SNOHOMISH — On crisp December days with rain drizzling, tents shield customers sharing drinks and devouring delights along streets and sidewalks.
These days, dining in means eating outside. State restrictions prohibit indoor service until at least Jan. 4.
During the pandemic, restaurants and bars have taken to the streets, or at least parking spaces, to give customers outdoor, in-person dining options.
“The idea is to avoid crowded, poorly ventilated and fully enclosed indoor spaces,” Heather Thomas, a spokesperson for the Snohomish Health District, said in an email.
State guidelines limit table size to just five for outside eating and stipulate that structures have no more than two or three walls, depending on ventilation. Thomas reminded that even in the outdoor setting, face coverings should be worn when not eating or drinking.
“Not only does this reduce the risk of transmission to others at the table, but it also helps protect the servers and waitstaff,” she said.
On Tuesday, at Christa’s Sandwichboard, 1206 First St. in Snohomish, a server darted between the storefront and a tent outside to avoid the rain.
Business slinging sandwiches has remained steady, said Christa Soteros-Lorrigan, owner and namesake of the shop. The outdoor dining space is a blessing that she said kept sales the same as before the pandemic.
“The outside is where all our productivity and revenue is coming from,” Soteros-Lorrigan said.
Tables, heaters and festive decorations furnish parking spaces that are now a dining room. Cars scoot through the streets of the historic downtown a few feet from customers who seem unaware of the traffic.
Nick and Patty Rutter sipped wine and awaited food outside Christa’s. The Lake Stevens couple said they’ve visited Snohomish restaurants with outdoor eating areas a few times since inside dining was halted in November.
“I don’t know if you ever get used to it,” Nick Rutter said. “But it’s a great way to support local businesses.”
The city of Snohomish helped outfit about a dozen restaurants for outdoor dining in July with funds from the federal CARES Act.
“It was a considerable expense, but it was worth it to keep those businesses open,” said Wendy Poischbeg, the city’s economic development and communications manager.
That financial support has since run out, and eateries are now supplying their own tents, but the city continues to help when it can by providing marketing.
Tents have popped up in Mukilteo at the Ivar’s at the ferry dock and outside several other restaurants in town. Dining options can also be found along the curbs of Everett, Edmonds and elsewhere.
Across the water, the “We’ve Got You Covered” campaign, spearheaded by the Whidbey Island Association of Realtors and the Langley Chamber of Commerce, raised $23,000 for six tents outfitted with heaters.
“Our restaurant community here is probably one of the hardest-hit,” said Cheryl Keefe, a broker at John L. Scott Real Estate in Langley.
The tents have beams with concrete blocks to hold them down when sea breezes get brisk. Holiday lights and garlands decorate the sides. Other than the car and foot traffic inches from their plates, the meal carries on much the same as indoors. Glasses clink. Servers scurry. People talk and laugh and drink.
Langley Mayor Tim Callison is among those who have enjoyed a meal at a socially distanced table in a tent.
“It’s a nice experience,” Callison said. “It’s a common thing you see throughout Europe, where at every little corner, plaza, sidewalk area, they table it, and if the weather’s bad they tent it.”
Tent dining wasn’t enough to keep open Prima Bistro, which has rooftop tables with a water view. The Langley bistro will go “into hibernation after service on December 13,” the owner posted on Facebook.
“At Prima we have five tables on the patio, and even if those are full all day every day (which they aren’t), along with a decent take out business, it’s just not enough,” the post reads. “When indoor dining closed we immediately knew it would not be sustainable. If we can stop this bleed right now, then we will be in the best position to successfully reopen immediately when restrictions are loosened.”
Prima will offer grab-and-go items at a neighboring restaurant it owns, Saltwater Fish House and Oyster Bar, which is keeping its tent open but discontinuing table service after this weekend.
At one of the oldest eateries in Snohomish, the Oxford Saloon, 913 First St., tented dining is all that is keeping the lights on, owner Craig Swanson said.
“If it was not for the outdoor seating, our numbers would not make any sense for us to stay open and we would have to shut down,” he said.
The tent accommodates about 20 customers and quickly became a hit. Swanson said the historic watering hole is considering ways to continue with an outdoor space after the COVID-19 crisis ends.
“It’s all about finding silver linings this year,” he said. “This is something that has worked out really well — it has been a lifesaver for us as a business and we are hoping we can find some way to add this to our existing business plan.”
Herald writer Joseph Thompson contributed to the report.
Ian Davis-Leonard: 425-339-3448; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @IanDavisLeonard.