Well this is a goddamned mess.
On Wednesday the Everett Herald reported that seven Democrats signed a letter Sen. Mark Mullet wrote to Governor Jay Inslee announcing his "surprise" at the Governor's decision to ban indoor dining for a month. Mullet and the other lawmakers also "urged" the Governor to rollback the restrictions. In response, the Governor said he'll meet with the lawmakers tomorrow to talk through the issue.
But in follow-up interviews, some of the signatories walked back claims made in the letter and reframed their reasons for signing on. After hearing everybody out, the story ultimately revealed what we already know: we're living in a country with a malignantly negligent federal government, and we're living in a state with lawmakers who don't have the power or the inclination to generate the funds necessary to pay workers to stay home.
The letter's signatories included Seattle's own Sens. Rebecca Saldaña and Joe Nguyen, Steve Hobbs of Lake Stevens, Bainbridge Island's Christine Rolfes, and Karen Keiser of Des Moins. Outgoing Sen. Dean Takko and two House Reps in the 5th LD, Bill Ramos and Lisa Callan, also signed on.
In the letter, Mullet warned the lockdown will lead to "100,000 more job losses in the food service and accommodation" industry "right before the holidays," as if the lost jobs would somehow be less of a tragedy in February. (And I know this is beside the point, but holy fuck, this country's obsession with the holidays is the reason we're in this situation in the first place. Outbreaks increased after Memorial Day, after July 4th, after Labor Day, and after Halloween. In my personal life I'm hearing godless liberals talking about visiting family outside the house on Thanksgiving. FOR WHAT? And now these Democrats are trying to use job losses bEfOrE tHe HoLiDaYs as an emotional appeal in already pathetic argument against locking down indoor dining for a month? Unbelievable.)
Anyhow, to summarize the rest of his argument: Mullet regurgitated numbers the restaurant lobby used to justify staying open, claiming that outbreaks in restaurants account for "less than 1%" of the state's community spread.
He also called into question a Centers for Disease Control study the Governor cited in support of his lockdown policy. "The CDC data cited by you as proof of the science behind closing indoor dining also suggests that small private gathers (sic) of less than (sic) 10 people are not linked to increased spread, which we know to be refuted by other scientific data," he wrote.
He then proposed allowing indoor dining at 25% capacity, and "containing restaurant restrictions to counties or neighborhoods that have the highest infection rates."
Let's take these arguments one by one.
The restaurant lobby's spin on the state coronavirus data is just that—spin. Last Sunday—before Mullet sent the letter to Inslee—Washington state health director Dr. Kathy Lofy said the state's data on restaurants mainly tracks outbreaks among staff, not patrons. They didn't set up their volunteer contact tracing system to record when two COVID-19 patients visited the same restaurant, so it's difficult to determine the actual number of outbreaks attributable to restaurant visits. That said, restaurants still top the state's list of outbreak locations in fields unrelated to heath care.
According to the CDC study the Governor cited, "Adults with positive SARS-CoV-2 test results were approximately twice as likely to have reported dining at a restaurant than were those with negative SARS-CoV-2 test results." Researchers recommended considering "efforts to reduce possible exposures where mask use and social distancing are difficult to maintain," like, for instance, when eating inside of a restaurant.
It's true, as Mullet pointed out, that the study found "no significant differences" between "case-patients and control-participants" among those who claimed to have attended "gatherings with ≤10 persons in a home," and that other studies tell us that such gatherings are risky.
But that detail alone doesn't negate the study's findings on restaurants. Participants could have worn a mask the whole time during those gatherings, so it's hard to know for certain. But what we do know is that the people who caught COVID-19 and who went to restaurants "were less likely to report observing almost all patrons at the restaurant adhering to recommendations such as wearing a mask or social distancing," according to the study.
The bottom line is that eating indoors around other people for a while is risky as hell. A study published in Nature showed that shutting down high-risk places of interest works better to slow the spread than literally just forcing people to stay home and bonking them on the head if they leave their apartments, and so a four-week ban on indoor dining makes sense. Anchorage, AK; most counties in California; Chicago, IL; fucking Kentucky; Michigan; New Mexico; Denver, Colorado; Minnesota; Philly, PA; and Oregon have all come to the same conclusion.
"There is a strong body of medical evidence behind these decisions, which also have strong vocal support in the medical community," said Mike Faulk, a spokesperson for the Governor's office. "It is unfortunately only a matter of time before this latest Covid wave does more damage locally and around the country. Fewer people in Washington will get sick and die as a result of these decisions."
The policy also has strong support from organizations who advocate for restaurant workers. Working Washington called the restaurant lobby's push to rescind COVID-19 restrictions "divisive, misleading, and wildly irresponsible." Kitchen staff face the challenge of distancing in small spaces, while front-of-house staff must deal with baby-brained dorks who reject mask requirements and owners who push them "to seat large parties in dangerous circumstances," a spokesperson said.
Furthermore, restaurant managers have been looking at the projections and the increasing infection rates for a while now, so Inslee's lockdown wasn't really a "surprise" to anyone. And some managers say 25% ain't gonna save them—they're barely keeping the doors open at 50% capacity as it is.
Seattle chef Eric Rivera, who runs Addo, called the lawmakers who signed this letter "fucking insane."
"They have no sense of the realities and variables associated with restaurants," he added. "Restaurants have had months to devise new ways to keep their operations going. They were given the opportunity to open up, increase occupancy, and here we are. Allowing people into restaurants is not the way, and if a business can't understand that then they can adapt or close. We're in the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, and for some life is more important than shitty bar food and a Bud Light."
Mullet didn't respond to my request for comment, but the Democrats who did respond more or less agreed the with the counterarguments I presented.
In an email, Sen. Saldaña said she signed onto the letter "to send a message recognizing the challenges business owners are facing," but admitted at the time she hadn't heard the latest information about community spread in restaurants.
She added that she "understands why the Governor issued the new restrictions," what with "the U.S. reaching a quarter million deaths today" and all, but said she wished Inslee had given business owners more of a heads up. She also expressed some concern about the ban on indoor dining leading more people to attend in-person Thanksgiving gatherings.
Over the phone, Sen. Nguyen said he supports the Governor's decision to ban indoor dining given the information that has emerged since he signed the letter. (He said he signed before hearing Dr. Lofy talking about the limitations of the state's coronavirus data on restaurants.) Nevertheless, he added, "I [signed the letter] on purpose to raise eyebrows."
"The concern I had," he continued, "was that there wasn't enough relief for the small businesses. If I had my way, I'd say it's fine to shut them down as long as you supplement the workers. I'd do what Colorado did and call a special session to pass a restaurant relief fund and pay for it with taxes on the wealthy." This would be in addition to Inslee's $100 million grants and loans program, which the Governor admitted won't be enough. This afternoon Inslee also capped fees delivery apps charge restaurants, which may boost returns on delivery service.
Nguyen said it would be "feasible" for lawmakers to pass progressive taxes and to use the rest of the state's CARES Act funding, which amounts to about $200 million, for a relief package targeting certain kinds of small businesses.
"I understand it'll be very expensive," Nguyen added, but he argues we should spend that money now anyway, especially since the budget forecast for the next two years improved again, this time by over $600 million.
The restaurant industry guessed they'd need $1.2 billion to cover costs for a month, which Sen. Hobbs called "federal-level money."
Hobbs batted down any sort of state-level solution I threw at him, short of the suggestions Mullet included in the letter. Nguyen's plan wouldn't work, he said, because "bills take a lot of time." Neither Democrats nor Republicans have assigned members to committee yet, and the session is coming up in a couple months anyway, "so rushing into isn't going to fix anything," he added.
He also described any sort of progressive tax fix as a permanent solution to a short-term problem. "If I could wave a magic wand and get my wish, it would be Congress passing a sizable stimulus bill just like they did last time, but taking into consideration other factors such as those who are renting or holding on by their fingernails trying to keep their homes," he said.
Let's check in with Congress to see how their COVID-19 relief package is coming along:
Update: The Senate is expected to recess tonight until after Thanksgiving. That means they will come back the week of Nov. 30 ahead of a Dec. 11 govt funding deadline.
There has been no progress on a Covid relief deal.
Very unlikely one will come together at this point
— Jake Sherman (@JakeSherman) November 18, 2020
Not looking good!
In an imaginary dreamworld, state lawmakers could call a special session, repeal the balanced budget amendment to the constitution with a 2/3 majority in both chambers and then send it to the ballot for voter approval, but Hobbs called that pie-in-the-sky solution "mechanically impossible."
"Even if it were politically possible, I don't know how you could do it that fast," he added. "We just don't have the means to print money."
On the substance, Hobbs called the rebuttal to letter he signed "good," but said he remains an advocate for rolling back restrictions because he thinks 25% capacity might "mitigate some of the losses," and because the lockdown will erase peoples' livelihoods when the restaurants layoff workers in large numbers.
"There's no winning here. There's just different elements of losing," he said. "We're trying to mitigate sorrow in this pandemic. Every decision we make is going to be a very difficult one."