Last week, island business owners reacted to a sweeping set of new restrictions enacted by Gov. Jay Inslee in response to the sharp rise of COVID-19 statewide.
The measures (see Emergency Operations Report, page 8, for a full list) are onerous for the owners and employees of local restaurants and bars, which must now close for indoor service for the next four weeks and limit those seated for outdoor dining.
Gyms, including Vashon Athletic Club, must also close their indoor fitness areas for the next four weeks, and grocery stores and other retailers must strictly limit capacity in their stores to 25%.
But Inslee’s new edicts might seem the cruelest of all for Vashon Theatre, which only recently re-opened this month after being closed since March.
Eileen Wolcott, who owns and runs the movie theatre with her family, pivoted during the summer to create the Night Light Drive-in on Vashon. Last month, after Inslee gave the green light to movie theaters to re-open on Oct. 6, Wolcott and her family hustled to finish a near-total renovation of the theater’s auditorium.
On Nov. 6, the theater re-opened its doors to show the newly released film, “Let Him Go.”
And now, as quickly as it all began, the re-opening is over, at least for a time.
Wolcott, in an email to The Beachcomber, said she needed islanders’ help to stay in business.
“I know that throughout history people have faced years like this, survived and moved on, but it is difficult to keep trying to find a new way through and being cut off in every direction,” Wolcott wrote. “I’m done crying. It’s time to try again.”
She wrote that she felt her reopened theater — with its cavernous auditorium, huge ceiling exhaust fans, seats all facing in the same direction, and physically distanced guests in masks — was one of the safest interior spaces she had encountered during COVID.
That said, she added that as she watched King County’s case numbers go up, having to close again was not a surprise.
“It’s been a year of continuous redirection and great disappointment,” she said.
But she also put her own travails in perspective.
“I just want to say that nothing — nothing — is more important than your families or mine,” she said, adding that she was still trying to figure out ways for her theater to survive until next year.
“We’re taking donations, doing take out orders, selling gift cards and merchandise, as well as booking marquees and rentals,” she said. “Vashon, you have done so much to help and I humbly ask you to remember us again now. If we can hold on, this old movie house will be even more of a rare gem in our community.”
Likewise, in an email to Vashon Athletic Club members, owners Nick and Sarah Maier said they were disappointed and frustrated by the new restrictions, as they had worked hard to implement many COVID-19 safety protocols.
Strict disinfecting, social distancing measures and face mask requirements had kept their members safe since the club was re-opened, they said.
Some elements of their business will still be open, they said, including their pool, which is allowed, as well as outdoor fitness programs. They also said that online fitness classes will continue.
But they too asked for islanders’ help.
“We need our current members to continue their membership support in order for the VAC to remain viable,” the Maiers wrote. “If we lose more members due to these shutdowns, we are concerned that we may not make it. There are better days ahead, and we believe the Vashon community needs the wonderful health and fitness services that the VAC provides.”
Local restaurants — which have closed, reopened and pivoted throughout the year — also face a similar struggle.
Megan Hastings, co-owner of both Snapdragon and the Wild Mermaid, said that the Wild Mermaid would shutter during the four-week shutdown, as the eatery and bar did not do a lot of business in terms of take-out. But Snapdragon would stay open, in daytime hours, for takeout and outdoor dining.
Snapdragon is well known for its baked goods and will offer pies and other delectables for Thanksgiving meals, and Hastings hopes islanders will order them in droves.
Other eateries including Bramble House and The Hardware Store Restaurant also have complete to-go Thanksgiving meals on offer, as do other eateries including Camp Burton, Gravy, Mika’s Kitchen and Patty’s Place.
Adam Chumas, general manager of The Hardware Store Restaurant, reached Monday morning by phone, said his to-do list for the day included calling everyone who had reservations to dine at the restaurant on Thanksgiving to ask if they wanted to switch to ordering their meal to-go.
For his part, he said that he hoped the restaurant would only need to be closed for indoor dining for a short time.
“If everyone does their part, it’s only for four weeks,” he said.
For Lia Lira, owner and chef of Bramble House, the restrictions also mean more adjustments and challenges in a year that has already been too full of them.
“I’ve worked hard to keep my staff employed and with only four to five tables outside, it’s going to be tricky,” Lira said. “I’ve decided the best move is to keep positive.”
The restaurant will now offer an outdoor “Hearty Happy Hour” from 4 to 5 p.m. with warm snacks and mulled wine, and start a new “Bramble House Outdoors” program for dinner. The restaurant will also continue its “Lia’s Chicken Shack” offerings, with a “Wing Wednesday” in the coming weeks that will offer salt and pepper wings for outdoor dining patrons or to-go.
For Thanksgiving, Bramble House is offering a complete to-go Thanksgiving meal for two, and despite the economic strains of the year, the restaurant will donate a portion of the proceeds from Thanksgiving to Real Rent Duwamish.
“Thanksgiving is a lovely family holiday that I cherish but with such an ugly history that it feels incredibly important to me to find a way to honor both the modern community-minded aspects of it while trying to, at least in some small way, start to right some of the wrongs that were and continue to be perpetrated against the Indigenous people of this area,” Lira said.
Another local business, Nashi Orchards, had already closed down its tasting room last week before the restrictions came down.
Cheryl Lubbert, who owns the business, said that visitors had come to the tasting rooms from states all over the country, even as the pandemic worsened, and that she felt she and her husband’s exposure to infection were too high.
“We eventually said, “Is one more bottle of cider worth it?” said Lubbert.
Other businesses, such as realtors, are less likely to feel as many impacts from the new restrictions. The new rules prohibit open houses for real estate companies, but John de Groen, of Windermere Vashon, said that would have little effect on operations.
“Sales on Vashon continue to be strong,” de Groen said.
Current protocols for the company, he said, include having buyers fill out a COVID questionnaire prior to being shown a home.
“We’ve been selling without open houses most of the year so prohibiting it again is not going to impact us negatively,” he said.
At Vashon Community Care, staff and residents are returning to tighter restrictions on activities during this time, but Inslee’s directive to allow only outdoor visits is in line with VCC’s ongoing practices, said Executive Director Wendy Kleppe.
The care facility also practices a wide range of other infection control practices, she said.
Kleppe said she appreciates the governor’s action amid the state’s spike in infections, as well as islanders’ adherence to public health measures. She also expressed gratitude to the volunteers staffing the Emergency Operations Center and the Medical Reserve Corps.
“The seniors we serve at VCC are of the generation who fought in World War ll on behalf of the entire country. They sacrificed for future generations, and I hope we can do the same for them,” she said.
For grocery stores and other retailers on Vashon, allowing fewer people into stores will be an adjustment.
Clay Gleb, Vice President of Vashon Thriftway, said that his store had formerly been allowed to fill to 30% of occupancy, so the new restriction to 25% occupancy would limit the store to allowing only 202 customers to shop at one time.
“It’s important to note that the vast majority of the time, we have nowhere near this many customers in the store at any given time,” he said.
However, he did caution that on July 3 and 4 this year, he said, the store did get close to capacity and staff had to ask customers to wait outside in a socially distanced line to make sure it did not go over its capacity.
“We anticipate this happening again around Thanksgiving and Christmas and have already informed customers via our social media channels to expect having to wait outside around the holidays, even before Gov. Inslee’s announcement,” he said.
He also pointed out that customers can avail themselves of curbside pickup and delivery options at the store, detailed at vashonthriftway.com.
“We do anticipate spots for both pickup and delivery filling up quickly around the holidays, so we’ve been encouraging people to get their orders submitted as soon as possible,” Gleb said.
Shawn Hoffman, the owner of Vashon IGA, also said that his store also becomes more crowded over the holidays, that he hoped customers would continue to avail themselves of IGA’s online shopping tool, Rosieapp.com, and pick up their groceries at the store’s curbside.
The website was launched by the IGA corporation about a year and a half ago, said Hoffman, and was ready to ramp up when the pandemic struck earlier this year.
For those who plan to go to the store in person for Thanksgiving shopping, Hoffman strongly urged that only one family member do the shopping, to help control occupancy at the store.
“And if they don’t want to wait in line, they can just order from their phones and we’ll bring their groceries to them in the parking lot,” he said.