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Restaurateur wants more guidance from Gov. Inslee

David Jones: 'Trust that both our customers and small businesses will practice safe procedures'

Series: Coronavirus | Story 139

Last updated 5/5/2020 at 5:52pm

David Jones

David Jones and his wife, Lorri, own and operate Blazing Onion Burgers, Brews & Spirits.

David Jones realized his dream in 2007 when he and his wife, Lorri, opened Blazing Onion Burgers, Brews & Spirits in Mill Creek, a fast-casual restaurant that became an immediate favorite.

He soon expanded to six other locations in Snohomish, King, Pierce, and Kitsap counties, and was looking forward to his eighth, in Newcastle.

The coronavirus pandemic stopped that plan.

Like many local restaurateurs, Jones has seen the pandemic delay projects and cut into his profits. It forced him to temporarily close three locations and led to the heartbreaking decision to lay off staff.

But with Gov. Jay Inslee's restrictions on restaurant service approaching eight weeks, Jones said he is getting ready to open again. With restrictions, of course. And with some advance warning from the governor, which he's still waiting for.

Jones, who lives in unincorporated Edmonds in Picnic Point, created a stir recently on Facebook when he posted his rationale for opening doors sooner than later – frequently taking shots at the governor – while also offering a few suggestions.

"It's time to trust our customers and small businesses to open back up in May," he wrote. "Trust that both our customers and small businesses will practice safe procedures, trust that we will keep social distancing measures in place, trust that we have all learned from the last (eight) weeks. The states don't align with this, so someone's data and science are wrong."

Jones told the Beacon that he's referring to other states – including Texas and Georgia – that have eased restrictions on restaurants. There, restaurants that provide social-distancing rules can serve customers in house and not solely rely on takeout, as restaurants in Edmonds and Washington state are ordered to do.

On April 22, Inslee did announce the easing of restrictions on construction, non-urgent elective surgery, and some outdoor activities.

Five days later, he said that Washington State Department of Natural Resources-managed lands would reopen for day-use on May 5. This would happen in conjunction with the reopening of lands managed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Washington State Parks and Recreation.

This will allow some hunting and fishing. Golf courses will also be allowed to reopen.

But restaurants?

Inslee did not mention them on either date.

He is scheduled to announce more information on Friday, May 1, but said this week that he will expand the stay-at-home order past May 4.

Ideas for opening

Jones has a few ideas of how openings could occur, and he's shared these thoughts with the governor, legislators, and senators.

– Open up every other table at the beginning (closing tables) and continue with strong takeout;

– Sanitize every table between uses;

– Let people wait in their cars for a table. Send a text when their tables ready;

– Increase the guests' hand sanitizer station pumps; and

– Add an employee whose new job is to keep the dining room sanitized, and many more.

Jones said he wishes Inslee would have given restaurants more time to prepare for closing when he made his stay-at-home announcement April 5.

"He shut down the economy for Washington state at 11:30 in the morning," he said. "We had $30,000 worth of food arriving at our stores that day because he did not have a plan – he made a sudden decision.

"We had a ton of food that was going to spoil because most sit down restaurants dropped 90% in sales that day."

Paycheck protection

Jones applied and received a Small Business Association Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, which went into effect on April 14. The loan is designed to provide a direct incentive for small businesses to keep their workers on the payroll.

The Small Business Association will forgive loans if all employees are kept on the payroll for eight weeks and the money is used for payroll, rent, mortgage interest, or utilities.

But Jones said the loans have a problem.

"The loans have key rules to be forgiven that don't align with Inslee's plan," he said. "We must schedule 90% of our pre-virus staff over an eight-week period starting when the PPP is funded. We've been able to staff 30% with takeout. Partly because of sales and partly because scheduling more threatens social distancing.

"The larger the restaurant space being used, the more we can schedule. Dining rooms, even limited, can help us tremendously meet this rule. If we don't have a solution, our PPP funds change from a grant to a loan that has to be paid back in 18 months.

"If our state doesn't start this conversation, many of our favorite Washington restaurants will face financial hardship that they may never recover from."

Inslee, in a news release, said it is unlikely many restrictions under the "Stay Home, Stay Healthy" order will be modified before May 4. Rather, this plan is intended to be a framework for the loosening of restrictions contingent on a steady decrease of COVID-19's spread.

"It will look more like the turning of the dial than the flip of a switch," Inslee said in the address. "We're going to take steps and then monitor to see whether they work or if we must continue to adapt."

Depending on health projections for the spread of the virus, some distancing restrictions may be in place for weeks or months to come.

Jones said, again, that he is simply looking for guidance from Inslee and the state on restaurants.

"Because we have no idea. This virus could be around for years. We don't know. The scientists don't know. So we can't just shut down. We can't just throw away all our restaurants – that's not the American dream. It seems like we've gone away from things that we hold dear in America for this. And that's fine because we needed to strike (the virus) (out). But I think at this point, it's time to start talking about how to get back."

In the meantime, Jones is doing all he can to manage. He said sales are back up to 40% of normal, thanks to the support of the public ordering takeout food. He's also been able to hire back some staff to handle the orders, giving them $3 an hour over regular wages.


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