ALLYN — The Boat House restaurant’s patio, overlooking the North Bay of Case Inlet, has become “Gail’s Field of Bubbles.”
“I am a bit of an ‘If I build it they will come’ dreamer, so it’s fitting,” Boat House owner Gail McCoy joked.
Five transparent yurt-like tents with names like the SS Minnow and Jolly Roger dot the outside of the restaurant, whose indoor dining has been shuttered — along with every other eatery in Washington. Each bubble comes equipped with a heater, air purifier, dehumidifier and even a blue-tooth speaker system patrons can hook up to while they dine.
Reservations are filling up — through March 2021.
“Our customers are having so much fun with them,” said McCoy, noting hardly anyone walks away without a selfie from the podlike dining experience.
New restrictions by Gov. Jay Inslee last week allowed for restaurants to continue outdoor dining, even as other states, including neighboring Oregon, banned it. That opened the door — or should we say, tent — to include those structures including “greenhouses,” “pods,” and even “igloos.” They should have no more than two walls, the governor’s guidance says, “unless another opening exists that is large enough to create cross-ventilation,” in which case a third wall could be added.
The Boat House’s individual bubbles, which can seat a handful of people, are mandated to have a 10-minute waiting period between seatings before a thorough cleaning and disinfection. But McCoy said that wasn’t enough to make people feel safe to celebrate things like birthdays and anniversaries. The restaurant is only seating one party a night in each of its five bubbles, which will soon grow to eight.
“As much as we’d love to seat two or three a night, we want people to have the confidence that they’re safe,” McCoy said, noting it was a gamble that cost $2,000 per bubble.
‘We’re going to fight through this’
Other restaurants are thinking up their own ways of staying open with outdoor seating, even if it means some exposure to the elements as winter approaches. Some may try a simple tarp to keep things going — but some, like McCoy, are investing substantially to make it work through a cold and rainy Pacific Northwest winter — all while knowing they’ll have a trickle of the normal customer base.
And they must adhere to a bevy of regulations enforced by state and local agencies — many of which could change at the drop of a governor’s press conference.
Jack Johnson, owner of Bremerton’s Garage Bar & Grill, searched online and made a flurry of phone calls to find two tents in Seattle this week to place at the rear of the popular Kitsap Way bar and eatery. It gives him 1,600 square feet of dining space.
“We’re going to fight through this,” he said. “We’re not going to close down unless we have to.”
Johnson said so far, The Garage is running about 50% of the sales of its indoor seating — and that is roughly half of the business it used to do pre-pandemic.
Not making matters easier: rental canopies and tents have seen a surge in demand since the pandemic began, as they provided a sheltered outdoor environment for hospitals and clinics conducting COVID-19 testing.
“They’re all rented out,” Johnson said.
“We’re doing this for our customers and our staff,” said Johnson, who said he’s invested thousands of dollars to keep things going. “Earlier in the pandemic, I went into savings for remodeling during the shutdown. Now, I’m dipping into my retirement.”
Safety and strategies
There has also not been the financial relief that came under the first round of shutdowns. And, there’s no assurance of whether people will brave the elements, on top of the pandemic, to eat outside at all.
Dominick Ferrara, owner of The Green Light Diner in Poulsbo, this summer expanded street-front seating. With nice weather Thursday, he put out umbrellas and space heaters.
The only customers he got ordered to-go.
“We can sanitize it and make it look nice,” said Ferrara, who is contemplating purchasing a tent, “but if customers are not comfortable sitting out there, it’s all for naught.”
Others are doing their best to find a bright side. The Tracyton Public House, which has used its roomy parking lot for outdoor seating all summer and fall, has weathered at least three windstorms that required its covered beer garden to be rebuilt. Bar manager Bryan Whitaker said they’re building and filling out paperwork to make a more permanent outdoor structure, albeit with an outdoor feel, particularly for sports fans.
“We’ve got a huge outdoor TV that we roll in and out for the games and market it as ‘it’s almost like being at the game’ with the open, cold air,” he said.
Though Washington restaurants with outdoor space can pursue the option, health officials advise it’s safer to just get take-out. Kitsap Public Health District Dr. Gib Morrow said dining at home is still the best way to avoid the novel coronavirus.
“With COVID-19 spreading widely in our community, every interaction we have in a public place can increase our risk for getting sick or spreading the virus to others,” he said. “Ordering takeout is a great way to support our local restaurants.”
“If you do choose to dine outside at a restaurant, the safest option is to only dine with members of your own household,” he added.
Josh Farley is a reporter covering the military for the Kitsap Sun. He can be reached at 360-792-9227, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @joshfarley.
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