COVID Silver Linings in Portland and across the state
Americans are nothing if not adaptable.
The pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus brought pain, suffering and death; tanked the nation's economy; and pushed all the right buttons for anxiety and depression.
But out of it came innovation. Some good changes, some much-needed creativity, some new ways of examining old problems.
Air quality improved as people stopped driving. More people learned to cook, or took up creative hobbies, or improved their homes. According to Rolling Stone, the online-only Sweetwater, which sells musical instruments, surpassed $1 billion in revenue for the first time in the company's 42-year history.
Portland saw a surge in sidewalk and street dining that has transformed downtown. The Legislature stopped pretending that a small-business owner and mom in LaGrande or Astoria could drive to the Capitol to testify for three minutes, opening up video conference call testimony for the first time. "Tele-health" options made it easier to see a doctor from home, while a vast sector of the workforce learned to be creative at their kitchen tables, not in the cubicle.
The Portland Tribune takes a look at some of these "silver linings."
Keep Portland Barcelona
Last fall, as the rains came and the coronavirus settled in for an extended stay, eateries started building out their street seating with solid structures, windows and lighting.
Suddenly, downtown Portland began to look more like a European capital, seemingly with as many diners as pedestrians on sidewalks, and parking spaces and entire lanes turned into al fresco eateries.
With its Healthy Streets program, the city dropped its charges for tables in the street and on sidewalks. The Portland Bureau of Transportation has issued 538 permits for street dining from 674 applications.
And as a light appeared at the end of the COVID tunnel in early 2021, Portlanders put their fleece wardrobes to good use. Standing heaters, rain- and wind-resistant awnings and Pendleton lap blankets became the new trend.
And now, with summer almost here and vaccinations approaching the magical 70% goal, diners are choosing the gutter over premium inside tables. It's the fresh air, the people watching and most of all, the freedom.
Pauleena Valente and Rosie Willow live in Bend but were visiting Portland for the weekend, thinking of moving here. (For one thing, because the rent is cheaper here.) They were enjoying a slice of Sizzle Pie just off West Burnside Street, watching the passersby and having "the world's smallest Bloody Mary," according to Valente, who is a bartender.
"I like the atmosphere here, the weather's been really nice, but in Bend it's like you have to be inside anywhere you go, it's super limited," Willow said. "Here there are tons of people eating out, I just think it's awesome."
They both work in the service industry and have noticed how the rise of to-go orders and outdoor serving have changed an entire business model.
"People got into this pattern of not being able to go anywhere, but I think some people found some comfortability in it," Valente said.
The battle between extroverts and introverts is on: "They could just stay home, away from the virus. I think it worked for some people and didn't work for some people," Valente said. "Unfortunately, some people came out of it ahead, but businesses that didn't have outside seating closed down. I know you are supposed to have a permit but a lot of businesses in Bend were throwing it up on the sidewalk either way. You gotta make money!"
Meanwhile, Jayme Ravenberg was eating brunch at Botanist at 910 NW 14th Ave, which was the On Deck sports bar until it closed. Ravenberg said she had been eating out once per week since getting vaccinated in May. "I remember in early April going over to Rontoms for the first time in years, and it was like this beautiful patio and great food and everybody was really safe and respectful. We've loved being able to eat outside again and be able to see other people."
She and her partner also have eaten outside Reverend's Barbecue in Sellwood, where they bought a home during the pandemic. Working from home has been good to them. Now it's time for some conspicuous consumption.
Ravenberg is a director of product for a small tech startup. She's from Portland, but she has lived in New York, Edinburgh and Brussels, and she knows what a cold winter really is.
As for the parking spaces that Healthy Streets gobbles up, she said, "We're a one-car family. I lived for years without a car here. I don't think that we should be prioritizing space for more vehicles in the city. We should build higher and use cars to get out of the city and use public transportation and bikes to get around it."
John Burrows and Michael Johnson were soaking up the sun over fast food at Little Big Burger on Northwest 10th Ave. They're reps for Pepsi Cola, in town for the day to try and persuade the Timbers organization to switch from Coke to Pepsi. Part of their job is eating out. So, what do they think of Portland's rash of new seating?
"I love it," Burrows said.
"It's nice to have an option to sit outside," Johnson said. "It's also nice to have umbrellas to keep you out in the beating sunlight."
Burrows added, "I'd rather be outside. Just seeing all the weather, the people, the scenery, it's just more relaxing. And both of us have been to Europe many times. That's exactly what draws me to this."
Justin Vega and his dad, Richard Vega, were dining outside the Deschutes Brewery Portland Public House, having come down for the day by train from Seattle. Richard hit the West Coast from Englewood on Florida's Gulf Coast to visit his son, who is training to be a barista at Starbucks.
"Our whole plan today was to do outdoor dining, then head back on Amtrak," said Richard, who is a park ranger on a beach. "Where I'm from, we get 350 days of sunshine a year. Florida opened up (during COVID-19) a lot more than other states. A lot of people felt liberated to leave their states and come down there and pile in and run around unmasked, even indoors. And they're not nearly as stringent there as they are here."
Justin pointed to the sustainability aspect to outdoor dining. "In the winter, occasionally, will you want to go outside? Probably not. But you have the option to. It gives people more of a choice. And I think what people want is ,'Can I just be a little farther away from somebody?'"
Rusty Shackleford was eating at the picnic tables outside Pizza Schmizza in the Pearl. "I have a dog, so I tend to dine out more than most," he said. "Khaleesi's really chill, I know I can have her with me rather than leave her at home."
Even if COVID-19 was gone, he said he'd choose to eat outside. He used to live in Bend and was outdoors a lot more then. "Any time I can choose to be outside I'll take it."
For some, it's new dining options but also more jobs and a booming business sector. Robert Coté of Coté Construction was building a wooden deck on Northwest 13th Avenue for the River Pig Saloon. He had been told by the bar's owner that the city is making that stretch of 13th pedestrian-friendly for at least three years. Hence the commitment to spend just over $10,000 for a wooden deck. Coté said the price of lumber has quadrupled in a year.
His firm does a lot of build-outs for shops, offices, restaurants and bars, such as Boxer Ramen and Blue Star. He was doing this three-day job for his friend Ramzy Hattar, River Pig owner, even though he's busy. Carpenters are in high demand all over the city, and restaurant owners have learned that shade tents and pallet fences won't last long compared to solid structures with ramps and lighting.
"It's an investment but, as long as you can seat more people, that's where the money is," he said. Even when the state again allows 100% capacity in restaurants, the outdoor seating will mean more revenue.
— Joseph Gallivan
The flu fled
One of unexpected silver linings of the COVID-19 pandemic: Oregon, and the nation as a whole, somehow skipped an entire flu season.
Could we bypass flu in years to come? One expert said: Definitely, yes.
But would we want to?
An estimated 24,000 to 62,000 people died of the flu across the nation in 2019-20, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But once the pandemic started, positive tests for the flu virus plummeted by 98% in the United States, according to an article in the magazine Nature. And it never picked up after that.
Is that because of masks and social distancing; the primary tools used to fight the coronavirus pandemic before the advent of the various vaccines?
Dr. Paul Cieslak, medical director for the Oregon Public Health Division's Communicable Disease and Immunization programs, said that's partly the reason. Influenza and coronaviruses are transmitted in similar manners, but a bigger factor was the closure of schools across the country.
"I think the closure of school probably has had more of an effect, because we think kids are responsible for a greater share of influenza transmission than they are COVID-19 transmission," he said. "But all of those measures, I think, contributed to a really absent flu season, which leaves me sort of slack-jawed. You know, I cannot believe how low flu and other respiratory viruses were this year."
The common cold was uncommon last year, too, Cieslak said, although public health officials don't track rhinoviruses the same way they do the much more deadly influenza viruses.
The 2020-21 flu season was remarkable for its low case count, Cieslak said.
"There have been 'low seasons' before. But this was really a 'no season,'" he said. "We had three people — three! —in the tri-county area (diagnosed with flu), out of a population of 1.8 million, all season long. Usually we're in the neighborhood of several hundred. So to have three is just astounding. I can't express it enough. I would say it's unprecedented."
It's unlikely schools will shut their doors just to stop the spread of the flu, Cieslak admits, but the past year has helped train Americans on ways to keep themselves from getting sick.
"I think what we've learned about the value of avoiding large gatherings when respiratory viruses are circulating, as well as the value of masking — certainly when you're sick but maybe even more broadly than that — can help us with a variety of respiratory viruses," he said.
— Dana Haynes
Connecting to lawmakers
The connection between the Oregon Legislature and the public relies even more on internet connectivity since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic 16 months ago.
The Oregon Legislative Information System has been running for years, and provided live-streaming of committee meetings and floor sessions of the House and Senate. But the public closure of the Capitol since March 18, 2020, has put added weight on legislators hearing virtual testimony at committee meetings via the Microsoft Teams platform.
The closure worked both ways.
Legislators who normally would have conducted in-person hearings outside Salem also relied on video and audio links to reach people across Oregon. In addition to the biennial field hearings by the joint budget committee on the state's two-year spending priorities, lawmakers used technology to hear citizen views on legislative and congressional redistricting — a task they face every 10 years after a census — and also recovery measures following the 2020 Labor Day wildfires.
"We needed a round of hearings to hear from victims about how things are going," Rep. Brian Clem, a Democrat from Salem who led the House special committee on recovery, said of the hearings conducted virtually with a Senate committee. "We had a tight focus on relieving people's rebuilding problems."
For wildfire recovery, legislators ended up conducted four virtual hearings — one for each region affected by the fires, though the coast was combined with the metro area — totaling 14 hours.
But there were still some drawbacks with the increased reliance on technology.
While an estimated 98% of Oregon households have access to broadband, distribution is still uneven. Most of the 18 counties west of the Cascades average 90% or better access, but only a couple of counties east of the Cascades (Deschutes and Umatilla) exceed that mark. The Oregon Business Development Department oversees a grant program aimed at boosting coverage, funded by $10 million from the federal CARES Act last year.
Also, House Speaker Tina Kotek — while she praises the public's wider access to legislative proceedings via technology — said more staff time has been required to do legislative work, and not just to maintain technology.
— Peter Wong
The show must go on
Leave it to creative types to bring out the best in their, well, creativity.
Not that people haven't thought outside the box to put on shows, whether it be in empty warehouses or parking lots, but COVID-19 pandemic and government restrictions shut down shows for some 14 months, and entertainment life had to go on — if anything, to keep people from going crazy.
It seemed like every entity turned to streaming and video-conference shows. Portland Center Stage reconfigured its whole approach for digital performances. Artists Repertory Theatre quickly adapted by receiving Paycheck Protection Program funds to finance current (audio dramas) and future shows.
When he couldn't put on the Christmas at the Old Church and other events, Michael Allen Harrison filled his day by posting a different song/video every day of the pandemic — yes, it's at 400 some days and counting.
Musician Steve Kerin went to spots all over the Portland-area and beyond to play daily music on video via Facebook.
Old-school musicians resisted going digital, but many others went for it — perhaps opening up a new way to reach audiences moving forward. Alberta Rose Theatre streamed music throughout the pandemic, like many venues, charging to watch the shows. There were video conference shows that featured several different musicians performing separately, and a producer assembled the pieces; Portland Youth Philharmonic's Concert-at-Christmas, led by music director David Hattner, was orchestrated all via Zoom with more than 100 musicians.
Risk/Reward and Boom Arts put on the first "live" show of the pandemic, "Pavement," in a drive-in format, and many others also followed suit.
Oregon Ballet Theatre has done some outdoor shows recently and Portland Opera had to go digital, as has Oregon Symphony. In fact, OBT and Portland Opera have teamed with Oregon Museum of Science and Industry to put on shows at the newly named outdoor Jordan Schnitzer CARE Summerstage at OMSI; "OBT Live" recently staged there, the Opera's "Frida" takes place June 22 to 27.
In 2020, Waterfront Blues Festival, which annually attracts thousands to Waterfront Park, changed to a "Listening Together" series, featuring the programs "Bandwagon" in neighborhoods for two days (bringing socially distanced live music to selected driveways, cul-de-sacs and front porches in the Portland area), "Broadcast" on July 4 (aired on KOIN TV) and "On Air" on for two days (aired on KBOO 90.7 FM and online).
And, for this year, the Waterfront Blues Festival moved "Upriver!" — literally — to The Lot at Zidell Yards, a new performance venue at South Waterfront. Scores of events are scheduled at Zidell Yards, including concerts and movies, with the marquee one being the Waterfront Blues Festival, July 2 to 5.
Opportunity knocked, organizers answered by setting up a new venue between office buildings.
Music venues and big events could be returning in full force come fall. Whereas the 2021 blues fest will be a fun live event, organizers of the Waterfront Blues Festival look forward to a full-fledged event once performers start touring again.
"It's really important to us to host some version of our festival this year, to help carry us all — fans, crew, artists — forward until we can hopefully reopen at full strength back at Waterfront Park in 2022," said Peter Dammann, artistic director of the Waterfront Blues Festival. "This is especially true for our performers. For many of them, this will be the first paid gig since the pandemic began. To see artists back on a big stage, by the river, doing what they love playing for music fans — even socially distanced — will be reason to celebrate."
The night before, July 1, there'll be the Blues Fest Cares Concert with Curtis Salgado at Zidell Yards to benefit Meals on Wheels People and Jeremy Wilson Foundation. A performer who resisted streaming or video-conference music, it'll be Salgado's first show in more than a year.
So, normality is returning to show organizers and entertainers, but they have a year's worth of thinking outside the box to enhance their world.
— Jason Vondersmith
It's no secret that all kinds of online shopping increased during the pandemic, but large orders for groceries and other necessities are likely to continue when it ends. Major retailers like Fred Meyer, Target and Home Depot pivoted to make it so easy and relatively inexpensive to place and receive orders, that many — if not most — of their customers will not want go back to the days of having to wander around their aisles trying to find what they want.
Not every retailer offers all options, but Fred Meyer is a good example of how well this can work. Customers can use their app to order practically everything they have for sale. Purchases can be specified by brands. The app also shows current deals and specials. In-store shoppers pack up the items and get back to the buyers if a specific brand is not available, allowing for substitutions. Customers are notified when the shopping is finished.
Customers decide beforehand whether to go to a store to pick up the items for free. Or they can pick a window of time for them to delivered to their homes for a mere $10, plus a minimum adjustable tip. The additional price of the delivery is less than the cost of the time and gas it would take to do the in-person shopping, let alone foregoing the hassle and potential exposure to contagious diseases like COVID-19 or seasonal flus. You can also save money by eliminating impulse buys.
The cost of delivering individual meals has been controversial, with governments trying to limit the fees charged by third-party services. That's understandable, given the ratio of the delivery costs to the low prices of the meals. But paying nothing to pick up a pre-packaged large order of essentials is a steal. And even paying a little more than $10 to have it brought to your door when you want it is a bargain that especially benefits those with mobility issues. This is a service that should have been widely offered before the pandemic.
— Jim Redden
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