Washington County businesses referred for reopening violations
Public health officials in Washington County say they've referred two businesses that were in violation of Phase 1 reopening orders to state officials for review after multiple attempts to bring the businesses into compliance with coronavirus safety measures.
One business is K1 Speed, an indoor go-kart facility in Hillsboro. The other business is Urban Hookah, a hookah lounge in Beaverton.
Indoor go-karting businesses are not allowed to reopen until Phase 2, according to Gov. Kate Brown's reopening guidelines, which were released this spring. Hookah lounges must remain closed in Phases 1 and 2. Washington County has stayed in Phase 1 since June.
Representatives of both businesses said they recently closed the unlawful operations — indoor go-karting and indoor hookah-smoking — adding that they weren't trying to defy laws but were simply confused about whether or not such operations were permitted in Phase 1.
They also criticized state officials for the rigidity of Phase 1 guidelines, saying state and local officials should do more to work with individual businesses toward reopening.
But county officials say after receiving multiple complaints from the public, they were clear in phone calls, letters and ultimately on-site visits by COVID-19 reopening compliance officers that the businesses should not be open.
Since March, the county has had a COVID-19 compliance team tasked with making sure businesses had adequate information and resources to comply with reopening guidelines, said Marni Kuyl, director of Washington County Health and Human Services. The county created an online toolkit to help businesses comply.
Kuyl has provided updates to the county Board of Commissioners regarding Phase 1 noncompliance complaints about several businesses since June.
"When we do get complaints, it goes to this compliance team and they follow-up with a phone call just to make sure they understand what the guidance is — do they have questions, do they need support, do they need help?" Kuyl said. "If we get a second complaint, we follow up with a letter, and then if we get a third complaint, we'll do a site visit."
If the compliance team determines the business is continuing to operate outside the guidelines, the county refers the business to state agencies for review, which could lead to penalties.
The county called K1 Speed after receiving its first complaint about the business on July 7, said Mary Sawyers, spokeswoman for Washington County Public Health. Officials sent a letter to the business days later on July 15 after a second complaint. On Aug. 6, county compliance staff did a site visit at the facility and determined go-kart operations continued. After receiving an additional complaint on Sept. 16, the county referred K1 Speed to state agencies.
Officials with the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration conducted a site visit of their own on Sept. 22 after the agency received a confidential complaint, said Aaron Corvin, spokesman for OSHA, the state agency in charge of investigating COVID-19-related workplace complaints.
Corvin said the agency's decision to issue a citation for COVID-19 workplace violations depends on the findings of the onsite inspection, "including whether the inspection identifies violations."
Corvin added, "If we identify violations, we cite."
OSHA has issued 32 citations to businesses across the state for COVID-19-related violations since March, including at least five businesses in Washington County, and other citations are pending, Corvin said.
Penalties for non-willful violations range from $100 to $2,000, while the penalties for willful violations range from $8,900 to $14,000, he said. The size of the penalty depends on the size of the employer, the risk involved, and the probability of someone getting hurt, Corvin said.
Drew Percival, senior regional manager for K1 Speed, said the go-kart facility reopened in July with the understanding that the business constituted an indoor sport court and was allowed to reopen under Phase 1 guidelines.
Go-kart operations closed last week in response to the OSHA inspection, Percival said.
Percival said he was surprised by state and local officials' handling of the issue. He said he reached out to the county after the Aug. 6 site visit seeking clarification on whether the facility could be considered an indoor sport court but didn't receive any response.
"We're not trying to be these rebels," Percival said. "We want to keep people just as safe on the track as off the track. I haven't heard anything from the county in months."
He said he was frustrated with the county's lack of a response to his questions about whether the business could be considered an indoor sport court because the business, which operates 41 locations in the United States and abroad, has been able to open other locations around the country. There's a K1 Speed in Bend that opened this summer after Deschutes County moved to Phase 2.
Percival said other states' willingness to work with individual businesses to come up with plans that would allow them to reopen sets Oregon apart from other places, adding that he wasn't aware of any positive COVID-19 cases tied to K1 Speed facilities.
"If people don't want to work with you and try to figure out ways to keep you safe, and just say, 'Oh, nope, you're closed, that's the only way to keep people safe,' it's difficult as a business to work in that environment," he said.
Amer Alwan has been operating Urban Hookah in Beaverton since 2006. He said he closed the hookah lounge in March and didn't reopen until early August.
He said he reopened because he saw on a local TV news report that bars and restaurants could stay open until 10 p.m., and he thought the lounge, which also serves food, could reopen.
Alwan said he was confused about messages from the county stating the lounge couldn't be open but that retail sales of hookah materials could continue. He said he closed the lounge immediately after the county's on-site inspection on Sept. 25, after the county received multiple complaints.
Alwan said he has been struggling to provide for his family since the beginning of the pandemic, adding that he hasn't been able to receive any small business assistance grants.
"If they shut me down, they have to find me some way to make money to stay alive," Alwan said. "They can't just throw me on the street. I need to pay my bills, and I need to feed myself and my wife."
Kuyl said the county works to respond to COVID-19-related complaints because public health officials have a duty to keep people safe, adding that it's unfair to closed businesses if some businesses defy reopening guidelines.
She said she recognizes that reopening guidelines can be confusing, and county officials are working hard to make sure businesses are clear about what's allowed.
"We are worried about a potential increase in cases over the fall and winter," Kuyl said, adding that it's important for people to continue social distancing and get a seasonal flu shot.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated when hookah lounges could reopen. The story has been updated with the accurate guidelines.
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