Life in Washington goes on, albeit in a holding pattern, as Gov. Jay Inslee fine-tunes restrictions for restaurants, bars, funerals, weddings and gyms amid the rising tide of COVID-19 cases in the state that continues to alarm public health officials.
Prompted by the growing unease around the data, the latest round of changes mostly affect indoor activities where the risk of virus exposure could be highest.
For restaurants, indoor dining will be limited to members of the same household and alcohol service must end at 10 p.m. Most bars, taverns, breweries, wineries and distilleries must close all indoor service until Phase 4, Inslee said. Those rules went into effect on July 30.
Wedding ceremonies are allowed, though receptions are prohibited, effective Aug. 10. The maximum indoor occupancy for weddings and funerals is 20% — or up to 30 people, whichever is less — as long as six feet of distance can be maintained between those in attendance.
Those changes also took effect July 30, but weddings and funerals planned in the window between then and July 23, when the rollbacks were announced, were allowed to take place under the previous and more flexible guidelines.
“Not an optimistic outlook”
Once upon a time on Vashon, the summer months and early fall were the prime-time for wedding ceremonies on the island, but most have since been rescheduled to next year, significantly scaled back or canceled outright. All five ceremonies set to take place this year at scenic and ever-popular Point Robinson have been canceled, Vashon Park District Recreation Manager Eric Wyatt said. But some couples that have gone ahead with their weddings in spite of the pandemic have made the best of it.
Islander Kirsten Gagnaire and her husband finished unpacking their car on Monday after returning from their honeymoon in Cannon Beach, Oregon, and the Willamette Valley. A lot of thought went into their recent outdoor ceremony on Vashon’s west side.
“On the one hand, we had to be constantly assessing what did it mean for us to get married and what did it mean for us to have a ceremony,” said Gagnaire, who has a background in global health. “We felt really strongly that we were ready to be married, and for us, it wasn’t just about getting the piece of paper but about having an actual celebration of our love and a reminder of love for our friends and family.”
Gagnaire’s wedding was for islanders, by islanders, with a host of local vendors providing services, though a sudden ban on live performances meant that Publish The Quest, a band with deep ties to Vashon, was unable to perform.
Not everyone could attend, including beloved friends and family. Gagnaire said health and safety were at the forefront of their decision to proceed with the ceremony, inviting 50 guests to join them in person — Inslee’s new restrictions now forbid more than 30 — and others crowded in live on Zoom to wish them well at the altar.
But even taking the necessary precautions, Gagnaire said she feels like she has to hold her breath for another week, hoping that no one gets sick.
“As far as we know, nobody did, but it’s probably another week before we’re really in the clear, and it just kind of sucks to have that be in the back of your mind. Even though people were safe and all of that, it was still a gathering of 50 people,” she said. “We just did the best we could, and we just kept constantly pivoting and just constantly shedding what we thought it was going to be and allowing it to be what it needed to be. And honestly, it was a perfect day.”
Herban Feast, with venues in Seattle and at Vashon’s acclaimed Froggsong Gardens, providing the catering for Gagnaire’s wedding. Owner BJ Duft said the pandemic has been a reckoning for the industry.
“It’s devastating for all of us,” he said, calculating a loss of nearly $2.5 million dollars of business this year, forcing difficult layoffs with 90 weddings and events canceled or delayed.
Next week, when Inslee’s updated guidance prohibiting receptions is implemented, catering businesses will have to improvise. So Herban Feast has introduced the intimate “mini-mony” package for up to 30 guests, complete with floral arrangements and decor, boxed appetizers and dinners to go — couples can also choose to exchange their vows near a screen on Zoom so friends and family in lockdown or behind state lines can still be a part of the big day.
But some who have waited to say “I do” can’t put it off any longer, Duft said. Many of his clients have been laid off themselves or lost their jobs due to the pandemic, he said, and are devastated that they even have to make a decision about moving their wedding or canceling it.
“Now with recent restrictions, a lot of people that moved once or maybe even moved twice are canceling because they are saying, ‘you know, screw it, I’m not going to wait out another restriction, and who knows what’s going to be in place next year,’” he said. “It’s not an optimistic outlook.”
Photographer Terry Behal is signed on to shoot an island wedding this September that was delayed by three months and will no longer have any guests. The pandemic has turned his art and livelihood upside down.
“Photographers are part of the gig industry, and so they are definitely one of the hardest hit when it comes to loss of work. It’s a difficult industry to be in right now because of the restrictions and so forth,” he said. Last year, Behal photographed more than 50 events. This year, he’s down to 10, plus a continuing series of family portraits showing life in all of its variety in quarantine.
“Some creative things did come out of it, but as far as income, it pretty much shut me down overnight,” he said, adding that his wife was temporarily laid off from her job but has since returned to work.
His message to others in similar straits working in the gig economy and trying to get by is to stick together and preserve optimism however possible.
“I just know this will come to an end at some point, and I keep working on the connections that I have, staying in contact with my connections, staying resilient, staying positive,” he said. “I know we’re going to get through this and it will be better after we get through this.”
On July 30, during a press conference, Inslee extended his thanks to the business community of Washington, in part for enforcing compliance with the requirement for their patrons to wear facial coverings on-site. Cheryl Lubbert, president of the Vashon-Maury Island Chamber of Commerce and owner of cider company Nashi Orchards, said that in some cases, the responsibility for following the rules is falling harder on businesses than their customers. Given the increasingly difficult economic climate and uncertainty of future rollbacks, “it certainly makes it challenging to run a business when you can’t even predict what will happen,” she said.
For her own business, Lubbert said revenue is down by as much as 70%.
“If we had to rely on only the cidery, I don’t know how that would work,” she said, noting how the pandemic has reduced sales. On Vashon, she said it is striking how quickly islanders have had to adapt given the circumstances and having to rethink everything. For the chamber, this year marks the first time the annual Unofficial Mayor campaign, raising funds for numerous island causes, has been conducted and managed almost entirely online — and it was a success, Lubbert noted. Similar events supporting organizations on Vashon have gone online or been postponed.
“It’s like all these different things that we do for our community, because of this, are all being just put either aside, or people are trying different techniques or different ways to do it,” she said. “It is interesting just how dramatic the shift has been.”
More to come
Public health officials and the Governor’s office are trying to keep up. In the last week, Inslee has extended more than two dozen proclamations, some he made in the first days of the outbreak. Counties hoping to reopen faster will have to wait, though. Inslee ordered a freeze on the Safe Start plan until the virus is brought under control.
Meanwhile, the Governor continues to announce changes nearly every day. Two weeks ago, new, decisive restrictions on fitness were scorned by some, including members of the Washington Fitness Alliance, a new group providing the Governor’s office input on reopening facilities. Three businesses on Vashon are partners — Straight On Strength, The Vashon Athletic Club and Vashon Recess Lab. But on Monday, Inslee updated guidance for counties in Phases 2 and 3, increasing the distancing requirement for exercise indoors to 300 square feet per person, except while practicing certain team sports.
That’s a step back from his earlier measure to limit patronage to five people indoors at most, no matter the size of the building.
Pools were initially under the same five-person restriction, but pressure from area swim coaches loosened the rules.
On the island, Randy Turner, aquatics director for the Vashon Park District, said the lanes are as full as they can be from open to close — only six swimmers are allowed in the water at a time — though he is frustrated not to have the staffing to keep the pool open for longer as demand has been high. Finding lifeguards for the community pool, where only lap swim and small group lessons are currently allowed, has been an issue in the past. But Turner noted that the pandemic canceled classes to train staff this spring, leading to an industry-wide personnel shortage and few pools able to open with enough lifeguards anywhere.
“People from Tacoma have started to discover that we are basically the only pool that is open. So we have people coming over from Tacoma who are willing to pay $25 on the ferry just so they can swim for 50 minutes,” he said.
For more information and to reserve an open slot for lap swim, visit vashonparks.org/vashon-pool.
Inslee’s new fitness guidelines require all patrons to wear face coverings when inside facilities, except while engaged in strenuous exercise. Patrons who remove their cloth facial coverings to exercise must wear them at all other times, including immediately before and immediately after exercise.
At the July 30 press conference, Inslee likened the effort to stem the spread of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic to being on a lifeboat heading for shore.
“And the more we all row together, the faster we’re going to get there,” he said, emphasizing the importance of face coverings. Inslee said that many are ditching masks in casual social settings — backyard barbecues, indoor birthday parties and gatherings of young people, for example — yet epidemiologists have made it clear facial coverings must be worn in those environments as well in order to curb the pandemic.
“We know we can make this work. We have flattened the curve once before. We have done this before. We have knocked down this virus. That ought to give us confidence that we can do that again,” he said.