File photo.

File photo.

The difficulties and limitations of Phase 2 in Mercer Island

COVID-19 business restrictions have eased. Implementation, however, can pose challenges.

On June 19, King County was approved to move into the second phase of Gov. Jay Inslee’s gradual approach to reopening the state in response to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic.

Beforehand, many businesses that had anticipated opening during Phase 2 were given a taste of the future with the announcement of a modified Phase 1 (or Phase 1.5). Phase 1.5 allowed businesses slated initially to get the reopening OK for Phase 2 — like salons and gyms, for instance — a little early, just with strict limitations.

With Phase 2, restaurant and retail capacities are additionally allowed to increase slightly. Notable niche businesses like pet grooming, photography and tattoo parlors are permitted to have a larger reopening after being only limitedly able to during Phase 1.5.

In a previous article published in the Mercer Island Reporter about Phase 1.5, a common refrain from owners was that acclimating to new guidelines could be arduous. In addition to general costliness, readjusting with each phase after getting used to a certain one could pose logistical challenges, even if one specific change amounted to a small tweak.

Even though Phase 2 permits further relaxation of state health mandates, many businesses are keeping intact stricter, individualized guidelines on top of new governmental rules, either out of caution, COVID-19-related logistical difficulties, or both.

Dorothy Reeck, who has owned the Roanoke Inn bar and tavern since 1993, said that while restaurants are now permitted to expand both indoor and outdoor seating options (both can go up to 50 percent capacity), she, for the time being, will be keeping indoor seating off limits. At the moment, the Roanoke Inn is sticking with outdoor dining and takeout as they have been for the last few weeks.

“We have 15 tables total,” Reeck said. “And because of the uncertainty of COVID, I’m not opening up the inside. I’m not secure with that. I don’t want people to get sick here. There’s a big exchange, and it’s a small building.”

Reeck said that she is continuing to wait for someone to say definitively that COVID cases are going down, not spiking, before considering reopening the inside. As the Roanoke Inn’s caretaker, she’s seen firsthand how people tend to act when they’re first coming inside, particularly in the bar area. (Per Phase 2 protocol, bar seating itself is off limits.)

Exterior of the Roanoke Inn. Photo via the Roanoke Inn Facebook page

Exterior of the Roanoke Inn. Photo via the Roanoke Inn Facebook page

“When [people] come into a bar, they’re happy,” Reeck said. “They’ll walk right up to one another, and if it’s raining, they kind of want to huddle. And those are things I’ve learned to watch for, and I have to be cautious that for them that doesn’t happen, and I don’t create a situation for that.”

Plus, it would be logistically tricky as of June 30 to successfully enact indoor measures, which would require implementing someone to help customers fill out health questionnaires and also necessitate a more diligent reservation-taking system.

One of the niche sorts of businesses whose guidelines have been relaxed with Phase 2 has been pet-grooming — a service that, until the passage of modified Phase 1, had been entirely banned in tandem with the stay-at-home order announced in March.

Tess Jones, a former nurse who is now the owner and groomer of Tesslan Dog Spa, had moved her business to Mercer Island March 1. (Previously, it had been based in Bellevue; she came to the Island to downsize and specialize in special-needs dogs.) She had only worked at her new spot for two weeks before being ordered to shut down.

Jones tried to appeal to the governor’s office to let her business stay open, given that the majority of her dog clients have health problems that require more maintenance than pets simply getting washed and trimmed. But this didn’t pan out. She did, however, receive some unemployment benefits, as well as a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan. She used some of her free time to make and then donate masks as well.

Now that Tesslan Dog Spa is back in business, it’s been unrelentingly busy — especially since Jones no longer has an assistant.

“I was elated that we [could go back to work],” Jones said. “But now, we’re overworked.”

Jones said that demand is high, partly because many regular clients she’d had to cancel on are trying to get squeezed in. In some cases, Jones has had to triage clients, putting medical needs ahead of cosmetic concerns. Currently, there’s a long waiting list.

Jones has found in some ways that her business model and background have made it easier to adjust to modified operations. She’s in her 60s — considered a high-risk age — but doesn’t have to worry about getting infected by other employees. And because of her nursing background, she is no stranger to wearing masks throughout a working day, though it does make breathing difficult.

In addition to anxieties over increasing case numbers, Jones discussed surviving as a business in general, and her worry for special-needs dogs who are without access to care for longer periods than usual.

“I have seen groomers say ‘I don’t think I can survive another lockdown,’” Jones said, adding, “For the first lockdown, having been a nurse, I agreed — grooming is non-essential. Human lives are more essential. That was fine. But when it stretched two, three, 10 weeks, months — dogs’ lives are important, too. They are very important to the owner — a lot of the dogs are service dogs to these owners…I just pray that we don’t get to a point where we have to go through a second lockdown — it might be longer. I may not be able to survive in my business.”

Julien Hervet, owner of bistro L’Experience Paris, which is based on Mercer Island and in Bellevue, said that things haven’t changed with Inslee’s approval of Phase 2. Although the business is in the process of securing proper permitting for outside dining “before Phase 3, and that’s assuming we don’t go back to Phase 1.5, which seems to be a risk these days,” Hervet said, indoor dining isn’t an option customers have shown much of an interest in.

As of late June, L’Experience Paris is just doing takeout, which it has always relied on. Hervet said the business has managed to receive a significant amount of support from the community, particularly on Mercer Island. He highlighted assistance from the city’s recent WeLoveMI COVID-19-relief campaign as significant. In Bellevue, L’Experience Paris received a small-business grant from Amazon, too.

Hervet, like others interviewed, is concerned about what could lie ahead as a result of COVID-19. What will the fall, winter look like?

“It really comes down to what’s going to happen with the virus,” Hervet said. “People talk about the second wave, but it feels like we’re not even out of the first wave. Hopefully we have a little break for the summer and then be able to have a bit more normal activity. But then, of course, we go back in the fall where there is a high potential…We will keep on trying to monitor the business very closely and try to keep doing what we’ve been doing for the last couple of months, in terms of marketing and trying to get people excited about coming into our business.”

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