St. Patrick’s Day won’t be the same at Shawn O’Donnell’s American Grill and Irish Pub in Everett this year.
It’s like Christmas Day for the restaurant, with Irish dancers, face painting and folks in leprechaun costumes. The beer garden, held in a pop-up tent, attracts up to 600 imbibers.
But on March 17, there will be none of that — only a few bagpipers. The spread of COVID-19, or the novel coronavirus, has changed owner Shawn O’Donnell’s plans.
“We’re in full hunker-down mode,” he said. “We’re still going to be open on St. Patrick’s Day and we’ll still have a crowd, but we’re not promoting it. It doesn’t look right to do that.”
O’Donnell is referring to the increased likelihood of the virus being transmitted with the gathering. There are at least 136 confirmed cases statewide as of Monday, including 41 confirmed or presumed positive in Snohomish County.
The outbreak is taking a toll on the restaurant business. Even though coronavirus isn’t a food-borne illness, restaurant owners say they suspect some fear becoming infected at public places.
Extra cleaning and disinfecting at Shawn O’Donnell’s has done little to quell that fear. O’Donnell said it’s hard to blame anyone for being cautious, especially given Gov. Jay Inslee’s recent recommendations that Washingtonians keep their distance from others and avoid social gatherings.
“It does no good to downplay it,” O’Donnell said. “It only does good to fight it.”
O’Donnell has restaurants in Everett, Seattle and Spokane. In just the past 12 days, sales at the Everett location dropped 26%. The hit is even harder in Seattle, where business at one of his two Emerald City pubs is down by 70%, O’Donnell said.
“The one in Pioneer Square is plain empty,” he said.
O’Donnell, of Mukilteo, said the string of slow days has forced him to figure out how to trim expenses. He doesn’t plan to lay off anybody in Everett, but concedes layoffs may be necessary at the Pioneer Square location.
“These restaurant (workers) don’t have a lot of cash reserved,” he said. “They can’t afford to not work tomorrow.”
In Bothell, Russell’s Restaurant & Bar owner Russell Lowell is dealing with a similar predicament. He’s had to reduce hours for his employees to compensate for fewer customers.
“We’re going to a skeleton crew,” he said. “What do you do? You have to cut it down.”
While business is slower than usual at Russell’s, Lowell says his steady customer base will keep him afloat. He worries other restaurants won’t be as lucky.
“I know for certain there are going to be restaurants that close their doors for good,” he said. “They live week by week. They will not be able to survive this.”
Lowell, of Mill Creek, said paying state taxes will be even more of a challenge for restaurant owners now. The governor’s office recently announced the Department of Revenue is working with businesses that request extensions on tax filings because of coronavirus.
Lowell has continued putting on events. Last week, Russell’s held a winemaker event that was attended by 120 diners. He said patrons should assess the risks involved with being around crowds — especially those over the age of 60 and those with underlying medical conditions — but not make every decision based on fear.
“I’d encourage people to be careful,” he said. “I’d also encourage people not to give up on their lives.”
Fear about contracting coronavirus manifests in different ways. Chung Tran, owner of Pho Asia Noodle House in Everett, said locals have associated his Vietnamese restaurant with the virus that showed up in China.
“People are afraid,” he said.
Customers usually flock to his restaurant in wintertime to eat pho, a hearty soup. But fewer are coming through the door than in the past three years he’s owned the restaurant.
“The cold weather is good for us this time of year,” he said. “But a lot people have been trying to avoid the public.”
The Daily Herald contacted about 20 Asian restaurants. Pho Asia Noodle House was the only to report that the outbreak had affected business.
O’Donnell said he hopes the virus will soon pass. But he worries that things will get worse before they get better.
“The thing that is most troubling about all this is the uncertainty,” he said. “We’re trying to make decisions, and it’s hard to when we don’t know whether this is going to blow over in two weeks or if it’s something we’re going to be dealing with for longer.”