By Mike De Felice
Special to Kitsap Daily News
PORT ORCHARD — Many local business owners are breathing a sigh of relief as Kitsap County has been moved to less onerous Phase 2 crowd restrictions, which allow for a limited return to indoor dining at restaurants and a partial opening of gyms and fitness centers.
“We’re excited about it, quite frankly,” said Matt Murphy, president and CEO of the South Kitsap Chamber of Commerce, a nonprofit organization that represents 250 individuals, businesses, civic and educational groups.
“I talked to business owners back in November when we were shut back down again — it was a huge psychological blow to business owners, as well as people. I think [moving to Phase 2] is psychologically a huge win. It makes us more normal, not that there is such a thing as normal anymore.”
Gov. Jay Inslee last week announced that Kitsap County, under the state’s Roadmap to Recovery, was one of 33 counties elevated to Phase 2 status. Then on Monday, the remaining six counties comprising the South Central region of Washington state were also moved to Phase 2.
This less restrictive category allows restaurants to provide indoor service at a 25-percent capacity. Also, fitness centers and indoor entertainment venues, such as theaters and cardrooms, are now allowed to operate at that capacity.
“We don’t know why we were in Phase 2 to begin with, or why we are in phases anymore. But, being able to move to Phase 2 is really exciting,” Murphy said.
Business owners the Independent spoke with after the phase change said they view the relaxation of COVID restrictions as a step toward normalization and an opportunity to boost revenues.
“Our restaurant is set up for full service and taking care of our customers just like we have done for 26 years,” said Puerto Vallarta restaurant owner Sergio Andrade.
“We are very excited to be back again and not having to only do takeout.”
Business at the restaurant dipped following the state’s last shutdown in mid-November, Andrade noted. Overall, he reported, their business was down approximately 75 percent.
The owner would not characterize whether the state’s decision to move the county to Phase 2 took too long to happen.
“I’m not a physician, so I don’t know what the situation is out there with the people getting infected and all the metrics they use to determine those things. Whatever happened before, happened before. I cannot focus on that. I have to focus on moving forward,” he said.
Andrade’s attention now is on gearing up his Mexican restaurant to serve more customers. And part of that includes beefing up his staff levels.
“We are trying to hire back as many of the people that worked for us as possible. Unfortunately, some of our very good staff [during the shutdown] had to look to other places for employment. They couldn’t just sit around and wait for us to reopen. I can respect that,” he said.
Before the pandemic struck, Puerto Vallarta, which Andrade and his wife Patricia operate, employed 55 to 60 employees. When the establishment was limited to offering takeout service, it operated with just six employees.
“So now, to hire or rehire 40 to 45 employees, we have to see if they are still around or opted to go somewhere else,” he said.
Andrade tips his hat to the community for supporting the restaurant during the recent shutdown.
“We survived and want to send a ‘thank you’ to our community for supporting us,” he said.
Fitness club survives closure
The owners of Annapolis Fitness and Performance are also pleased Kitsap County transitioned to Phase 2.
“It has been a long time coming. We have been starting and stopping our business now for practically a year. We get going then you have to stop and then you have to restart and rebuild,” said Kristi McGee, who co-owns the gym with Sydnie Kittelson.
Restrictions associated with the pandemic also have been tough on fitness center members.
During the shutdown, Annapolis — other than occasional outdoor workout sessions — had to conduct fitness classes on Zoom.
“Fitness is hard enough as it is,” McGee said. “It’s hard enough for some people to get self-confident and even to step into a gym. To do [classes] from home with limited equipment after they established their routine and support system was really hard for people.”
Annapolis lost approximately 40 percent of its members during the most recent shutdown.
“The second shutdown hit people harder,” she said.
Members were fatigued by being stuck at home. And exacerbating the situation was the fact that some lost their jobs, she said.
McGee believed the pandemic should not have closed gyms, citing recent studies that showed the COVID-19 transmission rate at similar facilities is low.
“Gyms should never have been shut down,” she said. “Unfortunately, the industry was not deemed essential.
“[Gyms] are good for your mental and social health. They are good for your physical health and your blood pressure. They keep you strong and boost your immune system.”
The chamber’s Murphy is confident the move to Phase 2 will increase business revenue but feels the transition was slow in coming.
“I think it took longer than it should have,” Murphy said. “We were grouped in with — for better or worse — Mason, Jefferson and Clallam counties. Our numbers were looking good, so it kind of hurt lumping us in with everybody. I think that slowed things down,” he said.