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WA state restaurant rules for Phase 3 of COVID reopening

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After three counties were bounced back to Phase 2, and then the whole state was paused from moving up or down last month, starting Tuesday, May 18, all of Washington will return to Phase 3.

The state will officially reopen to full capacity for all activities June 30, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Thursday. It could happen sooner, he said, if at least 70 percent of the state’s adult population is fully vaccinated — where health experts believe “community immunity” will begin to take hold.

Washington also will adopt the mask guidance shared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: that fully vaccinated people can shed their masks indoors, expect for certain settings including health care, long-term care and correctional facilities, and schools.

There are three caveats for Washingtonians, per Inslee: Any business can still require customers and staff to wear masks; county health authorities can set their own policies based on local data; and should cases spike and hospitalizations rise once again, things could change.

“We would have full capacity for restaurants, movie theaters, bowling alleys, you name it,” said Inslee at a press conference.

“Importantly, there is universal access to the vaccine,” he added, including for children as young as 12 years old with the Pfizer vaccine. Based on falling case, hospitalization and death rates, he said, having an increasingly vaccinated public is working.

All but four counties have been in Phase 3 since March, when the whole state moved to that tier. On Tuesday, it will return to Pierce, Cowlitz, Whitman and Ferry counties, which bounced back last month after failing to meet health metrics.

In Phase 3, restaurants across Washington can fill up to half their seating capacity. Safety precautions including the six-foot rule and no bar seating remain in place for now.

Party size increases to 10 people per table with no household restrictions, and alcohol can be served through midnight.

This guidance applies to all eating and drinking establishments, including night clubs, breweries, distilleries, wineries, cafes and food courts. Businesses must designate a staff member to monitor “the health of individuals and enforce the COVID-19 job site safety plan,” which must be readily available for state and local agencies to access.

The more restrictive Phase 2 limited seating at restaurants and inside retail settings to 25 percent, unless the venue followed open air seating protocols, with open doors and windows to enhance airflow. Party size was limited to six people and, technically, only two households per table.

Looking forward to June 30, Washington Hospitality Association president Anthony Anton said his group, which represents thousands of businesses across the state, was “excited to see a clear path forward.”

“This is a moment we’ve all been working toward for 14 months, as we’ve stayed home, worn masks, and physically distanced from our friends and loved ones,” Anton said in a statement. “Now, we can all rally around a common goal: If we work together, we could reopen within a few weeks. We stand ready as a united industry to help our state achieve this critical goal and then keep working together to recover.”

Now that we will all relish in Phase 3, here’s what you should know when visiting bars and restaurants.

I’m fully vaccinated. Do I still need to wear a mask at restaurants?

If the business requires it.

As of May 13, fully vaccinated individuals do not have to wear a mask indoors or outside, but businesses retain the right to require it.

If a restaurant asks you to wear a mask, whether by a sign on the door or a request by a worker, put the mask on.

Inslee said he was not proposing any sort of official vaccination passport, but the state’s health experts encouraged residents to carry their vaccination cards with them or to keep a picture of it on their phone.

I’m not vaccinated. Do I still need to wear a mask at restaurants?

Yes. Mask mandates remain in place for non-vaccinated individuals at restaurants and any indoor or crowded outdoor setting.

Inslee stressed that the vaccinations are free and readily available.

“This is a heck of a benefit,” he said. “People who have been annoyed at this mask, it’s a really good reason to get vaccinated.”

His office is also working with the state commerce department on helping businesses offer gift cards to vaccinated customers, or for instance a free pint at your local brewery.

I’m sitting outside. Do I need a mask?

Yes, if you are not vaccinated, or if the business requires it.

At bars and restaurants, they must be worn whenever you are not seated at your table, including a visit to the counter or the bathroom or walking out the door, regardless of whether you are seated indoors or out.

Remember that many, many businesses will likely continue requiring masks until the state reaches that community immunity threshold. Be nice.

Can I sit at the bar in WA?

Not yet.

Counter seating, such as a high-top in front of a window or along a wall, is permitted, as long as six feet of distance exists between parties.

When the state reopens on June 30 — or earlier if we reach a 70 percent vaccination rate for residents over the age of 16 — business as usual can resume. Restaurants, taprooms and similar establishments can then opt to allow customers to sit at the bar.

It’s plausible that many restaurants will continue seating only at tables. That will be their prerogative — just as it would be their prerogative to serve pizza instead of fried chicken.

Until then, you must be seated at a table to eat and drink.

How many people can I sit with at a table?

Up to 10. Previous restrictions on the number of households per party have been lifted.

Remember that we are still in the midst of a pandemic, and the permission to go out in a large group should not devalue your respect for staff and the limitations under which they continue to work.

When is the cutoff for alcohol service?

Midnight.

Alcohol service, including delivery, extends to midnight in Phase 3. Food service can run past this time. To-go cocktails, now permitted through 2022, require a food purchase; sealed bottles of wine and growlers or Crowlers of beer filled on-site do not.

The Phase 2 cutoff for alcohol service, delivery and consumption at bars and restaurants was 11 p.m.

Drinking beer, wine and cocktails on-site must end, according to state guidelines, at midnight. That means bars will likely offer last call closer to 11 p.m. Again, be courteous and prepared to walk out the door by midnight, unless you are eating.

On June 30, alcohol service will return to pre-pandemic timing.

Can we play pool, shuffleboard and arcade games?

Yes.

As of February, games such as darts, along with other activities like live music and karaoke, are permitted. This guidance holds true in Phase 3.

When playing a game like pool, for instance, you should be masked. Staff should sanitize equipment between use.

I shouldn’t ask, but can we do karaoke?

Yes. It will be easier if you and your cohorts are vaccinated.

When participating in karaoke, a single singer can be unmasked but should stand at least 20 feet from the crowd. The guidelines for indoor entertainment advise against multiple singers, but up to 15 can perform at once if they are masked and stand at least nine feet apart. With relaxed mask rules for vaccinated adults, the venue might allow unmasked participation. Sessions should last no more than 45 minutes, with a half-hour between groups and a total of two hours per party.

Again, staff should sanitize microphones after every singer.

On June 30, sing your heart out.

Will we hear live music at bars? Catch a play at the theater? Go to the ball game?

Yes, but the details depend on the venue and whether you are vaccinated.

As of May 13, capacity indoor and outdoor sporting or other spectator events have been lifted — but only for vaccinated individuals. (Similarly, “small” cruise ships can travel with fewer than 250 passengers if at least 95 percent of the crew and guests are vaccinated.)

A reporter asked Thursday if Inslee envisioned a scenario where, say, the Mariners created full-capacity vaccinated sections and limited-capacity non-vaccinated sections. He said it was plausible but didn’t envision that happening.

I’m vaccinated, but I’m worried about others who aren’t. Should I keep my mask on?

Feel free to wear a mask wherever you see fit.

Kristine Sherred joined The News Tribune in December 2019, following a decade in Chicago where she worked for restaurants, a liquor wholesaler and a culinary bookstore. She previously covered the food business for Industry Dive and William Reed. Find her on Instagram @kcsherred and Twitter @kriscarasher.

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