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Portland's oldest restaurant is a classic eatery and gin joint - and the COVID-19 pandemic doesn't care

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - James Louie, co-owner of Huber's Cafe, stands in the naturally lit bar of his family's restaurant. Founded in 1879, it is Portland's oldest restaurant., but maybe not for much longer.Huber's Cafe in downtown Portland has weathered a lot of storms over the past 141 years.

Founded in 1879, the city's oldest restaurant has survived WWI, the Spanish Flu pandemic, the Great Depression, WWII, the Great Recession and the months of protests that have shuttered many of the surrounding businesses.

But company president James Louie doesn't know if the fabled eatery at 411 S.W. Third Ave. will survive COVID-19.

Louie tells the Portland Tribune the restaurant was just recovering from Oregon Gov. Kate Brown's first dining room shutdown order in the spring when she ordered another shutdown for at least a month; this one beginning last Wednesday, Nov. 18. Louie said he assumes it will last longer.

"Huber's could be history in six months or so. Our lease is up in July 2021. We'll have to decide by this spring whether to renew it," Louie said of the family members who still own the restaurant.

According to Louie, the state's second shutdown happened at the worst possible time for the business. Huber's is famous for four things — it's dark-paneled dining room and atrium in the landmark Railway Exchange Building, its turkey dinner, its ham dinner, and its flaming Spanish coffee.

"There are two big turkey and ham dinner holidays coming up," said Louie, meaning Thanksgiving and Christmas. "And the weather is turning cold, which is when people start thinking about Spanish coffee."

Louie said the restaurant will try to recoup some of its loses by switching back to takeout meals again. But liquor sales generate 40% of its revenue, and state law prohibits takeout cocktails.

As Louie sees it, he and the other family owners are retirement age, and they will retire from the business they love if Huber's closes. They were hoping that at least one of their children would take it over when the time came, but that doesn't look likely now.

"We don't want to pass on a restaurant that is a liability, and that's what restaurants in Portland are now with COVID," said Louie, who promised Huber's Cafe will keep serving take-out meals until the freeze is lifted or the restaurant closes if it is extended too long.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - John Rosenthal places a takeout order with James Louie, co-owner of Huber's Cafe after Oregon Gov. Kate Brown's new four-week 'freeze' took effect on Wednesday, Nov. 18.

Health or happiness

Huber's Cafe may be historic, but in many ways it is typical of the thousands of family-owned and small restaurants in the state. Dozens in the Portland area already have closed because of pandemic restrictions and the rest are worried about the effects of Oregon Gov. Kate Brown's "freeze" of at least four week's limiting them to take-out food only.

Many of the remaining restaurants are represented by the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association, which filed suit in federal court along with the Restaurant Law Center of Washington, D.C., challenging the legality of the freeze that took effect on Nov. 18 and seeking an injunction until a judge rules on it. The suit claims the freeze is unconstitutional and unfairly penalizes restaurant owners who have spent thousands of dollars on safety equipment to comply with Brown's previous orders, while other businesses are allowed to continue operating under them.

"The restaurant industry prefers engaging in partnerships with our leaders in government," said Jason Brandt, association president and CEO. "We hope to engage in communication with Gov. Kate Brown and her professional staff as soon as possible to work towards a resolution that has not been available to us at this stage."

PMG PHOTO: JON HOUSE - Many Portland bars and restaurants have now closed for the second time because of state requirements to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Pandemic paradox: Save jobs or save lives?

The freeze didn't come out of the blue.

Gov. Brown and the Oregon Health Authority say they're trying to stave off an even-worse upsurge in the pandemic. In November, Oregon went quickly from around 500 cases per day to higher than 1,500 per day. Oregon isn't a national hotspot yet, but with the nation hitting the ominous quarter-million-dead mark late last week, Brown and the Health Authority are fighting to keep off that "hotspot" list.

"We're about to face what might be the roughest days of the pandemic," Brown said last week, as the daily case count in the state continues to top 1,000.

The state's epidemiologist, Dr. Dean Sidelinger, agreed. "This is likely the most dangerous time in Oregon," he said. "We can't pretend COVID-19 is going away on its own."

Sidelinger and other health officials have continued to warn that hospitals soon will reach capacity if the virus spread is not curbed. The number of available intensive care unit beds is dwindling around the state as more virus patients are hospitalized.

The Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems released a statement in support of the new freeze, saying "it is imperative that we act now to preserve hospital capacity."

"Hospitals face dark days ahead," Brown said. "This is a collective call for sacrifice."

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said the four-week freeze "is a necessary step to reverse the course of this pandemic."

He added: "Many Portlanders have made major sacrifices during this pandemic. This freeze, while challenging, will help ensure fewer sacrifices down the road and a strong recovery. And, most importantly, this freeze will save lives."

PMG PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Bollywood restaurant in East Portland, in early spring as the pandemic was just beginning to slam into Oregon.

Restaurateurs beg for help

On Sunday, Nov 15, two days after after Brown announced her order, the Independent Restaurant Alliance of Oregon issued an open letter to her pleading for help.

"Restaurants and bars cannot survive with to-go operations only. A survey of independently owned restaurants indicates that the loss of indoor dining results in a revenue loss on average of 81.75% thus forcing closures and mass layoffs. Additionally, our businesses don't operate like hardware stores — we can't just flip a switch and walk away. Each time we close we lose perishable inventory and we have to maintain payroll to properly shut down the business."

The letter was signed by around 300 restaurant owners.

A week after announcing her freeze, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown's office promised $55 million in federal CARES funds would be released to help businesses hurt by the pandemic. The financial assistance will be prioritized for businesses in the hospitality industry, those hurt by the freeze order, small businesses, and those from Black, Native American and other historically disadvantaged communities.

"Our iconic main street businesses have sacrificed too much already in this pandemic," Brown said.

Brandt said the money is not nearly enough. His organization sent a letter to the Oregon Legislature's Joint Emergency Board on Nov. 17 asking for the immediate creation of a $75 million Hospitality Relief Fund to help operators and their employees survive another shutdown, just for starters.

"There is no federal relief package waiting to be voted on and distributed from Congress or the White House," Brandt said. "There are no stimulus checks being printed to help Oregon families pay their bills. There is no weekly check for $600 available for those servers, cooks, hosts and hostesses about to lose their jobs or have their hours cut again because restaurants can't survive on takeout and delivery if they can do it at all."

The restaurant owners also note that Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has allowed outdoor dining to continue in that state. Brandt said many restaurant owners recently spent tens of thousands of dollars on tents, heaters and other equipment to allow continued outdoor dining in the wet weather.

Other business organization also are sounding the alarm, and not only for restaurants and bars. Anticipating the announcement, the 38-member Coronavirus Recovery Business Coalition sent Brown a letter before it was issued saying that such restrictions would hurt workers without guaranteeing any public health benefits.

"We implore you, Governor, if you are considering additional restrictions or actual closures, please take a pause. Let us work with you to develop a better plan. Arbitrarily closing businesses and reacting to this crisis without a plan that addresses the root of the problem will certainly harm Oregonians across our state without ensuring any real results," said the letter, which was signed by Oregon Business & Industry, the Portland Business Alliances and many more business organizations.

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