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After months of being in the extreme risk category, local restaurants are ready and eager to expand their indoor and outdoor dining opportunities

RAMONA MCCALLISTER - Customers enjoy coffee while waiting for breakfast at Ron's Comfort Food Cafe on a Monday morning. The restaurant is owned and operated by Ron and Cathy Allen.

After months of being in the extreme risk category for COVID through Oregon Health Authority, Crook County is finally seeing numbers begin to stabilize and go down.

On Friday, Feb. 26, Crook County's eating establishments were able to offer indoor dining as the risk category through OHA went from extreme to high risk. The change allowed restaurants and eating establishments to offer indoor dining at a 25% capacity.

Two weeks later, the numbers seem poised to transition from the "high" category to the "lower risk" category.

Emergency Preparedness Coordinator and Public Information Officer for Crook County Health Department Vicky Ryan commented on Friday that the new numbers were released Monday, March 8. Numbers are calculated through midnight Saturday evening for each two-week increment. For Feb. 14-27, the county experienced 29 new cases of COVID-19, and the positive test rate during that time was 4.9%, which is hovering just below the threshold for the lower risk category.

Last week was the warning week, which is a time for businesses to prepare for a change in risk categories and health officials can watch COVID case trends.

"Our numbers are trending lower, and a lot of that has to do with people's ability to maintain, following the guidance of social distancing, hand washing, and mask wearing and that type of thing," indicated Ryan.

She added that it is always a concern that people could relax a little too much when numbers go down, and we could see a spike in cases as a result.

"This is not just us, this is across the state that the numbers are down and across the nation that the numbers are down, so we are hoping that it is a trend showing that we are nearing an end cycle at least for this pandemic," noted Ryan.

For restaurants and bars, the change is significant in the way they do business. The maximum capacity for indoor seating goes from 25% to 50% when making the drop from high to moderate in the risk category. The number of customers allowed indoors at one time goes from 50 to 100 (whichever is smaller), and outdoor dining also increases from a maximum of 75 to a capacity of 150, with eight per table—versus six per table and a limit of two households.

The Horseshoe Tavern chose to be closed for takeout and outdoor dining during the extreme risk designation. They only opened when the risk category went from extreme to high, which allowed indoor dining.

The atmosphere last week at the Horseshoe Tavern was upbeat and optimistic.

"It's going to be phenomenal; we get to have more people inside and it ups our outside population, and it helps out tremendously," indicated Horseshoe Tavern Manager Shelley Nelson.

She said that they are starting outdoor bands on Fridays and Saturdays. They will be able to offer up to 150 outside and 100 inside at one time with a maximum of eight per table. They would also be able to add one hour to their closing time.

For some restaurants and bars who have recently opened, there is a significant amount of caution, however, including the Horseshoe.

"We had to change our menu to things a little bit simpler because we don't know what truly is going to happen yet. The last year has been so up in the air, and it has been horrible on the employees and on the business owners," added Nelson.

Their business also needed to have a week to transition from being closed for several months to being open again at limited capacity.

Ron's Comfort Food Café, in the Meadow Lakes Clubhouse, has offered takeout and outside dining until Feb. 26, when the county moved to the high-risk category. The restaurant also has a separate space that has long been a favorite meeting place for small groups. They also offer outside catering.

"We are really lucky, because of where we are at. We have a lot of room, and it's all open," pointed out co-owner of Ron's Comfort Food Café, Cathy Allen.

She added that they have two separate spaces, with the restaurant separate from the meeting space reserved for groups, such as Rotary meetings or Band of Brothers meetings. The separate meeting space is currently able to offer meetings for groups of 50 or less with small banquets, with the restaurant staff serving any buffets.

"We have basically two facilities," Allen stated.

If the future risk category changes to a lower risk, she commented, "we would really be ecstatic for that, and so would our customers."

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