Fitness center, theater owners feel 'unfairly excluded' from doing business
Nov. 18 marked the beginning of a two-week "freeze" on social activities in Oregon, and concern for business owners across the state is at an all-time high.
Though the new mandate announced by Gov. Kate Brown on Friday, Nov. 13, and made an official executive order Tuesday, Nov. 17, allows for certain businesses like restaurants, grocers and retail establishments to remain open in a limited capacity, businesses like gyms, theaters and cultural venues, including museums and zoos, must close entirely until at least Dec. 2 in Clackamas County.
As these temporary shutdowns and restrictions have been implemented over the past nearly nine months, Sandy Mayor Stan Pulliam has been a very vocal opponent, arguing that the health risk of remaining open does not outweigh the negative implications the closures have on businesses.
In Sandy, Pulliam is not alone in his concern for the local economy. Several business owners have expressed concern and also confusion about how these mandates are being imposed. This concern is especially heightened as the likelihood of additional federal stimulus coming before the new year seems unlikely.
While some businesses are closing after a period of operating with COVID-19 precautions in place, others have not been allowed to reopen since mid-March. One such establishment is Sandy Cinema off of Champion Way in Sandy.
For Sandy Cinema, closing meant laying off all but two members of its 11 to 14 person staff. And although the theater already has been closed for months, this new freeze on operations does not bode well for the business's future.
Prestige Development, which owns Sandy Cinema and two other theaters, has been juggling making sense of the restrictions in both Oregon and Washington state, besides trying to keep up on bills and regular maintenance of its facilities while closed.
"Of course, this is a huge blow for us to hear, but not much will change for Sandy Cinema since we have not been allowed to reopen at any capacity anyhow," said Prestige President Elie Kassab. "We understand the logic behind this freeze, but we worry for all small and independently owned businesses in the state of Oregon."
Kassab added that he feels theaters have been disproportionately affected by the restrictions from the government, when they too could be implementing safety measures and opening to the public.
"We also feel that movie theaters, in particular, have been unfairly excluded from reopening while riskier businesses such as gyms, bowling alleys, bars and restaurants are allowed to open with restrictions," Kassab said. "To date, there has not been one COVID outbreak traced to a movie theater anywhere in the world — including instances where a COVID-infected person inadvertently attended a movie. We should be given a chance to do this safely just like all of the other businesses, but instead we have been totally closed since March and not allowed to open at any capacity."
Fortunately, the Sandy Cinema was a recipient of financial assistance, such as the CARES Act-established PPP loan handed out this summer. But, Kassab said, "those funds have run out."
"They are fairly small, and they helped us pay ongoing bills, like for electricity, maintenance, gas, property taxes, which we must pay," he said. "We were supposed to get a second round of PPP, but that never happened. There was also a Main Street loan program, but the requirements of that loan were so onerous that only 3.4% of the $600 billion program have been used.
"Our lender has been understanding, and they've given us two extensions already. The county is not helping, though, and the state is not helping at all. The federal (stimulus) program would be really helpful, but they've got things all tied up, so no aid is coming to businesses. No $1,200 stimulus is going out to people. We're all kind of in the same boat. We need to put pressure on our Congress and the Senate because people need the funding."
Though Prestige may be in a more fortunate position than much smaller operations, Kassab said they will not be immune to the impact from continued shutdowns.
"(An extended closure) is going to hurt us," he added. "These repeated closures will shutter businesses permanently unless coupled with significant financial aid. The current programs available are either too small and temporary, or not written for struggling businesses. All businesses will need help, otherwise we will see major closures across the board. Downtown Portland has already lost numerous beloved restaurants and retail, and more will follow. Businesses and individuals need help."
Kassab recognizes Sandy Cinema is not alone in its strife and said this year, with "the unpredictability of the virus and the reopening phases has been the biggest challenge we have ever faced."
"Every time we think we know what the rules are and when we will be able to reopen at any capacity, the rules change," Kassab said. "We don't know how to plan for the future, or what to tell our staff. There are no certainties this year — everything is up in the air."
While closed, the cinema plans to continue to offer concessions for pickup only on Fridays and Saturdays. Though this effort doesn't bring in a lot in terms of revenue, Kassab said, "it's what the community wants."
"They love our popcorn and our drinks," he said. "They feel they are maybe helping in a small way for us to remain a business, and we appreciate that. This is not really a source of revenue at all, but a way to keep our business top of mind for our community, to share the beloved movie theater popcorn with our customers, and a way to keep our key staff members connected with us."
Preserving income and history
Also prioritizing its connection to staff as well as volunteers is the Sandy Historical Society. The site on Pioneer Boulevard, which acts as museum, visitors center and gift shop for Sandy, was closed in the spring but allowed to reopen in June. Now it is in a unique situation where the museum will be closed again at least for this two-week freeze, but the gift shop is allowed to remain open at limited capacity.
Museum Board Director Ken Funk said "making sure our volunteers, interns, staff and board are kept safe and healthy and maintaining communications — mail, email, phone — and keeping everybody informed of historical society business," have been the biggest challenges for the museum during this pandemic.
"Our gift shop reopened on June 30, after being closed for three and a half months," he added. "We still get a few customers — not as many as we would like — and we still get donations and membership dues."
After reopening the gift shop, Funk said the staff and volunteers put several safety measures in place.
"We require our visitors, staff and volunteers to wear face masks/shields. We have hand sanitizer at the door and counter; we keep our doors locked (and) access is granted with the use of our doorbell," Funk explained. "The museum display galleries and restrooms are closed mainly due to lack of staff and the need to continually clean the restrooms. The Visitor/Information Center and Gift Shop are open at reduced capacity."
While volunteers and staff would prefer to give tours and regale visitors with tales of Sandy's history, Funk said the museum will "continue to do business as we are allowed to do — maintaining social distancing, asking our customers and personnel to wear masks, maintaining cleanliness, keeping our museum and restrooms closed to the public until we are told to do otherwise.
"Not being able to let visitors have access to our displays, to have guided tours or have access to our library and archives has been difficult," he added. "We have had visitors ask to see the museum and been unable to accommodate them."
That said, the staff and volunteers are working to be available virtually, answering inquiries via the website, email and over the phone.
"We have been able to answer many inquiries about families, locations, businesses and genealogy even when we are closed," Funk said. "Our new website should be up and running by the first of the year."
Unfortunately for several businesses, fitness centers are more hard-pressed to operate virtually, and customers of local gyms are concerned about their go-to exercise spots' futures. So much so that the impact of the two-week pause on gyms was a hot topic of public comment at the Nov. 16 meeting of the Sandy City Council.
Several owners and customers of fitness centers took the opportunity to express concern to the City Council, including Mt. Hood Athletic Club co-owners Lila and Paul Reed and CrossFit PFB & PFB Weightlifting owner Jayne Wolfe.
Several athletic club customers gave testimonials and bemoaned the negative impacts the closures would have on their physical as well as mental health. One also claimed that regular exercise at the gyms should be encouraged during the pandemic as exercise promotes a healthy immune system.
"We feel it is a basic human right to self-determine how you care for your health," Lila Reed said. "By shutting clubs, Brown is depriving those with mental health issues and co-morbidity challenges the ability to fight this virus. It's reckless endangerment of public health, we feel, at a time when having the right to try and stay healthy is paramount."
"I feel, like Lila said, the gyms are here for a reason," Wolfe added. "Many people — our Sandy police, and we have Gresham police officers as well — come in and use our facilities. They use that so they can get through their day. Other people have PTSD. There are so many things that the fitness centers are there for.
"My concern is we keep sitting back and taking it. When is there going to be a time when we say, 'No, this is not OK.' We need to figure this out. Sandy needs to unite, and someone has to stand up and say this is not OK," she said.
Both facilities have reopened under Phase 1, but owners said they will see negative impacts on business and their customers' qualities of life if facilities remain closed for an extended period of time.
"We were previously closed for the shutdown, and during that period we cleaned every surface, even hand cleaning the entire ceiling in workouts areas," Paul Reed said. "We had the ductwork professionally cleaned. Since that time cash flow has decreased every month, so this latest 'pause' is a real gut punch that will cause gyms to close and further reduce cash flow."
Fortunately, the club did receive PPP funds, without which, Paul Reed said, "we would be in dire straits."
"The big problem is that, although we may be able to weather a two-week shutdown, an ongoing shutdown is not possible," Lila Reed told the council. "Many of our colleagues already in the state are going to have to stay open or they will close permanently. We are not far from that reality ourselves."
At the council meeting, Lila Reed asked the council whether Mt. Hood Athletic Club were to violate the government mandate and not close, if council would support them.
"What we need to know is, as much as the council and local authorities can tell us, is how will you support us if we do at some point need to not go along with the mandate that has come down with absolutely no proof that (any cases) are coming from clubs?" she asked. "We need to know where you will stand."
Paul Reed added in an email to The Post that he feels there has been misinformation about gyms and the COVID-19 virus, which have led to fear and disproportionate restrictions.
"The biggest challenge of operating during this pandemic is dealing with people's fears that gyms are a dangerous environment to be in when actually the very opposite is true," he said. "The governor's targeting of gyms is fundamentally unjustifiable since Oregon's own health department weekly COVID report shows zero cases of COVID traced to gyms. Washington state's data from Nov. 10 shows no outbreaks from gyms. IHRSA (International Health Recreation Sports Association) with 50 million check-ins found less than 0.002% of cases from gyms. MHAC (has had) over 44,500 check-ins since May 27 with no cases."
Besides believing the restrictions and temporary freeze are "just wrong," Paul Reed said he also believes gyms to be "uniquely equipped to handle this outbreak."
"We are the best business in contact tracing with entry check-in for every member and guest," he said. "We've added hospital-grade air purification systems with HEPA filters. (We have implemented) social distancing of equipment, continuous employee cleaning, (provided) personal hospital-grade disinfectant spray bottles and towels (and) sanitizing wipes throughout the gym. (There are) hand sanitizing stations in every room of the gym (and) NanoSeptic guards on all the doors. We also have two atomizer mister/foggers that sanitize entire rooms."
While closed, the club has been posting instructional exercise videos to a YouTube channel to keep clients connected and moving. However, this does not create the revenue needed to maintain the club's staffing. To make up for that loss, the Reeds had to lay off half of their employees and reduce staff hours and operating hours as well as pull out personal savings.
"Every time we are targeted, the public assumes we are a cause of the outbreak, when in actuality we are part of the solution," Paul Reed added. "Fitness and a healthy lifestyle improve the immune system, exercise is the best means to control weight, blood pressure and improve the cardio-respiratory system, which this disease attacks. Not to mention mental well-being."
Education over citation
In the council discussion that followed public comment Nov. 16, Mayor Pulliam consulted City Attorney David Doughman about what the governor's new mandate actually says and possible loopholes to allow businesses to continue to operate.
Doughman cited multiple cases where people have petitioned the Oregon Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court already this year, challenging governors' powers to invoke such strict restrictions and closures. Doughman noted that in both cases he mentioned, the courts substantiated the governors' jurisdiction and said the governors were indeed allowed to impose such broad mandates in the event of a crisis.
"Generally, I think these restrictions will be upheld," Doughman said. "At the end of the day, (petitioners would) have to show (the mandate) was basically arbitrary on behalf of the governor."
Besides closing and limiting certain business operations, the new mandate asks Oregonians to limit social events to six people and has ordered the Oregon State Police to work with local law enforcement to limit social gatherings and use their discretion to enforce with a citation, fine or arrest of a Class C misdemeanor.
Gov. Brown said earlier this summer that she would not be "the party police" and send officers to private gatherings to enforce limitations. That's no longer the policy, she said. "Unfortunately, we have no other option."
Those who violate these restrictions could be fined up to $1,250, be jailed for 30 days, or both.
Sandy Police Chief Ernie Roberts and Doughman explained that, ultimately, local law enforcement officers have "latitude" and can exercise their own discretion in matters such as these and have a choice on how they "gain compliance" for violations of the COVID-19-related orders.
This means that rather than proactively seeking out violators or immediately handing out citations, the officers can choose education as a first resort, as Roberts said the Sandy Police Department has.
"We didn't issue a citation during the first executive order," Roberts said. "There are ways to gain compliance without issuing a citation or making an arrest. We address this with an educational approach. The goal is always education first."
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