Forest Grove businesses roll with the punches
After Gov. Kate Brown moved 15 Oregon counties into the "extreme risk" category for COVID-19 last week, business owners in Washington County were cautiously relieved additional restrictions weren't imposed on them.
But for a few hours after the Oregon Health Authority released the latest case rates per 100,000 residents on Monday afternoon, May 3, it appeared Washington County would also be plunged into "extreme risk." What's more, none of the 15 counties in the "extreme risk" designation had seen their case rates improve enough — below 200 new cases per 100,000 residents — to be moved into a lower risk category, with Washington County and three others deteriorating enough to join them.
But Washington County got yet another reprieve. While Oregon still has more than 300 patients in the hospital with COVID-19, which would normally meet the statewide trigger for "extreme risk" restrictions to be imposed on the counties with the worst case rates, the rate of increase in "patient bed-days," an obscure metric tracked by the OHA, was just barely below the 15% mark, at 14.9% — meaning, the OHA said, that the trigger was not met and counties that would otherwise be moved into the "extreme risk" category can instead follow the rules and guidance for "high risk" counties.
"With our statewide hospitalization rate stabilizing, our hospitals should have the capacity to continue treating patients with severe cases of COVID-19 and other serious medical conditions in the coming weeks," Brown said Tuesday evening, May 4, announcing that she would roll back "extreme risk" restrictions across Oregon in accordance with the metrics.
Oregon's announcement was mirrored in neighboring Washington, where Gov. Jay Inslee also declared that a recent surge appears to have reached a "plateau" on Tuesday. Inslee froze all county-by-county restrictions for the next two weeks, giving Washington more time to assess the COVID-19 situation.
However, in Oregon, if the rate of hospitalizations spikes again and the county-by-county case numbers don't improve, Washington County could still land in "extreme risk" next Friday, May 14. And so businesses remain on the hot seat, happy for another week's reprieve, but still waiting to see what happens next.
A move to "extreme risk" this week would have put an end to indoor dining and limit gyms to an indoor capacity of six people, making restaurants and gyms among the most impacted.
The frequency of changes to restrictions has made formerly routine decisions almost impossible to make week to week, business owners say.
"I don't even know what to buy anymore," Craig said, owner of the wine bar and restaurant Urban Decanter in Forest Grove. "It's like, 'Oh, we just ordered food and we're going to shut down on Friday, now I got food waste and the cost of that.'"
Craig signed a lease for the wine bar's new location on Main Street a few storefronts down from its previous location in February 2020. She finished moving into the new location in August and started serving people there the month after.
"The timing couldn't have been worse," she said, as the late November restrictions banned in-dine service altogether.
Being able to serve about 12 people inside recently, in addition to the three tables the restaurant has under tents outside, has been crucial to the restaurant's bottom line, Craig said.
Adjusting to changing restrictions has made staffing particularly difficult, she said.
"Telling staff we're going to have to cut their hours back just so that we can pay rent or pay trash bills or lighting bills is hard," she said. "Navigating all that financial side of it has been a: tiresome; b: difficult."
Craig said Urban Decanter being a bottle shop that sells whole bottles of wine has helped mitigate losses from restrictions on meal service, adding that she feels for restaurants that depend solely on foodservice.
The wine bar will shift its marketing strategy to bottle sales if Washington County enters extreme risk again, she said.
It's the kind of adjustment businesses like Fitness:1440 Forest Grove aren't able to make, said Travis Strong, owner of the gym.
"It's basically a shutdown," Strong said about the six-person capacity limit for gyms in extreme risk.
He said the gym has been able to conduct some group classes outside, which helps during more extreme restriction levels.
But he expects more people to pause their memberships if the gym has to limit slots for use of indoor equipment to six at a time.
"We were making a comeback," Strong said. "By Feb. 1, we were starting to sign up two or three members a day."
The gym has lost about 1,000 memberships since the beginning of the pandemic, he said. He said he expects it to take years to regain all those members back.
Although he says not being able to serve people inside will be another hit, Jeff Farrar, co-owner of Ridgewalker Brewing Co. in Forest Grove, says the brewery and restaurant's approach to seemingly constant changes in restrictions has been to double down on products that won't be impacted.
"It's not our first rodeo," Farrar said. "We're already prepared for this if we have to."
The brewery has done away with pint glasses in exchange for serving beer in mason jars, which can be sealed and carried out, according to loosened restrictions on alcohol service by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. People return the mason jars and the restaurant reuses them, Farrar said.
It's one key way the brewery has been able to ensure it can keep selling beer even indoor dining is off-limits and people don't want to eat outside because the weather is bad, Farrar said.
"We'll probably never go back to regular pint glasses," he said.
Mason jars are also harder to break than pint glasses, making the change beneficial no matter what restrictions are in place, Farrar said.
In the face of another sharp increase in case counts, Farrar said he's trying to stay optimistic, adding it's not worth it to get angry at state officials.
"At the end of the day, I think everyone is just trying to be safe for everyone during this crazy time," Farrar said. "I'm not mad."
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