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East Multnomah County business owners struggle with lack of customers, forced layoffs

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - The East Multnomah County business community is making difficult decisions in wake of COVID-19. During the uncertain times East Multnomah County is facing at the moment, local entrepreneurs and businesses are making difficult choices to stay afloat until the better days ahead.

As COVID-19 continues to grind daily life to a halt, restaurants are pivoting to take-out and delivery service only, retail stores are diving into online sales, and businesses across Gresham are trying to lower expenses and stretch their dollars.

"Entrepreneurs respond to stress with action," said Lynn Snodgrass, CEO of the Gresham Area Chamber of Commerce. "Small businesses are nimble and can react on a dime."

While every industry has been hit hard, bars and restaurants have been particularly scrambling in the wake of Gov. Kate Brown's announcement Monday, March 16, to ban all food establishments from dine-in meals inside their businesses. All food must now be served carry-out or via delivery.

The decision was made by Brown on Monday afternoon as a way to continue limiting the spread of COVID-19, a disease caused by the novel coronavirus, from spreading. Oregon already has dozens of cases, with more projected on the horizon by health care officials.

Brown had been weighing the closure of bars and restaurants for a few days, and also considered instituting a curfew. One concern was the role food establishments fill for many rural communities.

"In a global pandemic, days are like weeks and every single hour things change," she said. "The actions we take today will save lives."

Brown has asked all Oregon businesses to evaluate their practices and make changes to curb the spread of the infectious disease.

"Basically," Brown said. "Can your job do the equivalent of restaurant takeout? If you can't, I strongly urge you to close your doors temporarily."

Difficult decisions

PMG FILE PHOTO - Gov. Kate Brown ordered all bars and restaurants to pivot to a take-out and delivery only model due to concerns around COVID-19. For La Caretta of Gresham, the mandates out of the governor's office has meant making tough choices.

The Mexican restaurant, at 660 N.E. Burnside Road, had to hand out layoff notices to 27 employees Tuesday morning. Many of them had been with the restaurant for more than 15 years.

But they are making changes to try and rebound and to bring those employees back.

"We want to make sure we can support them in any way possible," said Lisa Barendse, with La Carreta.

They are making changes to the website to facilitate ordering online and have delivery by staff. The restaurant is also looking into a program where customers can donate a meal when they order, which will then be given to vulnerable families across the community.

But right now they are just trying to get their feet back under them.

"If we could keep staff working as much as possible and serve the community, that would be our goal," Barendse said.

They are not alone in making these decisions, as others have taken similar steps. McMenamins announced Tuesday afternoon, March 17, that all of their locations are closing their doors through the remainder of the month. That includes the closure of McMenamins Edgefield in Troutdale and McMenamins Highland Pub & Brewery in Gresham.

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Gresham Chamber CEO Lynn Snodgrass said that local businesses and entrepreneurs will respond to current stress and difficulties with action."All of them are concerned for their employees," Snodgrass said. "Some were forced to make temporary hard decisions like layoffs and hour reductions. Your employees are your family."

But purchasing take-out from a local restaurant like La Carreta or any of the others is a great way to support your favorite businesses while lessening the strain on your own pantry. Gresham's grocery stores are staying on top of their inventories, but it's impossible not to notice the empty shelves during a visit.

Toilet paper, rice and bread are difficult to find, while potatoes, onions, meat and canned goods have been heavily picked over.

"Instead of cooking at home, order from a restaurant once or twice a week," Snodgrass said.

Local strategies

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - McMenamins has closed all locations across Oregon. As many dental offices are closing after the American Dental Association made a recommendation that patients postpone all elective procedures for three weeks, one Gresham clinic is going in the opposite direction.

Beacon Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery in Gresham is keeping its doors open to help alleviate overcrowding at hospital emergency departments. They will continue seeing patients with dental emergencies.

"Many dentists who we've talked to have limited hours, but the public cannot afford for us to do so," said Dr. Russell Lieblick with Beacon Oral. "If we do not continue to see patients, many will be forced to seek care in the emergency room."

Lieblick said the ER is not equipped to handle dental pain or infections, which puts unnecessary strain on resources that otherwise could be used to deal with novel coronavirus issues.

At Beacon Oral they already operate under what is termed "universal precautions" — basically they assume anyone could be infected with anything at any time. So staff are versed in proper protocols.

Other businesses are shifting their practices to continue serving customers, including two book stores in downtown Gresham.

Books Around the Corner, 40 N.W. Second St., is no longer allowing customers into the store due to concerns about COVID-19 and the propensity people have to pick up many books while exploring new literature.

There are two ways to continue to purchase from Books Around the Corner while stuck in self-quarantine. Customers can order and have books delivered anywhere in Gresham for a $5 fee. Books can be paid for over the phone or by emailing. They also have free curbside delivery, where you can pull up in front of the store and have someone bring the books out to you. Otherwise, Books Around the Corner will continue its normal hours of operation.

"A lot of people are secluded right now — it's important to stay in a routine," said owner Stephanie Csaszar. "I am doing the best I can. We have had so much support from our community of readers."

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR  - Local grocery store are having trouble keeping items like rice, bread and toilet paper stocked.  The store is known for its book clubs, which range in topic from mystery, teen novels, horror, sci-fi, nonfiction and basically every other subject. For Csaszar it was important to continue those connections now more than ever — so all of the book clubs will continue meeting next month online, with members able to join in by phone or email.

"It is continuing to have a sense of community and promoting connections," Csaszar said. "Escape from all of this with whatever you can — books, movies, puzzles, whatever."

So far, Maggie Mae's Kids Bookshop hasn't seen a dip in business yet, said owner Shoshonna Roberts. With libraries, museums, the Oregon Zoo and other spots closed and kids out of school, Roberts said, "We have the kind of items people are looking for. We have work books, activity books, puzzles, books and other things our customers are taking advantage of."

Maggie Mae's is offering curbside pick-up and delivery within a 5 mile radius of the downtown Gresham shop.

Maggie Mae's website is touting "social distancing survival materials," including paint by sticker books, games and flash cards. So far, Roberts said, she has had no trouble getting merchandise to restock.

Roberts has canceled the store's popular book clubs and special events until April 1 and will not hold events until there is a greenlight from authorities.

"We are following all the guidelines," she said.

But Roberts said as the economy slows and more people feel the effects of layoffs, she expects her business will soften.

She has two employees and does not plan on laying them off.

"It's all up in the air and we're all just taking it day-by-day," she said.

Kickstarting the economy

The city of Gresham and the chamber have been in daily communication to come up with strategies to support the business community.

One branch of Gresham's Emergency Operations Center is a team that is focused on economic recovery. The city is pulling together funds that could be redirected toward business assistance to support those struggling.

In the short term, the chamber website has been updated with a list of restaurants that are doing delivery and which are doing take-out. There is also information on how to shop at local retail stores.

In the long term, the chamber is working on an economic revitalization campaign that will roll out when things have settled down. That program, which is still being ironed out, will include many different ways to kickstart community members getting back in the doors of their favorite businesses.

"We need to do everything we can," Snodgrass said. "It's going to take a brain trust of a lot of people."

For more information

Visit the Gresham Area Chamber of Commerce website to learn about what its member businesses are doing during the COVID-19 pandemic at www.greshamchamber.org


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