Calls continue for restaurants in Cowlitz County fined by state for violations of COVID-19 restrictions

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By Hayley Day / The Daily News

Two Longview restaurants continue to battle heavy state fines for defying restrictions to protect customers from COVID-19.

Stuffy’s II restaurant owes the state nearly $ 1 million for the citations, and Creekside Cafe owes nearly $ 70,000.

Both were fined for providing meals indoors during the state’s ban that ran from mid-November to February 13.

Washington State Governor Jay Inslee has banned indoor dining in the spring of 2020, allowed reopening for the summer, and again banned indoor dining in the fall to protect Washingtonians of the airborne coronavirus. Counties have been allowed to reopen businesses in stages if they meet certain benchmarks for COVID-19 hospitalization rates and positive cases.

Today, Cowlitz County is in phase 2 of the reopening plan and restaurants can accommodate up to 25% capacity indoors.

Some local businesses can sometimes break the rules under the radar, while others like Stuffy’s and Creekside Cafe have made their voices heard. The owners of both companies have publicly said they will defy the governor’s orders to local media and on social media.

Dina Lorraine, a communications consultant for the Washington Department of Labor and Industries, said companies often stop suspected violations once they receive warnings from the state, resulting in no fines.

Creekside Cafe was cited for seven offenses and fined $ 67,473 when indoor dining was banned in early February, Lorraine said.

Labor and Industries regulates and enforces labor standards.

Creekside Cafe owner Danielle Rowley said she was appealing the fines to her lawyer Jason A. Celski. The Benton County attorney represented Stuffy’s for a time, as well as other Washington restaurants that struggle to stay open during the restrictions, including Spiffy’s Restaurant & Bakery in Chehalis and Farmboy Restaurant in Olympia.

Rowley said she “chose to stay open” because her restaurant “couldn’t survive closure” during the ban on eating inside the state.

She initially complied with the indoor eating ban, she said, but offering take-out and delivery was not “enough to keep the lights on.”

Rowley posted an article about the indoor dining offer on the restaurant’s Facebook page in December, when all indoor dining was banned, and spoke to Portland’s CBS affiliate CBS, KOIN , of its decision in January.

Her downtown Longview business is highly visible, she said, so there was no way to secretly challenge state mandates.

“I’m here on Commerce, it’s not like you can really hide it,” Rowley said of her business on Wednesday.

Rowley said she couldn’t apply for a loan to pass the shutdown because she didn’t own her business long enough to prove her financial strength to most lenders. She bought the restaurant in August 2020.

She said she received a grant that helped, but didn’t offer enough funds to stay closed during the entire indoor eating ban.

Rowley said her decision to offer indoor dining was not made for political reasons, but to keep her business open and support her employees. Rowley owns Bear Country Catering in Kalama and said she dreams of owning a traditional restaurant.

She asked why large chains like grocery stores – where people don’t have to take a distance – could stay open throughout the pandemic, but her restaurant – where people are sitting 6 feet away from one the other – was closed periodically.

“It’s not like I’m breaking the rules,” she said. “You can get this virus anywhere, but you can shut down a small business and not help when the big box stores are open?”

Stuffy’s was cited for 53 offenses and fined $ 954,000 over nearly two months during the in-state eating ban, state records show.

Lorraine said Stuffy’s has a higher daily fine than Creekside Cafe because Stuffy’s has more employees.

The Washington State Attorney General’s Office filed a restraining order on December 31, 2020 against Stuffy’s to prevent staff from defying the ban on eating inside.

The office dropped the petition, along with the contempt of court fines, when the indoor eating ban was lifted in Cowlitz County in mid-February.

Lorraine said Stuffy’s still owed Labor and Industries nearly $ 1 million in fines, but neither Stuffy’s nor Creekside Cafe have to pay during the appeal process.

Skai Hogue, the granddaughter of the Stuffy owners, said they are still appealing citations and replaced attorney Celski with Joel Ard of Seattle’s Ard Law Group last winter because he is “more experienced. in constitutional disputes ”.

Hogue said the restaurant’s revenue was almost halved in the second quarter of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.

She said her grandparents – Bud and Glenda Duling – ran out of their savings during the shutdown and had to choose to open the doors and defy the governor’s order, or shut down their roughly 30-year-old business. .

The owners posted on social media that they made the “difficult and risky decision to open our doors to seating” on December 5, 2020, when eating inside was banned. The restaurant continued to regularly post articles about its open business throughout the ban and its state citations.

Ahead of three Hall of Justice hearings, rallies were held in support of Stuffy’s. Attendees, who ranged from 30 to 100 people at each event, waved signs and spoke out against Inslee’s restrictions on businesses.

Hogue said the restaurant reopened not to challenge the governor, but to maintain the livelihoods of its staff.

“We are doing this for our employees and trying to survive,” she said.

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