Wineries and breweries in Yakima, Benton and Franklin counties must keep their doors closed for now, unless they serve food out of their own kitchens. That’s the updated guidance for the three counties, which are seeing some of the highest numbers of coronavirus cases in Washington.
The state Department of Health recently issued clarifications for wineries and breweries in the three counties encompassing the Tri-Cities and Yakima. Some of the businesses had started serving people outdoors, at reduced capacities. But state health officials say most wineries and breweries aren’t considered restaurants – just as bars aren’t considered restaurants.
“We do understand that a limited number of wineries and breweries serve full meals prepared onsite, in building kitchen facilities under the ownership of the winery and brewery and are substantially equivalent to a restaurant,” wrote Sec. of Health John Wiesman, in a letter to both health districts.
Under this clarification, to qualify to be a restaurant, meals must be prepared onsite and be under the ownership of the winery or brewery. That does not include food trucks parked outside.
The concern is that wine tasting and beer sipping encourages people to linger around others and to not necessarily remain seated. Weisman said it could encourage people to travel to the region, which is widely known for its wine and beer.
All three counties recently moved into a modified Phase 1 earlier in July. Gov. Jay Inslee had said it was a sign of hope for the areas hardest hit by coronavirus outbreaks – and, until recently, completely stuck in Phase 1.
Inslee has since paused all county reopening advancements until at least July 28.
The only other counties in the state in a modified Phase 1 are Chelan and Douglas, although they’re under different guidance for restaurants and taverns. Outdoor seating for restaurants and taverns is allowed at 50% of existing capacity, and indoor seating is allowed at 25% capacity.
For Benton, Franklin and Yakima counties, restaurants are allowed to open only with outdoor seating at 50% capacity. Bar-style seating is not allowed. Until recently, the health districts believed that guidance also included wineries and breweries.
“Our staff has been working with the state for several days, and we believed that we had a definition. Then, when we were moving forward with that definition, we received this letter from Secretary Wiesman,” said Kathleen Clary-Cooke, with the Benton-Franklin Health District.
The health district immediately corrected the information, Clary-Cooke said. She said she wasn’t aware of how many wineries and breweries in Benton and Franklin counties had begun to open with outdoor seating.
Annie McGrath, with the Washington Brewers Guild, says breweries have opened in every other county statewide and “have demonstrated that they are committed to complying with all requirements of restaurant reopenings.”
“If it is safe for restaurants to open for outdoor seating at 50% capacity and following the state’s industry guidelines for health and safety, then it is safe for breweries to do the same,” McGrath said.
Josh McDonald, with the Washington Wine Institute, said the same is true for the wine industry. He said he doesn’t know of any outbreaks associated with wineries.
“We’ve been working hard and diligently for the last four months for us to be prepared to reopen,” McDonald said.
McDonald said wineries have always believed they fell under the restaurant/taverns part of reopening plans.
“We are not bars,” he said. “We have the ability to set up outdoors because of the nature of most wineries, and we can do that safely with minimized contact, following all the social guidelines to make sure our customers and employees are safe.”
McDonald said summer is prime time for many winery tasting rooms. He said this could be the difference between making it through the year or closing down for good for some businesses.
The Washington Wine Institute and the Washington Brewers Guild say they hope to talk to state officials and find a way to open in Benton, Franklin and Yakima counties.
Courtney Flatt covers environmental and natural resources issues for Northwest Public Broadcasting. She is based in Washington's Tri-Cities. On Twitter: @courtneyflatt
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