As the novel coronavirus took hold in Oregon, workers who perform one of life's most routine jobs — pumping gas — started to panic.
In Pacific City, visitors in town for the first weekend of spring break swarmed one service station, prompting employees to walk off the job and forcing the station to close.
Across the state, service station owners started reporting growing fear and dwindling work forces.
"We have employees that are sick, uncomfortable about coming to work and staying home to take care of their kids," one station owner wrote in an email shared by the Oregon Fuels Association. "This is creating a manpower shortage."
Company after company in the early days of the pandemic's spread in Oregon reported challenges keeping stations open.
So, on Saturday, March 28, the Oregon State Fire Marshal put the pump in the hands of ordinary motorists across Oregon during the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak caused by the novel coronavirus
Suspension of Oregon's rules — which require an attendant to handle refueling duties in all but rural areas — at 6 a.m. on Saturday, March 28.
"During this unprecedented time of state emergency, we need to ensure that critical supply lines for fuels and other basic services remain uninterrupted," said State Fire Marshal Jim Walker.
Walker says gas stations must still have an attendant on duty to supervise the new self-service regimen, ensure that customers practice social distancing measures and to sanitize equipment.
But for 10 consecutive hours a day, stations may allow refueling without an attendant present, as long as the owners maintain documentation that no workers were available to work at that time, including proof that hiring and employee retention efforts were fruitless.
Oregonians will be allowed to pump their own gas until Saturday, April 11, though an extension of the order is possible.
Rudy Owens, a public affairs specialist in Walker's office, said a developing "critical shortage of workers" led to the decision, made in collaboration with Gov. Kate Brown. He said there was growing worry that essential workers who need to drive to get to work, such as health care workers and police and medics, would run out of places to fuel up.
"In certain parts of Oregon, if attendants are unavailable, there is no gas," Owens said.
"Our hope is this is going to be very short term and that there is no harm."
Owens said Oregonians who elect to pump their own gas have to take the same precaution they do with touching any other potentially contaminated service, whether it's a grocery store cart or the door to a store. He said sanitizing and hand washing will be essential because station workers won't be able to clean pump nozzles after every customer's use.
Mike Freese, a lobbyist for the Oregon Fuels Association, said that station owners would use attendants to clean equipment as possible "but there is no assurance the equipment will get sanitized after every use."
The association approached Brown's office on Thursday, March 19, asking that the state's ban be lifted.
"Many gas attendants are unable to come to work due to sickness, access to children issues (with children at home) as well as the plethora of issues people are facing right now," Freese and his lobbying partner, Danelle Romain, wrote in an email to two of Brown's staffers. "This is an emergency."
The following day, the association shared reports it was getting from station owners across the state. The reports came before state authorities started listing a rapidly increasing number of Oregonians testing positive for COVID-19.
One company with 24 stations said one-third of its workers were off duty and that "employees are unwilling to continue face-to-face, hand-to-hand contact with customers."
An executive with another company with 21 stations reported, "My managers are extremely concerned about getting people who are willing and feel safe enough to come to work." The executive said one-fourth of its work force was off sick.
"We have one very busy station. We have only three employees. They are all sick," another owner wrote.
In another location, "We have five employees, four of them called sick and the fifth was not comfortable to work out of concern for himself and his grandmother at home. We ended up closing the station."
Romain said Saturday that stations have already closed in several cities, including Lake Oswego, Eugene, Government Camp, Clatskanie and Hood River.
An online FAQ posted by the Fire Marshal notes that gas station operators are not required to provide gloves to customers, and enforcement of the measure will be based on complaints.
"OSFM does not intend to actively monitor retail service stations for compliance," the FAQ states. "However, if our office receives information that a station may not be following the rules, we will reach out to them to provide education to assist them."
Les Zaitz is editor of Salem Reporter, part of the Oregon Capital Bureau. Zane Sparling is a reporter for the Portland Tribune.
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