Clackamas, Multnomah businesses ready to reopen?
After finishing a meal at Eagle Creek Saloon outside of Estacada, Molalla resident Jeremy Harshger said the experience didn't feel unsafe.
"They're keeping things clean and at half-capacity. They're doing it like they should be able to," he said Friday, Jan. 1.
"Hopefully they make some money today. (Restaurant manager) Megan (Freauff) is the head of taking care of this community. They should be able to collect a paycheck," added Carissa Ross, who also had just finished a meal at the establishment.
Eagle Creek Saloon is one of several businesses in the Estacada, Sandy and East Multnomah County area participating in the Open Oregon movement and offering a reduced amount of in-person dining.
Freauff and owner Liz Mitchell said if they had continued to operate solely on takeout and outdoor dining, the bar and grill 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 who 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."
Along with Eagle Creek Saloon, Mitchell also owns the Carver Hanger and the Redland Cafe. All three locations opened with reduced in-person seating Jan. 1.
"We're going to follow all of the rules," Mitchell said prior to the opening. "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.
Several customers at Eagle Creek Saloon on Jan. 1 said it was a double standard that larger stores have been able to stay open while locally owned restaurants were forced to close their dining rooms.
"I can stand next to 10-plus people within less than a foot distance when I shop. Social distancing is not enforced at the big box stores, and neither are masks. They put up signs, and that's where it ends," said Sandy resident Jose Rodriguez as he waited outside to enter the restaurant. "Why crack down on the small businesses? It's absurd."
"It's 100% a double standard," Harshger said.
This is a mentality shared by Sandy Mayor Stan Pulliam, Estacada Mayor Sean Drinkwine, Troutdale Mayor-elect Randy Lauer and Gresham City Councilor-elect Sue Piazza, among others. In protest of Gov. Kate Brown's current executive order, which prohibits indoor dining and certain indoor recreation businesses from opening, these local leaders encouraged businesses across Oregon to open for indoor use Jan. 1. The goal of the Open Oregon protest 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 the two-week freeze in late November. "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."
For months, Pulliam has been a vocal opponent of the executive orders implemented by Brown, which have limited businesses' activities.
The risk of activities is determined by the Oregon Health Authority, which uses the following criteria:
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 also is prohibited. Eating and drinking establishments are allowed to be open with outdoor seating at a capacity of 50 people, composed 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, which allows for a reduced amount of indoor dining.
"This isn't about the governor. This isn't about me," Pulliam said. "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."
Both Pulliam and Drinkwine spoke at a rally in support of the reopening movement in Estacada on 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.
The Open Oregon movement's plans have not gone unnoticed by the governor or Clackamas County officials. Pulliam's comments in particular have spurred critique from outgoing Clackamas County Commission Chairman Jim Bernard.
Bernard says he is "dismayed" by Pulliam's statements about data related to the COVID-19 pandemic in which he has claimed the county is "misleading residents with numbers."
In a Dec. 31 news release, Bernard asked what Clackamas County's motives for tampering with data would be.
"We gain nothing and certainly have not wished to cause businesses to fail," he said. "Public health officials have the duty to truthfully share information and facts related to diseases in the communities they serve. It is unfair to target the ethics of an agency or the people who serve the community when the truth is something that is undesirable and painful."
Bernard included recent COVID-19 case counts for Sandy, Estacada and Clackamas County as a whole, which Pulliam refuted because they focused on cases in ZIP codes, rather than cases within city limits.
From Dec.14-27, Clackamas County had 1,499 cases and a rate of 353 per 100,000 people. During the same time period, the 97055 ZIP code, which includes Sandy, had a case count of 105 and a rate of 523 per 100,000. The 97023 ZIP code, which includes the city of Estacada, had 58 cases and a rate of 508 per 100,000.
"We understand that everyone is tired of this global pandemic. We understand that businesses that remain restricted or closed want to open and that they have been hit hard over the last several months. We share the desire to reopen," Bernard said. "Yet reopening must be balanced with keeping our communities safe. We must work together to work towards reopening and recovery. Spreading unsubstantiated claims within the community only leads to further division."
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 jeopardizing public health and risking fines."
Rallying for right to increase revenue
With temperatures dropping, businesses say revenue from outdoor dining is too. 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. And a few of them are willing to risk the potential fines to recover revenue.
Mark Eisenzimmer, president of Cascade Athletic Clubs, argued that 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.
Dean Hurford, the owner of Bumpers Bar & Grill in Fairview, which has been operating for 17 years, said joining Open Oregon was about conducting a peaceful protest and hopefully beginning a dialogue.
"None of this is profound — we are just trying to get attention and have the government work with us to find a better solution than the restrictions," Hurford said. "We wish no ill will to anyone; we are protesting, but not in an aggressive way."
Many of the customers who visited Bumpers, 21935 N.E. Halsey St., asked to be seated inside to kick off the new year Friday afternoon, Jan. 1. Hurford said 90% of his customers had advocated for the measured reopening, and the goal was to loosen — not remove — restrictions.
In Bumpers, every other table was left empty; all employees wore masks and sanitized during turndown; customers wore masks whenever they left their seats; and anyone not comfortable could continue ordering takeout or request an outdoor table, sitting in a new section that Hurford built during the pandemic.
"Our customers have kept us open, I really appreciate their support," he said. "If it wasn't for them, I may have closed down months ago and just come in to feed the fish. But I've learned they almost need us as much as we need them."
The COVID-19 restrictions have been devasting for Bumpers and its employees. As a result of the constraints, Hurford slashed his work force from about 40 employees to nine. His daily sales dropped from between $5,000 to $8,000 a day to around $1,000 a day. And, he said, in many ways Bumpers has been lucky, since many of his peers are in much more dire situations or have gone belly up.
He joined Open Oregon because his restaurant wouldn't survive much longer without an influx of dollars, and he didn't want to contemplate further layoffs.
"I can go into Home Depot (or any box store) 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."
Hurford added, "We are trying to survive, and we will continue (indoor dining) until they shut us down."
At Eagle Creek Saloon, 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.
Both Mitchell and Freauff are concerned with potential fines associated with reopening, but ultimately felt it was the right choice.
"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," Mitchell said. "We're not asking for full capacity, we're not asking for free for all, where we take up 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."
While Ria Brower of Sandy Family Restaurant and Ria's Bar in Sandy considered opening Jan. 1, repairs kept her business closed on New Year's Day.
That said, Brower has voiced her support for Pulliam and the Open Oregon movement.
"We feel hopeless, helpless. No one to turn to," Brower said. "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 to reopen Jan. 1 not as a plot simply to buck the rules, but as a call for "equal treatment."
"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."
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 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."
Extreme risk, extreme caution
While some have been vocal about their opposition to the executive order and opted to protest Jan. 1 by joining in the Open Oregon movement, most businesses seemed to look the other way during the protest opening. It was quiet along Main Avenue in downtown Gresham, and it was a similar vibe in downtown Troutdale. Several Sandy and Estacada businesses chose to offer the outdoor seating and takeout options allowed by state guidelines. To many, the risk of losing their OLCC license or their business outweighed the potential additional revenue gained by opening.
"We'd love to be letting people inside, but we didn't think it was smart for us (to join the opening)," said Le Happy Creperie and Cocktail Bar co-owner Brie Escalante while preparing an espresso drink for a customer dining in their tented patio. "I agree that we should be able to let people in using safety precautions of distancing and limited capacity, but we're going to follow state guidelines."
Scooter's Restaurant and Sports Bar took a similar stance, and staff are offering delivery and takeout of mixed drinks when people order food.
When asked if AntFarm Cafe & 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," he added. "As an organization that 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 said that the threat of losing his OLCC license or being completely shut down keeps him from joining 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 if we're not here."
While Brady's didn'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 (Sandy Mayor) 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 said: "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."
"We're not doing too well, but we're here," Schwartz said. "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 revenue losses.
"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. Marks 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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