YAKIMA — A number of Yakima-area restaurants and bars that are reopening indoor dining areas at 25% capacity are doing so under new open-air dining guidelines.

Concerns about restaurants and the guidelines have generated plenty of phone calls to the Yakima Health District, said Shawn Magee, the health district’s environmental health director. Magee has been guiding businesses, including restaurants, through the various regulations for reopening.

Most restaurants have opted to reopen under the open-air seating concept, where dining rooms emulate the airflow outside by opening windows and doors on at least one side of their structure.

Guidelines for open-air dining were introduced earlier this month as part of the state’s new region-based reopening plan, Roadmap to Recovery.

Under the plan, the state’s eight regions must advance to Phase 2 of the plan to resume regular indoor dining at 25% capacity.

No region has yet met the required metrics to move up to Phase 2. However, the open-air dining guidelines allow restaurants to resume dining indoors at 25% capacity if they can emulate outdoor air conditions indoors in Phase 1.

Shortly after Gov. Jay Inslee prohibited indoor dining in mid-November to curb the spread of COVID-19, staff began receiving feedback from restaurant and bar owners who pointed out they could mimic outside air flow and quality inside.

Not all restaurants will be able to reopen, but it does provide a much-needed avenue for additional business activity for those who can, said Sheri Sawyer, senior policy adviser for the governor’s office.

“If you can create the same air quality outdoors indoors, we felt we could safely have customers and employees in that space,” Sawyer said.

Indeed, Faith Haney said she was thrilled to reopen Warehouse West Grill, her West Valley restaurant, even with the restrictions.

“At least it gives people the opportunity to come out and dine as safely as we can make it,” she said.

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Open-air options

The most common open-air seating option used for indoor dining rooms is one where the area has at least one permeable wall, which is defined as a wall with an open bay or garage doors, multiple open windows, screened openings, tent panels and uncovered lattice. A single window, interior/exterior entrance or emergency exit door are not counted toward permeability.

The other open-air seating options involve outdoor space, such as an outdoor structure with two non-adjacent and permeable walls, a cover or canopy above an outdoor seating area or patio or individual pods for each dining group.

The first option, which would allow the use of indoor dining space, requires carbon dioxide monitoring. The carbon dioxide level is considered a good indicator of the potential transmission activity of COVID-19 since the virus is primarily transmitted through the air, Sawyer said.

Restaurants have been asked to keep carbon dioxide levels at less than 450 parts per million. However, the carbon dioxide guideline will likely be adjusted in a future revision of the guidelines, she said. That revision will likely allow for restaurants to have levels within a range rather than be under a single number, Sawyer said.

The restaurants do not have to submit any records. The monitoring simply aims to encourage restaurants to relocate patrons or adjust if carbon dioxide levels are higher in certain areas of the restaurant where there isn’t as much free-flowing air.

Assistance available

Sawyer said there is no specific process a restaurant has to go through to reopen. However, both the state Department of Health and the state Department of Labor of Industries offer consultations to restaurants that want to make sure they meet requirements.

Some restaurants have consulted with the Yakima Health District, whose primary goal in this area is to educate restaurants on the regulations and how to meet them.

The district also has responded to complaints about restaurants reopening, said Magee, the district’s environmental health director. In general, most of them are reopening indoor areas under the open-air seating concept but mischaracterized it as indoor dining.

“They might be technically inside the building,” he said. “But they’re meeting the criteria of open-air dining. With indoor dining, you don’t have the open doors or windows.”

Indoor dining with open doors and windows often yields similar conditions to those of outdoor patios.

“It’s cold as hell,” said Haney, the Warehouse West Grill owner. “But we are trying to make (the most of) it. We have our heat running.”

Second Street Grill, a downtown Yakima restaurant, plans to do a soft reopening of its indoor dining area this week under the open-air guidelines. While owner Steve Pinza said he’s eager to open and knows he can easily meet the guidelines, he also wants to ensure every aspect of the open-air seating is done right.

One key challenge is making sure customers feel as comfortable as possible given the outside air entering the building.

“We’ve always taken (regulations) pretty seriously,” he said. “We want to make sure we’re doing the right thing. We want to be here at the end of this, not just now.”

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