Derrin Davis, the executive chef and general manager of WaterFire Restaurant and Bar, cried tears of joy when he heard the news on Wednesday that Yakima County restaurants would be allowed to let customers dine indoors for the first time since COVID-19 restrictions went into effect statewide in March.

During an interview earlier this week Davis had said if indoor dining isn’t allowed by winter, he plans to flout the law and offer it anyway, potentially inviting severe fines. Now, with the Yakima Health District receiving state approval to allow indoor dining at 25% capacity, WaterFire won’t have to do that.

“We’ve been ready to go,” he said. “I’m just glad that they agreed with us.”

WaterFire expanded its outdoor capacity to 64 after that was approved by the state in July. Now it has about 125 total seats available, Davis said. That’s enough to be “a decent sized restaurant,” he said.

“It’s just a huge emotional relief,” he said Friday.

Across town at Papa Baird’s Restaurant in Terrace Heights, owners Jennifer and Brandon Hahn were similarly relieved. They bought the decades-old restaurant from Brandon’s mother late last year after putting in nearly 30 combined years as employees. Since March they’ve run the place themselves, unable to afford their normal eight-person staff.

“He’s the cook; I’m the waitress,” Jennifer Hahn said.

Now with an additional 40 seats available indoors, they’re looking ahead to potentially bringing back a couple of dishwashers. Keeping the place afloat this long with just takeout orders and eight patio tables has been a struggle, so indoor dining even at limited capacity seems like a lifeline.

“We are so excited,” Jennifer Hahn said Friday. “The little that it is, it still feels so good.”

About 70% of the restaurant’s customers are regulars, she said. They were thrilled to be able to dine in again, she said. That’s one reason the Hahns didn’t want to waste any time in reopening their dining room.

“We were keeping a close eye on the guidelines and what that would look like as soon as we could open,” Hahn said. “So we were kind of ready for this.”

The eased restrictions, which went into effect Thursday, aren’t limited to restaurants. Churches may also now host indoor services at 25% capacity with a cap of 50 people, and the limit on their outdoor services was increased from 100 to 200. Fitness businesses may now hold outdoor group classes, limited to five people and an instructor.

Outdoor social gatherings with people outside one’s household are allowed with up to five people per week. Retail stores can expand occupancy from 25% of normal capacity to 30%. Real estate businesses can operate with up to 25% capacity of their buildings and a 30-minute limit per customer, as can professional services.

The rules for Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan will now apply to professional photography, domestic services, team gymnastics and outdoor card rooms with a cap of 50 people.

Dog park back open

One noteworthy effect of lifting the restriction on outdoor gatherings was the reopening of the dog park at Yakima’s Randall Park. That park, which had been closed entirely since March, was the only place many city-dwelling dog owners could let their dogs run off-leash. It’s reopening with restrictions. Visitors must wear masks, and maintain at least 6 feet of distance from those from outside their household. But it’s a lot better than not having a dog park at all, Randall regular Karissa Thomas said.

“The dog park community has been anxiously awaiting the opening of the park,” she said. “Yes, we love to go and socialize, but it is more about the dogs. They need their socialization and exercise to exert their energy. I am grateful it has opened and just pray that people will respect the guidelines so it doesn’t have to be closed again.”

Its reopening and the easing of restrictions in general was made possible by the county’s continued efforts to get the COVID pandemic under control. Those efforts, including a mandatory face mask order that helped Yakima County go from 35% mask use in May to 96% this month, have led to significant improvements in the number of local COVID cases.

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