The governor’s order to shut down all bars and restaurants or convert to take-out only by midnight Tuesday did not come as a surprise to Leigh Henderson. The owner of Alexa’s Café and Catering has been running her business on Main Street in Bothell for more than 25 years. On weekends, the line for breakfast regularly extends out the door and down the block.
Over the past week and a half, concerns about the spread of the new coronavirus started to change that. After the governor’s first order about social distancing last week, she removed six tables from her space to make it possible for customers to sit at least six feet apart. She dedicated one employee’s entire shift to constantly wiping down everything, from menus to surfaces, with disinfectant. And she began offering take-out service.
She says there’s a big network of local businesses like hers sharing information and ideas about how to cope.
“Talking and emailing and trying to figure this out," she said. "It’s kind of like not fun to be in the same boat, because it feels like it’s sinking, you know?”
After hearing that restaurants would be shut down in Chicago and that the shelter-in-place order was coming for Northern California, she was waiting for the next shoe to drop here.
Adapting to unusual circumstances is something Henderson has experience with; it was less than three years ago that a massive fire ripped through Bothell's main street, leveling several buildings in the town’s historic core and almost reaching her café. A community gathering spot, she says hers was one of the first business to reopen. They did so without an internet connection at first, accepting cash and checks only and even an honors system on payments for a time.
Still, she says that didn’t prepare her for the situation she and so many of her colleagues are in now.
“I’m not sleeping very well,” Henderson said. “I weathered the fire storm. I’ve weathered three times the downturn in the economy. But I’ve never seen anything like this — nothing.”
She says she’s forcing herself to remain positive and be a good leader and doing her best to keep taking care of her 65 employees. This means making tough decisions.
TAKE-OUT NOT AN OPTION FOR ALL
Alexa’s has not seen enough business for the take-out orders to keep that going, Henderson says, so she’s shutting down completely until the governor’s order is lifted. The logistics of becoming essentially a drive-through or delivery service are just too much.
“We’re not known for that. It’s not like a pizza place or a teriyaki place that’s all to go,” she says. She didn’t plan for this closure and says she has more food prepped for restaurant service than she thinks would sell for take-out orders. “So, people are very concerned and want to support us, but I’ve made the decision that food safety is my number one issue; I don’t want this food sitting for a week.”
She’s helping about 15 of her employees apply for unemployment benefits. She’s able to keep about 10 on the payroll; they work in her catering service, supplying meals to a factory in Muckilteo. She says the food she has in the café now will be distributed to her employees and their families.
And she’s grateful that after nearly three decades in business, she has the financial resources to feel like she can make it through the coronavirus closures — and eventually, she hopes, hire people back.
BAR OWNERS HIT HARD
On the bar scene, the news seemed to hit even harder. Owners expressed shock at the announcement, saying there is no playbook for such an unprecedented set of events.
Jason Cottam — general manager of Roxy's Diner, Norm's, and The Backdoor in Seattle's Fremont neighborhood — said he would do his best to keep paying employees.
“Or make sure that they’re getting taken care of and getting what they need to have done,” Cottam said.
But Rose Peterson, general manager of Moshi Moshi in Tacoma, said even if she keeps staff on the payroll, they’d still be facing huge challenges.
“You know, not having any hourly is one thing," she said, "but not having tipped transactions is something entirely different."
And Jim Fullerton, owner of The All-Star Sports Bar in Des Moines, says he was getting a lot of calls from vendors.
“And of course, we’re not going to order any new products because we’re not going to be open,” Fullerton said. “So you go down the line a little bit, you see how many people are being impacted by this.”
The governor’s order applies not only to bars, restaurants and cafés, but also to food courts, nail parlors, hair salons, youth sports facilites, tattoo shops, gyms and yoga studios, non-tribal gaming locations, breweries and distillers, theaters and bowling alleys.
It does not apply to grocery stores, pharmacies, banks, gas stations, hardware stores and state parks — as long as they meet health requirements for cleanliness and social distancing.
The closures are mandated at least through the end of March.