Tai Tung owner Harry Chan said the holiday season is usually the best time of year business-wise for them. The latest dining restrictions are likely to have an impact on restaurants in the CID. Photo by Jill Wasberg.

Restaurants in the Chinatown International District (CID) are re-tooling and bracing themselves for a hard time after a new temporary order banning indoor dining from Gov. Jay Inslee in mid-November.

Until December 14, no more dining is allowed indoors at restaurants and bars, but outdoor dining with a limit of five people, and takeout, can continue.

The new restrictions were an effort to stop a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases in the state. Almost 20 percent of all coronavirus cases in Seattle — starting from the beginning of the pandemic — were reported in the two weeks before the new order, according to Mayor Jenny Durkan, the Seattle Times reported.

According to state health officer Dr. Kathy Lofy: “Restaurants are the most common site of outbreaks in our state,” the Seattle Times reported.

Trinh Ong, owner of Mi La Cay restaurant, said business has taken a nosedive since the new dining restrictions, like it did in March at the start of the pandemic. That spring, some days she would make $80 a day, not enough to cover expenses, and she thought she would have to shut down the restaurant for good. But with the help of the community, and easing of restrictions into Phase 2, the business was surviving, if not fully recovered.

“I was just about to be, I’m okay now, and then this dropped me back to where I was at the beginning of the pandemic,” said Ong.

However, Ong said she understood the necessity of the restrictions. “What can I say, because after all, people’s safety comes first,” she said. “Yes, my business is struggling, but I understand the government doesn’t do this just for fun.”

Ong is determined not to let employees go, given that there is now limited unemployment relief available compared to earlier in the pandemic. “If I can hang on even if I’m in the minus negative financially, I will try to keep them on,” she said, even if only part-time. “If i have a piece of bread, they will have a bite of it too.”

Phở Bắc Sup Shop is well-suited to indoor-dining, even at 50 percent capacity and safety measures. With this gone, the restaurant will have to cut wait staff, said co-owner Yenvy Pham.

Pham believes the restrictions are necessary, and is glad that they’re intended to only last a few weeks. “We’ll pivot and we will adjust and do what we can,” Pham said.

Pham said most CID restaurants would be helped by rent and mortgage relief, and an extension of the PPP Loan. For Phở Bắc Sup Shop, a deferral of sales tax and B&O tax payments would help.

Businesses will see $50 million in relief dispersed through grants and loans, hopefully by the end of the year, Inslee said in a press conference announcing the restrictions.

In the meantime, the CID Restaurants and other Small Businesses Relief Fund is re-launching, and will provide at least one more round of grants to small businesses in the neighborhood. The fund, created by the Chinatown International District Business Improvement Area (CIDBIA), Friends of Little Saigon, and SCIDpda, already raised over $800,000 dollars since March, and released three rounds of funding, helping over 200 businesses in the CID. The goal is to raise another $200,000, bringing the total to $1 million.

“As the next few weeks will be key in getting this virus under control, the next few months will be key in supporting the small businesses in the CID once again,” according to a statement from SCIDpda announcing the re-launch.

“I think in general, people understand the need for these restrictions,” said Valerie Tran, operations director for Friends of Little Saigon. “It just makes their day-to-day operations that much harder when they’re already so constrained.”

It’s difficult to tell just how much business will drop in the CID, according to Tran. “It’s unclear how much of a bump they did get from the brief amount of time that they were allowed to have dine-in again,” she said. Business may decline because customers are taking precautions and not going out as much.

Tran and Jamie Lee, director of community initiatives for SCIDpda, picked the relaunch date for the Small Business Relief Fund before the new restrictions from the Governor, anticipating that the upward trend in COVID-19 cases would make it necessary. “We knew that things weren’t getting better,” said Lee. They hope the holiday giving that usually happens this time of year will push the fund to its goal before the Lunar New Year, and they will continue distributing grants through this time.

The holiday season is usually the best time of year business-wise for Tai Tung, said owner Harry Chan, but this now looks uncertain, even if the new dining restrictions end on December 14, and are not renewed.

“Fortunately we have been doing pretty good — we have a lot of loyal customers who help us survive,” Chan said.

He hopes the next few weeks will be temporary, as the restaurant pivots to takeout. “We just have to deal with whatever comes,” he said. “We have been in Chinatown over 85 years. We have been through many times like this. This is the worst time. But I have confidence that we will be okay.” 

More information about the CID Small Business Relief fund, and a link to donate, can be found at bit.ly/cidbizrelief.

The 2020 CID Business Public Safety Survey is available here: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/biz-eng-pub

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