List of South Sound restaurants, venues requiring vaccination holds steady despite Omicron

Kristine Sherred/ksherred@thenewstribune.com
·7 min read

The intense wave of Omicron cases has led at least two more South Sound restaurants and bars to join the small ranks that require proof of vaccination to sit indoors.

In Tacoma, beer bar and bottle shop Edison City Alehouse began checking Jan. 10. On Jan. 16, The Brotherhood Lounge in Olympia will follow.

Unlike King County, where a vaccine or negative test mandate has been in effect since October for most indoor activities, and Jefferson and Clallam counties, where guests must show proof to dine indoors at restaurants, the health departments in Pierce and Thurston have eschewed formal requirements. The lack of leadership on the issue has left many business owners and their staff feeling abandoned.

Edison City’s co-owner Michael Gruber emphasized that the decision was not easy, but they felt it was one of the only tools left to even attempt to keep employees and guests safe.

“Prior to this,” he said by email, “no one in our circle contracted Covid and we never had to get tested.”

Within a matter of weeks, many friends and family tested positive, and then the virus permeated his staff.

“We have had to test multiple times in the last week and a half,” he said, referring to the first few days of the year, “and finding tests was a nightmare for us and a few staff members that decided to err on the side of caution and get tested.”

SHOULD MORE PIERCE, THURSTON COUNTY BUSINESSES REQUIRE VACCINES?

In December, following restaurants on Instagram morphed into a painful bout of doom-scrolling, with one after another sharing that workers had tested positive or had been exposed. New Year’s Eve parties were canceled, temporary closures announced — at one of the industry’s busiest times of year.

The situation befell en Rama, which has been requiring proof of vaccination since September and has a fully vaccinated staff.

That reality makes the conversation even more difficult, as high rates of infection confuse a public concerned that vaccines aren’t working to stop transmission, when in fact they continue to diminish the likelihood of severe illness if — or when — someone tests positive.

“Vaccination, including a booster shot, helps to protect people from serious illness, winding up in the hospital—and death,” said Kenny Via, spokesperson for the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department. “Vaccines remain the best defense we have against COVID-19.”

According to the Washington State Department of Health’s Jan. 12 report on deaths by vaccination status, unvaccinated people remain 8 to 11 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19, depending on their age group. Those over 65 are 15 times more likely to die. Unvaccinated individuals are also three to six times more likely to contract the virus.

Less than a quarter of all cases in the state occurred in fully vaccinated people over the age of 12 from February to December 2021. Nearly 80 percent of hospitalizations during this time period were unvaccinated people, the report says.

King County tracks its COVID-19 data with vaccination status. In the last 30 days, despite Omicron, unvaccinated residents — less than 14 percent of those 12 years or older — remained 2.4 times more likely to contract the virus, 11 times more likely to be hospitalized and 18 times more likely to die of COVID-19 related illness.

These details, especially the transmission factor, are not lost on en Rama owner Chris Kiel.

“At this point we’re not trying to stop it,” he said. “We are trying to mitigate it, and we’re trying to mitigate the damage for our business and our teams and our people,” referring to the broader community.

When Crudo & Cotto in the Proctor District and Basilico Ristorante in Olympia announced its vaccine or negative test requirement in October, co-owner Kathryn Philbrook stressed this point: To do nothing, and to close again and again because of COVID cases when a mitigation tool is available, was simply an unsustainable business model.

They joined en Rama, The Mix, Red Star Taco Bar and Field Bar as the only restaurants in Tacoma (and Pierce County) that require or request proof. ALMA just reopened the lounge portion of its indoor dining, which also requires it in line with its concert policy.

In Olympia, The Brotherhood Lounge joined Cryptatropa Bar and Swing Wine Bar & Cafe.

Gruber at Edison City said he would feel safer and more secure in public places if it were mandated county-wide.

“We are hopeful and thought we would get ahead of the curve,” he said. “It’s really about making sure that we all feel safe.”

WHAT IS THE FUTURE OF VACCINATION PROOF AT RESTAURANTS?

As the Delta variant swept through the country last fall, several major U.S. cities announced mandates for indoor public places, including New York City, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and New Orleans. Chicago as well as Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, introduced requirements in light of Omicron.

The mandates in King, Jefferson and Clallam counties are the country’s only examples of a broader jurisdiction taking this step.

“Vaccine verification is one part of our multi-faceted COVID-19 prevention strategy that relies on a layered approach including guidance and policies around vaccination, mask use, improved ventilation, and testing,” said Gabriel Spitzer, spokesperson for the Seattle-King County Health Department. “We do believe that vaccine verification policy has provided King County residents with safer indoor restaurants, entertainment venues, and fitness centers, lowering their risk for exposure to COVID-19 in these settings.”

Around Tacoma and Olympia, several performing arts venues, including The Washington Center for the Performing Arts, Tacoma Little Theatre and The Spanish Ballroom at McMenamins Elks Temple, went ahead with their own requirements. A handful of restaurants did as well, but the number has dwindled.

Marzano, an Italian restaurant in Parkland near Pacific Lutheran University, said last fall that it would but “later decided against it due to a number of issues,” said co-owner Brian Marzano by email. After much reconsideration, they will continue as is, he confirmed last week, noting their heated outdoor deck seating.

Others are particular about how they word it, in some cases simply requesting that only vaccinated guests visit.

So far, King County has received complaints about 657 businesses — of an estimated 10,000 — failing to abide the new rules. A “very small” number have docked multiple complaints, said Spitzer. Enforcement focuses on education but can lead to fines and temporary license suspensions.

Those that have stuck it out in the Tacoma area report mostly positive feedback.

The Grand Cinema, which was closed for more than a year, has required proof of vaccination since September. Executive director Philip Cowan said the fully vaccinated staff had no qualms and that the policy was important for the sake of public health and of their guests, who skew older than other theaters’ crowds.

“A lot of them are just nervous to come back to movies, and we’re trying to find avenues to get people to feel comfortable,” he said. Many have shared that they don’t go elsewhere and are grateful to have this option.

Over four months, the theater has experienced a few incidents and nasty emails. Asked if there were something that would make it easier, such as a universal verification system or a directive from local health and political leaders, Cowan replied that he most wished that “all cinemas were on an equal playing field, mostly so that people knew to show up with it.”

Kiel at en Rama agreed: “I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was hard,” but he said, “It’s really hard without a city or county mandate.”

Update 1/18/2022: Here is the list of venues and restaurants requiring or requesting proof of vaccination. Some accept a recent negative test; check their websites for the most updated policies. Did we miss one? Email ksherred@thenewstribune.com.

Venues

ALMA Venue (formerly Fawcett Hall, ticketed shows)

Auburn Symphony Orchestra

The Capitol Theater (Olympia Film Society)

The Grand Cinema

Spanish Ballroom (ticketed shows at McMenamins Elks Temple)

New Muses Theatre Company (Dukesbay Theater)

Northwest Sinfonietta

School of Arts & Communications venues at Pacific Lutheran University

Tacoma Arts Live

Tacoma Little Theatre

Tacoma Musical Playhouse

Symphony Tacoma

The Washington Center for the Performing Arts

Restaurants

ALMA Lounge

Basilico Ristorante

Crudo & Cotto

en Rama

Field Bar

The Mix

Red Star Taco Bar

The Brotherhood Lounge

Cryptatropa Bar

Swing Wine Bar & Cafe

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting