Washington County business owners cautiously eye reopening
On Tuesday morning, May 26, Mike Soto sat down at his computer to strategize.
Soto owns Pizzario and Noble Hop Bierhaus, two businesses in downtown Hillsboro.
Like restaurant owners around the world living in communities about to loosen restrictions on dine-in service, Soto was eager to reopen — but he considered how he could do it safely for his staff and customers, and in a way that would increase revenue lost due to the coronavirus.
"It's kind of like a Trail Blazers team," Soto said. "I'm the coach and I'm just kind of thinking, 'OK, what's our play, what's our gameplan here? How do we beat the COVID-19 team?' My brain is spinning to prepare and be creative."
Washington County submitted its plan to enter Phase 1 of Gov. Kate Brown's three-phase, conditional approach to reopening certain sectors of the economy on May 22. County officials expect to receive state approval, allowing restaurant owners such as Soto as well as salons, gyms and retail stores to reopen with limited service, on June 1.
But many restaurant owners, including Soto, are taking a more cautious approach.
Soto said he isn't sure when he will reopen for dine-in service, but he doesn't plan to reopen on June 1. Instead, he will continue doing take-out service only while he comes up with a plan and observes how other businesses handle the first phase of reopening.
"Honestly, I'm not sure yet," Soto said of how he'll move forward with his own businesses. "There's a lot to think about."
Soto considers how he will arrange seating to allow all parties to be spaced six feet apart, accommodate larger parties up to 10 people, create single-use menus and train staff to properly sanitize dining surfaces after each use, among other requirements from the Oregon Health Authority.
He's also thinking about how he will implement other safety measures recommended but not required by the OHA, including designating an employee to manage the flow of customers in a single direction through the restaurant.
Other business owners in Washington County plan to reopen for in-person service on June 1.
David Esparza owns Faded Up Barber Shop in Forest Grove. He said he plans to start taking clients for appointments as soon as he can.
Esparza said his phone has been ringing with people calling to ask when they'll be able to get a haircut continuously since the pandemic began.
"I never stopped getting phone calls," Esparza said. "They're like, 'Put me on standby. As soon as you hear what's up, let me know, I'll take the day off of work if I have to.'"
Esparza has his own OHA requirements to meet. He's planning to ask clients, whenever they call for an appointment, a series of questions about whether they've recently had symptoms of illness. He'll also be asking them to remain outside of the shop until it's time for their appointment.
Razors, scissors and other tools of the trade have to be disinfected between cuts. So do the seats in which customers sit.
Esparza also plans to require all customers to wear face coverings when they come for an appointment — a measure recommended but not required by health officials.
He worries he will face backlash from clients who think it's an infringement on their personal liberty. He has watched as people downplay the contagiousness of COVID-19 and protest lockdown orders at state capitols.
"I know a lot of people feel like their liberties are getting taken away — but I'm not forcing you to come to my barbershop, you're choosing to, and if you choose to, then you have to follow these protocols," Esparza said.
On May 20, the Forest Grove Police Department asked residents to respect business owners' policies in a post on Facebook ahead of the expected reopening.
"Creating mask policies are within business owners' rights, similar to requiring customers to wear shoes and a shirt to receive service," the post read in part. "Their request is based on continuing to keep you and our community safe. We ask you to please be polite."
Community support has been crucial for businesses like Soto's. That continued patronage has allowed Soto to keep half his staff running take-out service, he said.
Still, he'll need to hire people back or look for new employees to reopen for dine-in service, which is posing another hurdle, he said.
"You can't just say, 'OK, come on back, John. You get this table, you get that table,'" Soto said. "No. There are big changes."
And even still, Soto isn't sure he'll be able to bring in enough revenue to make reopening worth it.
"It's really hard to say," Soto said. "I don't know if a lot of people are ready to come out yet. There are some people who are really excited, saying, 'We can't wait,' but there's still a lot of people who are kind of like, 'I don't know, maybe we'll stick with the take-out.'"
Soto has been in the restaurant business for almost 40 years, opening 21 restaurants, he said. He has owned "ma-and-pop restaurants to corporate to franchise to fine dining," Soto said. "I've rescued restaurants from going down the tube between that '08-'09 tank-down. I'd like to think that's the only advantage that I've had. I'm new to this. I've never experienced this."
Soto said coming up with creative ways to bring in customers will also be important to being profitable when he reopens. He has continued to have live music at Pizzario by allowing bands to play outside at a distance as customers stop in for take-out.
It could be as long as a week or more after June 1 before Soto reopens, he said.
The main reason Esparza plans to reopen as soon as possible is to start making money again so he can help provide for his wife, who works at a residential care facility, and his five stepchildren, four of whom live at home, he said.
Since closing, Esparza has taught himself how to design shop logos and other images on his computer to print on T-shirts, with the hope that selling them to his loyal clientele will bring in some extra cash.
But another reason Esparza is particularly eager to reopen is for his mental health, he said.
Opening up the barbershop in 2016 has allowed him to get his life on the right track, Esparza said. Court records show he was convicted of second-degree assault and went to prison when he was 16 after being involved in gang-related activity, he said. He later had additional stints in prison after being convicted on identity theft and violation of a court's stalking protective order charges, court records show.
He learned to cut hair in prison and got his license after leaving, he said.
Since Esparza opened the shop, the routine and the community he has developed have helped manage post-traumatic stress disorder, which he says was a result of prison.
He said not being able to work has been difficult.
"The thing I miss the most is the interaction with the community," Esparza said. "The first two weeks after we shutdown, it was really, really, really, really, really hard. But I've been able to build myself a new routine. I can't wait to reopen again."
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