Columbia County restaurants endure indoor mask mandate
Restaurants in Columbia County may need a crystal ball to figure out exactly where the delta variant of coronavirus is taking us.
Once again, masks are required in indoor locations throughout Oregon, although no indoor occupancy requirements have been announced for restaurants at this point.
The new mask mandate is generating comments from both Columbia County restaurant owners and the Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association.
At Columbia County Bistro in St. Helens, located on Strand Street, across from the Columbia River, owner Kayleigh Stano offered her perspective.
"The mask mandate isn't really that big of a deal, but the real kick is when we get cut down in occupancy," Stano said, noting, "I just notice a slight dip in our business when the mask mandates come back around, because people get scared about it."
Stano believes Columbia County Bistro will be able to withstand the more contagious delta variant, which experts say is behind an unprecedented surge in cases and hospitalizations in Oregon and many other U.S. states.
"I certainly hope so," she said.
Stano said the mask mandate "doesn't seem to be affecting us too terribly yet."
But, she added, "If we get knocked down for seating again, that will definitely affect us.."
Asked if she is optimistic or pessimistic looking toward the future, Stano said, "The way things are going right now, I'm afraid that we're looking towards another shutdown. I'm trying to mentally prepare myself for that one.
"I just don't really feel like there's an end in sight."
Up a block, at Plymouth Pub on South First Street, owner Brad Rakes is not as concerned as Stano about any future restaurant occupancy requirement. That's because he has kept his indoor occupancy at 50% even when COVID-19 was briefly easing in the state.
That said, Rakes said, "It's definitely slower than it was before." He added that slowdown has happened since the mask rules went into effect.
"We finally got a bunch of people hired," Rakes said. "Now (business) has slowed down. It's really frustrating."
Like many other restaurants, Plymouth Pub has embraced the trend of dining al fresco. Experts believe the coronavirus that can cause COVID-19 does not transmit as well outdoors as it does in indoor, poorly ventilated spaces.
"We never did bring all of our tables back in," Rakes said. "We just left it at 50 percent inside, with tables outside."
Looking to the future, Rakes said, "I think that it's possible to get shut down again. I hope not, but if we do, we'll definitely weather the storm. You just have to be prepared for it and hope it doesn't happen."
Offering his perspective on the mask mandate, Greg Astley, director of government affairs with the Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association, said, "Obviously, it's going to depend on the individual restaurant operator as to whether or not the mask mandate is welcome news."
Gov. Kate Brown has taken a different approach than some other governors during the delta surge, ordering mask and vaccination requirements for Oregonians.
In some states, such as Texas and Florida, governors have actually ordered local governments and school districts not to impose such requirements, leading to complaints that the state is taking away local control — just as some in Oregon have protested Brown has done by issuing statewide public health orders.
Those public health orders frustrate some business owners and employees that don't want to be required to enforce mask rules. Astley said some restaurant owners may not need to feel the need for masks, because they feel restaurants are a safe place to gather.
But the orders also give some cover to others, allowing them to point to statewide rules instead of arguing with recalcitrant customers about their own policies.
"For many of them, it means that it takes it out of their hands," Astley said. "They don't have to decide whether or not their individual policy is going to be to require masks."
Like the business owners in St. Helens, the Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association does not want to see new limits on restaurant capacity or indoor dining.
"One thing that we have stressed when the governor announced her mask mandate was we had hoped this would be enough to help with this hospitalization issue, so that we wouldn't have to see any further business restrictions," Astley said. "Another round of capacity limits or indoor dining restrictions would be absolutely crippling to our industry."
Astley believes Oregon restaurants are in a better position to weather possible future occupancy restrictions.
"We're in a better position, I think, as an industry than we were 18 months ago when this all started and the governor shut us down with absolutely no warning," Astley said. "People have been able to look to take out and delivery. They've been able to engineer some new systems for some of that."
Astley continued, "It doesn't work for everybody. Quite honestly, between the staffing shortages and supply chain issues restaurants are also dealing with, for some of them, they may not be able to weather another shutdown, another closure of indoor dining."
Warren Country Inn is another Columbia County restaurant that has endured the ups and downs of the pandemic. The labor issues that Astley cites have been a factor, owner Roni Bartlett believes.
"We don't have a choice — you just have to weather through it," Bartlett said. "You just keep on going and hope for the best."
Bartlett estimates about 95% of her customers are willing to wear masks.
"It has not been as tragic as I thought it was going to be," Bartlett said, noting that perhaps a bigger problem has been that both labor and products have been scarce.
"That's actually part of the reason that maybe we're not doing as well," she said. "We have to close intermittently."
It's not just Warren Country Inn. Bartlett said she knows of other restaurants that have had to close on certain days, too, because they don't have enough people working to serve customers.
As to her confidence level looking forward, Bartlett said, "I'm really on the fence. Wait and see is where I'm at."
She added, "There are days when I feel cautiously optimistic. There are other days when I'm optimistic or totally not optimistic. It varies day by day."
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