PIERCE COUNTY, Wash. — Whether or not a customer at Azure Cafe wants sugar or milk with their order, every cup of coffee Tracy Roberts brews is bittersweet.
“It’s exciting to see those people, but it’s also sad,” said Roberts, owner of Cafe Azure. “I had somebody come in last week and they were like, ‘Oh my gosh, how old’s the baby now?’ I was like, ‘She’s nine months old.’ I haven’t seen that person since I was pregnant. Things like that make you realize, ‘Wow, it’s been a long time.’”
A few months before Roberts gave birth last July, she opened up Azure Cafe in downtown Tacoma. A major reason why she chose to open her shop on Market Street was the potential for high volumes of pedestrians.
“Foot traffic is like virtually nothing now,” she said. “We’re barely hanging as it is.”
“It could go back”
Business owners and health officials in Tacoma and Pierce County are facing a potential, harsh reality: a rollback into Phase 1, which includes a ban on indoor dining.
“It could go back to a level that we saw at the turn of the year, in which case, absolutely we’d be going back to Phase 1,” said Nigel Turner, Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department director of communicable disease.
A rollback to Phase 1 hinges on the county’s 14-day case rate per 100,000 people. “The 14-day case rate offers the most reliable look at COVID-19 disease burden on Pierce County,” the county health department states on its website.
As of Wednesday, Pierce County’s case rate was 211.6. The phase a county is in depends on the rate: Phase 3 includes counties with a case rate of less than 200, Phase 2 includes counties with case rates between 200 and 350, and Phase 1 includes counties with case rates higher than 350.
Turner said the reason why Pierce County is seeing higher case rates than neighboring counties is due to younger people not following guidelines, like wearing masks or social distancing.
“There’s nothing specifically new here,” Turner said, emphasizing that younger populations have been driving up case rates in the county for months. “It’s just too soon to let down our guard.”
While Pierce County faces the possibilty of rolling back to Phase 1, one business in Tacoma is ready for “Phase Done.”
Kyle Bidwell, owner of An American Tavern in Tacoma, plans to appeal a fine from the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board. A spokesperson with LCB stated the agency issued two citations and two warnings to the bar last year. Those offenses led to “a Board decision of $500 fine of 5-day suspension on 4/13/2021.
“We are currently investigating 17 complaints from last weekend,” the spokesperson wrote in an email on Wednesday.
Bidwell said in a phone interview that the claims against his business are untrue.
“It’s the people that are never in my tavern making up these claims,” he said. “My hours have been cut dramatically. We’re following 25% capacity.”
Bidwell also believes the statewide COVID-19 restrictions are “a violation of our constitutional rights.”
“People have a right to work and businesses have a right to operate. Inslee is destroying people’s lives,” Bidwell said, while pointing to states like Florida. “Inslee wants our bars to close and he’s trying to make that happen.”
“Leading the way, unforunately”
While Pierce County is the largest county of the three to roll back to Phase 2, neighboring states are facing similar dilemmas as cases and hospitalizations begin to rise.
“COVID is circulating very much in our area and is increasing,” said Dr. Chris Spitters, health officer for Snohomish County, on Tuesday.
Spitters said current case and hospitalization rates have put Snohomish County in serious jeopardy of sliding back to Phase 2. He also said a rollback to Phase 1 would likely follow if measures weren’t taken to slow down cases.
“Case rates overall in Washington are catching up behind us, sadly,” Turner said. “So it’s something we’re in together.”
“One more shot”
As Roberts contemplated the possibility of shutting down her 1-year-old business again, a familiar face walked into the door: Jody Eveler, a regular customer who across the street works for the City of Tacoma.
“Hi, how are you doing?” Roberts said to Eveler with a smile hiding behind her mask.
“I try every time that I’m here to come over and support the business here because I know she’s struggling so bad,” Eveler said.
With COVID-19 restrictions still in place, Eveler only works at her downtown office occasionally. But when she does, she makes sure to stop by Azure Cafe.
“I find it heartbreaking,” Eveler said about the possibility of rolling back to Phase 1. “I just don’t know how these businesses are surviving.”
Roberts isn’t sure, either. She admits she’s only been able to keep her business open thanks to an understanding property owner. “If he wasn’t so generous, we wouldn’t be here by any means,” she said. “I’m all for keeping everyone safe, but at some point, our economy has to be a factor. But regardless of how I feel personally as a business owner, I’m going to do what I need to do to keep my business alive, and keep my customers and myself safe.”