no difference between a guest having just a drink in a full-service restaurant, and one of these excluded establishments.

As stated, the current path of indefinite restrictions has a predictable end- failure.  We can sit back and just go with the flow or aggressively challenge ourselves to work the problem as a team.  I feel these are simple changes that will give our local restaurants a fighting chance of survival and highlight the good work everyone is doing to make our citizens safe.  Unless we go into total lock down to stop the virus, restaurants can, and are willing be part of the solution.  We have always been in the safety business and we are fully capable of making our businesses a safe environment.

I would like us to move quickly as a partnership between private & public interests and send a message to the State that our local community is working together to ensure safety.  


Mark Matthias

Joanna Yorke is the managing editor of the Vancouver Business Journal. She has worked in the journalism field since 2010 after graduating from the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University in Pullman. Yorke worked at The Reflector Newspaper in Battle Ground for six years and then worked at and helped start ClarkCountyToday.com.

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