As she is wont to do, Mother Nature cast out a lifeline to struggling businesses some months ago.
But if September showed us anything at all, it's that Mother Nature is at the end of her rope.
Summer brought a boon to businesses — especially restaurants — able to take advantage of warm, dry weather to serve customers outdoors.
Outdoor dining is always a popular proposition during the summertime here, when we get a few months' respite from our world-famous rain and gloom. But during the coronavirus pandemic, it has been especially important, with studies linking indoor dining to the spread of the virus and experts suggesting that outdoor activity poses a considerably lower risk for viral transmission.
And let's face it: After being cooped up inside all spring and being unable to visit some of our favorite places because of state mandates and social distancing rules, it has been nice to be able to sit outside in the 80-degree weather, enjoy a glass of wine and a meal, and maybe even visit — at a respectable distance — with friends and coworkers. In a year that has been anything but, it's almost like normal, give or take the servers wearing masks and the cordoned-off booths inside virtually every restaurant.
Then came the fires of September and the smoke they belched into skies up and down the West Coast. What is typically another warm summer month, with a mere autumnal rustle in the trees, was shot through with two hellish weeks of evacuations and closures. For days on end, the air quality was so poor that public health officials advised people not to go outside or travel unless necessary.
Many businesses closed up outright during the worst of it. Shopping and dining out fell off considerably as many people stayed home and waited for the air outside to stop smelling like an ashtray.
Finally, mercifully, blue skies have returned, and it feels like late summer once again. But soon summer will wave goodbye for good. Rain showers will become more and more common until they feel all but constant — not the worst thing, certainly, after a week-plus of being unable to get a good lungful of air — and temperatures will dip from the 70s and 80s into the 40s and 50s.
Cities like Beaverton and Sherwood have been innovators amid the pandemic. But the First Street Dining Commons in Beaverton, offering outdoor seating for many of the restaurants in Beaverton's burgeoning dining scene, will only be open for a few more weeks, ending on Halloween. Sherwood Al Fresco, a similar outdoor dining model, wrapped up at what turned out to be an opportune time, the day after Labor Day.
In cities from St. Helens to Forest Grove to Wilsonville, restaurants that have done their best business all year serving customers outside will suddenly fall back into the way things were in the spring. Restrictions are both legal, limiting occupancy and requiring social distancing steps to be taken, and societal, with survey after survey showing that most people are reluctant to spend much time in public because they are concerned about catching COVID-19.
This isn't mere speculation. Last week, one of the best-known and most unique restaurants this side of Portland — Mark's on the Channel in Scappoose — announced it would close after 18 years, in large part because of the pandemic.
Mark's is famous for its deck seating area, from which customers can watch otters, cormorants and other wildlife and admire passing boats on the Multnomah Channel. It's one of the nicest spots for a meal that one can imagine — but it's not so nice once the weather turns. Worn out and not feeling optimistic about the restaurant's chances, the owner of Mark's said now seems like a good time to call it quits.
This is a call to action, so what can you do?
If you care about your local small businesses, then support them. It won't be as easy and it won't feel as natural as it has this summer, as outdoor dining has offered a reasonable and enjoyable facsimile of pre-pandemic life. But if you want to be back at your favorite table enjoying your favorite craft beer and your favorite dish next summer, it's up to you to help see that restaurant through what's bound to be a long, dark winter.
Order delivery. Tip well. Order takeout. Tip well. Shop local. Always adhere to businesses' rules on face coverings and hygiene. Be courteous to store and restaurant workers and fellow customers. And did we mention, tip well?
This pandemic just drags on and on, and it's easy to grow numb to the daily new case counts, growing death toll — now over 200,000 nationally and 1 million worldwide, both likely substantial undercounts — and the new rules we've all been asked to follow to "slow the spread" and "flatten the curve" and "stay home, stay safe." But the coronavirus is patient, and the coronavirus will continue to wreak havoc on small businesses, many of whom are now losing the one seasonal advantage they had.
Together, though, we can crush the coronavirus while keeping ourselves, our families and our local economy in good health. We're all in this together, and we're all looking forward to the sun coming out again next summer. Do your part and support local businesses this fall and winter.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.