Customers place their orders at the counter of The Sisters Restaurant on Tuesday, perhaps the deli’s last day, in downtown Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Customers place their orders at the counter of The Sisters Restaurant on Tuesday, perhaps the deli’s last day, in downtown Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Editorial: Our best hope is to cope with covid limits

Restrictions on eateries and shops are painful but can suppress the virus until a vaccine is ready.

By The Herald Editorial Board

When The Daily Herald moved its offices some six years ago from its long-time location at Grand and California to its new home at 41st and Colby, most staffers would have told you they’d have liked to take The Sisters Restaurant — a few steps outside the front door — with them.

More than a lunch spot for Herald employees hungering for a toasty Reuben sandwich, a feta-topped Greek salad or a cup of African peanut soup — oh, and a slice of that chocolate walnut pie — The Sisters, since it’s opening in 1983, served as the newspaper’s break room, interview spot and coffee shop. And while the visits by newsroom, advertising and front office staff trailed off after the move, the restaurant, its employees and the four Quall sisters who owned and ran the cafe were treasured among Herald staffers — former and current — as friends who made great food and were welcoming hosts.

Certainly, The Herald wasn’t the only downtown employer to claim The Sisters as theirs.

Last week — following new restrictions on indoor dining at eateries and other business that will continue until at least Dec. 14, in reaction to the recent spike in coronavirus infections — The Sisters announced it was stowing its paring knives and rolling pins until next year; perhaps closing for good, as The Herald’s Janice Podsada reports on today’s front page.

The move to remote work by many employers during the pandemic almost certainly cut into the business of The Sisters and restaurants throughout the city. The restaurant had already closed for three months this spring during the first wave of the pandemic.

So, much now hangs on when the current surge of infections will calm, how long the most recent restrictions will last and whether the pandemic itself will slowly ebb as vaccines are distributed in coming months.

Other restaurants across the state are feeling the same pressures — and having to consider the same agonizing decisions — as to whether they can stay open with only take-out and delivery customers to support them. Shortly after Gov. Jay Inslee announced the restrictions, groups that included the restaurant industry and state lawmakers of both parties objected to the restrictions’ return.

The consequences are significant. A spokeswoman for the Washington Hospitality Association wrote that the shutdown would put 100,000 restaurant and other employees in the state out of work. Adding to the bad timing, jobless benefits will expire at the end of the year for many who are unemployed, and federal enhanced jobless benefits — which were supplementing state benefits with another $600 a week — ended months ago, with no indication of when or if Congress will renew them or at what amount.

The restrictions undoubtedly will be a hardship for employees and small businesses, who depend on the additional customer traffic — and overtime and tips — typical during the holiday season.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion, however, that the restrictions are anything but necessary, especially at a time when the infection rate in the county and state are at their highest levels this year. The most recent two-week rolling average of covid-19 cases in the county — as reported by the Snohomish Health District — is now more than 280 per 100,000 people, far above the peaks of 129 in March and 96 in July. Simply put, that means there’s a greater chance of exposing ourselves to someone who is infected.

And once again, we have to flatten the curve.

At the current level of transmission, state Health Officer Kathy Lofy said Wednesday, hospitalizations in the state for covid-19 could more than double from 60 new hospitalizations each day to about 150 a day in a few weeks, potentially overwhelming medical resources.

“If the Nov. 16 restrictions are as successful as they were back in March, we can reverse this trend,” Lofy said.

Last week, state legislators, including Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, sent a letter to Inslee that sought a compromise that would allow restaurants to offer indoor dining at 25 percent of capacity, put limits on the number of people at a table and restrict tables to people from the same household.

But such a compromise could be too little to help restaurants and too lax to control the spread of the disease.

Indoor dining, because diners of course have to remove their face masks to eat, combines the two most-common risks for transmission of the virus: community spread and close contact.

While seated a a table, we’re more exposed to the virus, especially from potentially asymptomatic diners across the table from us. As the lawmakers’ letter suggests, limiting a table to the members of one household could reduce that risk, but how would restaurant staff enforce such a rule? Especially when it’s a chore to get some people just to wear their masks in public.

The restrictions on restaurants and other businesses are a far greater imposition on our lives than the reminders to wear our masks; there are devastating consequences for small businesses losing customers and families losing one or more incomes. Those impacts are as deeply felt as are the demands faced by students, parents and educators for whom remote learning is the only available option right now.

Just as we want our kids back in their classrooms, we also want to be able to sit down with family and friends at a restaurant to enjoy a meal. Take-out and delivery are fine, but dining in a restaurant is something that helps to define a community, just as The Sisters — and its Formica tables and mix-and-match kitchen chairs — helped to define downtown Everett.

But any hope for a thriving business there — or at any restaurant, shop, theater, bar, gallery, museum and more in our cities and towns — requires we take the threat of the virus seriously and do all we can to suppress its spread.

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