The Real Story of Sterling’s Restaurant’s ‘COVID Battle’–From Family
For now, the 3 Sterling's Restaurant locations in the Tri-Cities are doing carryout and car hop service; but that follows a brutal 'battle' this week with state and even local officials.
When Gov. Inslee announced this latest 'lockdown' which appears to be hitting the service industry the hardest, restaurants, bars and gyms were mandated to close 'internally.' Gyms had to shutter, the others had to offer take out or curbside only. There is a provision to allow outdoor seating for up to five people in some cases, but it's almost winter. Some gyms have re branded as 'wellness centers' and able to use a loophole to stay open, although they've had to jump some hoops. But that option not available for other service industries.
Sterlings decided they were going to challenge the proclamation and remain open inside. Sabre (Sterling) Kingham is the daughter of the Sterling family who all combine to operate the venues. We spoke with her at length on Friday.
When the restaurant 'bans' began Tuesday, She said they chose to remain open for inside service. What followed was a visit by the area Liquor Control Board agents, who gave them a warning. When the family pushed back, asking questions and requesting clarification and justification for why indoor seating was being banned, the agents more or less could not, or would not, give them a clear answer.
Eventually, the Liquor Control Board "threatened" to pull Sterling's liquor license, and said it could be for as long as 180 days, or even indefinitely depending upon the resistance. Saber asked them "what if I (we) surrender our liquor license, what would happen then?" The obvious reason for this would be their desire to keep serving patrons indoors even if they didn't serve alcohol.
The Liquor Control agents then told them Labor and Industries would step in and hit them with fines, much like they did with the Slidewaters Water Park in Chelan. These 'COVID' shutdown fines have been averaging about $10K. Sabre told us that was not an option, as all three of their venues would get one, totaling $30K.
So, the three venues are doing take out and car hop only. Sabre said anyone who thinks restaurants can maintain financial health with just takeout is not being realistic. She said they decided to offer car hop (serve your food as you're parked in the lot) to try to boost revenue. But she said the state doesn't realize the logistical costs of lights, workers, preparation that go into even opening up the facility for business on a daily basis. Especially for an indoor dining oriented facility.
She said it made more financial sense to shut down during the first stay at home, it was just too costly to operate take out only when their health comes from inside dining.
Where does the Benton Franklin Health District figure into this? Really, they don't. They do not have enforcement capability, only advisory, believes Sabre. She said prior to this latest shutdown, she was told by a BFHD official that our area health department did NOT believe a restaurant/bar shutdown was necessary or useful.
The BFHD and other health officials don't believe restaurants, bars etc are spreading the virus. The BFHD says it's coming from informal social groups of people on their own. And, the Washington State Hospitality Association has released data showing COVID transmission and cases from restaurant/bar food service is almost negligible.
Sabre said the District has been helpful in letting them know which safety procedures to implement when restaurants re-opened a few months ago, and as far as Sterling's is concerned, they have not been 'hassled' or reprimanded by the BFHD. It appears Liquor Control and Labor and Industries are being used as the 'heavies' in this situation, and others.
It also appears the BFHD's role has been mainly aimed at school districts and education. Pretty much every district in the state opens or stays closed based upon advice or "guidance" from the local health district--which in turn is often trickle down from the WSDOH as far as mandates.
Sabre also said it's been hard because of the unemployment 'benefits' that actually made it harder to retain some workers, part timers who were actually making more by not working because of the $600 bonus many unemployed people were getting. She said she does NOT begrudge anyone for wanting more money, but that was an added stress.
We have learned that Celski Law Firm of Kennewick has talked with Sterling's as well as some other businesses in our area; we don't know the status of the others, if they are going to try to go it indoors.
But for now, the Labor and Industries massive threats of penalties has made an already horrible situation for Sterling's and other restaurants even worse.
It's clear that this has gone beyond 'health and safety,' and has turned into a situation where WA businesses are being bullied into submission.