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Group of leaders, business owners lend support to 'Open Oregon' movement, while others remain skeptical

PMG PHOTO: EMILY LINDSTRAND - Sandy Mayor Stan Pulliam and Estacada Mayor Sean Drinkwine both spoke at a rally in support of local businesses reopening on Jan. 1, in spite of COVID-19 restrictions.

With the support of Sandy Mayor Stan Pulliam, Estacada Mayor Sean Drinkwine, Troutdale Mayor-elect Randy Lauer and Gresham City Councilor-elect Sue Piazza, among others, multiple local businesses plan to open to customers indoors on Friday, Jan. 1. The protest is being called "Open Oregon" and the goal is to highlight how brutal the state-mandated closures have been. Supporters are heralding it as an exercise of First Amendment rights.

"Several businesses have been reaching out to me and they're in panic mode," Pulliam said prior to a two-week freeze called by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown in November, amid rising cases of COVID-19

"They were already barely hanging on as it is. Now they're extremely worried that this will push them over the top, and that makes me worried about the future of Main Street economy."

Gov. Brown issued a statement New Year's Eve slamming the reopening movement.

Calling it "unfortunate and irresponsible," she said the participating politicians are opting to "willfully mislead businesses owners into jeopardizng public health and risking fines."

For months, Pulliam has been a vocal opponent of the executive orders implemented by Brown, which have limited businesses' activities, and some more than others.

The risk of activities is determined by the Oregon Health Authority, which uses the following criteria:

• "Can individuals wear a mask at all times?"

• "Is there space to keep physical distance between households?"

• "Are there ways to limit time of exposure to other households?"

• "Does the space allow for increased airflow (such as operating outdoors or opening windows and doors)? "

• "Will these activities increase virus spread (such as singing, shouting, and heavy breathing)?"

Under the current government framework, both Multnomah and Clackamas counties are considered "extreme risk" areas for the spread of COVID-19, meaning indoor recreational facilities like museums, theaters and athletic clubs must remain closed and indoor dining or drink consumption is also prohibited. Eating and drinking establishments are allowed to be open with outdoor seating at a capacity of 50 people, comprised of parties of six people per table from a limit of two households, maximum. They also must close by 11 p.m.

The "Open Oregon" movement calls on businesses to operate under "high risk" restrictions — one tier lower than the "extreme risk" restrictions currently in place — which allows for a reduced amount of indoor dining.

"This isn't about the governor. This isn't about me," Pulliam explained. "This is a movement of self-preservation for Main Street business owners. It's about those folks who have no other choice but to open. Why would we not want to take the compassionate and common sense change of course that would allow these business owners to open and put employees back to work in a safe manner that prevents the spread of COVID-19."

Gov. Brown warned that businesses that reopen in violation of risk level requirements will be subject to fines and enforcement.

"I have directed Oregon OSHA and the OLCC to deploy all available resources to ensure businesses are in compliance," she said.

Both Pulliam and Drinkwine spoke at a rally in support of the reopening movement in Estacada on Tuesday, Dec. 29.

"Rural America is bleeding," Drinkwine said. "It's about America standing for America. We all are America. We've got to get back to work. Without that, we fall apart."

"Business owners are wanting to follow (the governor's) guidelines; they just want to do it under guidelines that allow them to open their doors. We're wanting to do this in a safe way. Where's the evidence to keep these places closed? What I can find shows a 1.4% contribution to COVID spread from restaurants and bars," Pulliam said.

PMG PHOTO: EMILY LINDSTRAND - Eagle Creek Saloon Manager Megan Freauff tells attendees of a rally in support of local businesses reopening that her establishment will begin offering indoor dining again.

Rallying for the right to increase revenue

With temperatures dropping, businesses say revenue from outdoor dining is declining as well. And the health clubs, which haven't been able to operate since late November, are feeling the lack of revenue made worse by a delay in government assistance.

Dean Hurford, owner of Bumpers Bar & Grill in Fairview, is supportive of the opening. Though he takes the threat of coronavirus very seriously, he said there is little logic in which businesses are allowed to be open, such as Nordstrom's or Home Depot, and the ones mandated to be shuttered or severely restricted such as restaurants and gyms.

"I can go into Home Depot and walk up and down and touch everything in the aisle and nothing is sanitized," Hurford said. "But you can't come into my restaurant where everything is sanitized. We bring you an individual plate, salt and pepper shakers have been sanitized, the waitress is wearing a mask."

The restrictions have been devastating for restaurants, with some closing permanently.

Bumpers wasn't immune to those struggles. As a result of the constraints, Hurford slashed his workforce from about 40 people to nine. His daily sales dropped from $5,000-$8,000 to around $1,000 a day.

Likewise, Mark Eisenzimmer, president of Cascade Athletic Clubs, said gyms have not been a big vector for spreading the virus and can open safely with proper precautions.

"It just doesn't make sense. There is no science here," he said. "We're not being reckless or cavalier."

Eisenzimmer also pointed out that exercise is "an antidote" to the stress, depression and confinement many are experiencing due to the pandemic.

At Eagle Creek Saloon, owner Liz Mitchell and manager Megan Freauff said that if they don't reopen in a limited capacity, the establishment may not be around a year from now.

"When employees don't have a job, it's horrible. It's a horrible feeling when you have employees that maybe can't afford their electric bill. That's weighed on us a lot this year," Freauff said. "We care for our employees. We care for our community, and we need to open. If we don't open, some people don't even have two weeks."

Mitchell is also the owner of the Carver Hanger and the Redland Cafe. All three locations will open with reduced in-person seating on Jan. 1.

"We're going to follow all of the rules," Mitchell said. "Face masks will be required. For social distancing, we're going to close off tables, and no loitering."

"We are all going to be as safe as you possibly can, but we need to open. Our employees are bleeding," Freauff added.

Business at the restaurant has been slower while solely relying on takeout — which has also led to increased costs from more use of items like to-go containers and individually packaged condiments.

Both Mitchell and Freauff feel there is a double standard between what the COVID-19 restrictions allow larger stores and smaller businesses to do.

"We can still go to Costco. We can still go to Walmart and those big chains. These small mom and pop places that make our communities and our country thrive are not able to thrive," Freauff said.

They also respect the fact that some customers may not be comfortable dining in at this time.

"If you're not comfortable coming into the restaurant, we're OK with that," Freauff said.

Mitchell is concerned with potential fines associated with reopening but ultimately, believe it's the right thing to do.

PMG PHOTO: EMILY LINDSTRAND - Megan Freauff  and Liz Mitchell of the Eagle Creek Saloon will open their doors for reduced indoor dining as part of the 'Open Oregon' movement.

"I've had a few sleepless nights, but I feel like if we don't take a stand and show our presence, and what business owners need and want, then we don't have any room to complain. If you're not willing to do something to be part of the solution, you can't complain about the problem," she said. "We're not asking for full capacity, we're not asking for free for all, where we take off our masks and spread things. We are asking for a compromise and a way for slowing the spread, and also keeping small business alive ... Our country was founded on free enterprise and people working hard, doing the right thing and getting ahead. And I think if we kill that, we're in for a lot of trouble."

PMG FILE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Ria Brower has been operating Sandy Family Restaurant with takeout, but supports the 'Open Oregon' movement pushing for businesses to open under 'high risk' guidelines and offer indoor business. 
(Photo circa April 2020, before the mask mandate in Oregon.)"We feel hopeless, helpless. No one to turn too," said Ria Brower, owner of Sandy Family Restaurant and Rias' Bar. "The governor has drugged (sic) us along for months and there is no scientific evidence to back up her decisions … All we're asking is that we get treated the same … We would like to make a living also. I have bills that go out every month with no money coming in. I also have kids to feed. And I've worked really hard for the last nine years to build my business."

Brower added that she sees the coalition reopening on Jan. 1 not as a plot simply to buck the rules, but as a call for "equal treatment." While needed repairs at her business may prevent her from opening for the Jan. 1 protest, Brower stands beside those who will open.

"We were asked for two weeks to flatten the curve, we did our part to not overwhelm the ICU in the hospital, meanwhile every other business is open," she said. "If the cases were coming from bars and restaurants, why are there still cases every single day? Again, our mission is not to break the law or prove that we wanted to defy an order, we are just asking for equal treatment. I don't believe that it is intentionally to defy the governor's order. It actually bothers me when I see the news and they have that heading. I met with Stan regarding why everything is open except restaurants, bars and gyms, there was a few other businesses at the time and Stan saw the desperation of his Main Street businesses. His focus in this coalition is to get some answers for us."

PMG PHOTO: EMILY LINDSTRAND - Residents of Estacada, Sandy and Molalla attended an 'Open Oregon' rally in downtown Estacada on Tuesday, Dec. 29.

Some local leaders lend support

Brower is not the only one praising Pulliam for his stance. Two members the Sandy City Council — Councilors Laurie Smallwood and Carl Exner — have voiced similar concerns about the local economy and support for Pulliam's opposition of the governor's orders.

Troutdale's Lauer also backed "Open Oregon," though added his opinions do not reflect an official stance by the city or its council.

"I'm tired of all the jokes regarding 2020 and how dismal of a year it has been," Lauer wrote. "I feel it's time to shift gears and create necessary pathways that can lead us all into a 'booming' 2021."

Other elected leaders have pushed back against the reopening plan.

Calling the effort "dangerous," Wood Village Mayor Scott Harden posted on social media "re-openings slow the pace of recovery. I understand that folks are fighting for their livelihoods. However, while unfortunate, it is better than fighting for your life."

Harden continued, "COVID-19 is first and foremost a public health issue. Elected officials need to continue to treat it that way. That is why I (Wood Village T. Scott Harden) will not be attending any meetings of this group or advocating in favor of their agenda."

Casey Ryan, Troutdale's outgoing mayor, said while he may not agree with every decision made by Gov. Brown, he stands by and supports her decisions.

Brian Cooper, Fairview's mayor, said, "I have no legal authority to overrule the governor's edicts. I do, however, stand with those members of my community who are suffering from the governor's oppressive and arbitrary decisions. I stand open to any suggestions that will help my community in this difficult time."

"I encourage all of our communities to support these businesses in any way they feel fits their family's comfort level," Pulliam added. "I support both (the businesses opening and those who don't). "I support our Main Street businesses making the courageous decisions to do what they need to do."

PMG PHOTO: EMILY LINDSTRAND - Multiple flags could be seen at an Open Oregon rally in Estacada on Tuesday, Dec. 29.

Extreme risk, extreme caution

Aside from Harden, there are multiple businesses currently limited in operations in Sandy, Estacada and East Multnomah County, which have no plans to expand business outside of the current restrictions.

When asked if AntFarm Café & Bakery would be joining the movement to reopen Jan. 1, Executive Director Nunpa said: "Absolutely not."

AntFarm has remained open for takeout during the pandemic, and folks working with the nonprofit side of the YouthCore organization have been maintaining to support the community mostly nonstop.

"We've stayed open (within government guidelines) since day one to provide services and support for the community," Nunpa said. "As an organization which supports public health, we're not making a political statement out of this. I think there are ways to reopen in a safer way, but we don't plan to go against Oregon's rules. I don't feel like this is the way to go about it. The only way we work together as a society is to follow the rules. We work with people not only sick with COVID but losing family from COVID. It just doesn't feel right."

Though the loss of revenue is a hard pill to swallow, Chris Corbin of Brady's Burgers and Brats explains that the threat of losing his OLCC license or being completely shut down keeps him from joining in on the "Open Oregon" movement.

"The bottom line is there is already so much on the line," Corbin said. "As much as Brady's Burgers and Brats wants to open up (indoor dining) to the public, we aren't going to. We want to be tough, but we have to set a standard. There are rules for a reason, as much as I don't always like them. The whole point of this is beyond me. It's about the community, and our employees and their families who would be impacted if we were shut down. We want to serve the community and we can't do that is we're not here."

While Brady's won't open for indoor dining, Corbin and crew have been providing delivery and takeout of beer, wine, cider and food for months.

"I love what Stan is doing," he added. "I'm 100% behind what Stan is doing, but there are threats (to my business to consider). We're trying our hardest to shift and change (to stay open)."

Likewise, Boring Brewing Company owner Bill Schwartz says: "I stand up for (those choosing to open), but right now I'm not partaking. I'm behind them if this is what they think they need to do."

"I wasn't invited to the secret meeting. I don't think we're going to participate," Schwartz explained. "We're not doing too well, but we're here. My goal is to have a business and a liquor license after this is all over."

Schwartz is still offering outdoor seating and growler refills within COVID-19 restrictions and is being very vigilant about mask use for customers.

"I do get it," he added. "It seems unfair that all the big box places are open, but a lot of them are retail, too. I'm really torn on it. I'm feeling the pain like everybody else, but I don't want to be fined. I didn't see where Stan said he'll pay if we have to fight some big legal battle either. I have a really close relationship with the OLCC, and I don't need them mad at me."

Jenny Beaudoin, owner of Harmony in Estacada, described the reopening movement as "irresponsible."

"It's very disappointing that people in leadership are spearheading this," she said. "I think it's important that we in the community who respect science and state mandates identify ourselves."

Beaudoin expressed concern that since local leaders are involved with the reopening movement, some people might believe that all restaurants in the community are breaking protocol — which could lead to additional losses in revenue.

"When our leaders side with this rogue behavior, we might all get pooled into this, as if we're acting as one," she said. "People have been saying it's hard to know where (businesses) stand and they might avoid all the towns (participating in the reopening). Now, people might write off our community because of this rogue behavior. That feels really scary and harmful, because we're already struggling."

Harmony is operating solely on takeout, and the restaurant's front room has been rearranged to facilitate social distancing. Masks are required and available for customers who do not already have them.

"For our demographic. we're a safe place. I'm going to meet them where they're at. We have options. If they don't feel safe entering, we'll bring (their order) to the curb," Beaudoin said.

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