On May 27, Multnomah County officials announced that they would submit an application to the state to begin the reopening process, hoping that by June 12, the Portland area could reopen its restaurants, bars, and other businesses. That date comes with caveats — spacing requirements, masked employees, a 10 p.m. curfew — and Gov. Kate Brown must approve the application. Still, there’s a good chance that the county will get the signoff, meaning that restaurants and bars must now plan for the prospect of a newly open Portland in just two weeks.
Financially depleted by the forced closure to onsite diners, some restaurant owners saw the announcement as a welcome relief. For others, nervous about the potential health risks of reopening before a vaccine becomes widely available, outdoor and walk-up service will remain the order of the day, at least for a little while longer. “I am not super set on opening exactly on June 12th for dine-in, although we would like to do so,” says Nicole Mouton, co-owner of Burnside Southern restaurant Screen Door. “There is tremendous planning involved in getting it right per the recommended guidelines to be safe for guests and our staff.”
Pip’s owner Nate Snell posted an Instagram photo yesterday holding a white sign that reads “COVID-19: Still with us. Nothing has changed.” Snell sees the idea of reopening dining rooms with the current health guidelines as a “cognitive disconnect.” “On one hand it’s been scientifically proven that the virus spreads effectively in the air through the simple act of speaking (and much farther than the 6 foot social distancing guidelines.) This means that used correctly, masks are one of the most effective ways to stop the spread,” the Instagram caption reads. “On the other hand, under phase 1 rules people will be able to sit in an enclosed, socially distanced dining room and take their masks off to eat and drink... Is it just us or do these two realities seem to be in direct opposition to each other?”
It’s not that Snell is against any sort of reopening — he’s been working with a team of five employees to figure out the safest way to reopen for takeout service. However, he sees the general government response as inadequate, putting business owners “in the position of choosing between the actual livelihood of their business and the health and safety of their employees,” he says. “We’re not going to be guinea pigs.”
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It’s time we had a candid conversation about the way forward once phase 1 is approved for Multnomah county. We have done a commendable job flattening the curve but that’s not the end of the story. We think most people can agree that scientifically-speaking, COVID-19 still exists exactly as it did just before the current governor-mandated shut down; i.e it did not dissapear and it has not been eradicated by a vaccine. That said, seems like things are changing socially in Portland and beyond. Local businesses are reopening, there is a lot more traffic on the streets and people are going out in ever-increasing numbers. I know we speak for other small business owners who care deeply about the health and safety of our community and that’s why many of us feel confused and conflicted. Why? Because it seems like we are being asked to accept two competing narratives/realities in order to reopen our dining rooms under phase 1 • On one hand it’s been scientifically proven that the virus spreads effectively in the air through the simple act of speaking (and much farther than the 6 foot social distancing guidelines.) This means that used correctly, masks are one of the most effective ways to stop the spread. • On the other hand, under phase 1 rules people will be able to sit in an enclosed, socially distanced dining room and take their masks off to eat and drink...is it just us or do these two realities seem to be in direct opposition to each other? Is life ever going to be truly safe without a vaccine or are people going to eventually accept the risks and go out to eat in a dining room in spite of them? ♂️What are your thoughts? How are you planning on engaging in a world that seems to be reopening with the COVID-19 still in existence? -We would love to hear how you are feeling because it will help us to guide our own future choices as a business. PLEASE keep your comments respectful & constructive. We are all trying to navigate our way through this new reality, let’s do it together and with compassion. #communitynotcompetition
For many, the solution to this potential contradiction is the outdoor patio: The Oregon Liquor Control Commission recently started fast-tracking its approval of outdoor service areas in public spaces, so restaurants and bars can create makeshift beer gardens and outdoor dining rooms in parking lots, on sidewalks, and within closed-off streets. Cities in other parts of the state, like Bend and Ashland, have already begun plans to close chunks of public parking and street for outdoor dining. Maurice owner Kristen D. Murray called for a similar strategy earlier this month, before the OLCC announced its plans. “I would love to see our cities establish closures of small/short streets, like Oak between 9th and 10th, plus the parking lots for the months of July and August to allow our community to dine-out,” she says. “Imagine how lovely it would be to have live street music, films showing on sides of buildings, movable planters to help divide areas.”
In Portland, Kachka’s Bonnie Morales is already eyeing the rear parking lot as a potential makeshift patio. “We intend on opening for outdoor dining as soon as we can,” she says. “We will not be using our interior dining room at this time. It is important to us to create an environment that keeps guests and our team equally safe and comfortable and we will not open until we can achieve both.”
Many bar owners have no real alternative to onsite consumption: Bars can’t legally sell cocktails to-go in Oregon, and only some bars have food programs substantial enough to get into the takeout game. Mike Shea, owner of the industry-favorite Rum Club, is looking forward to serving people at his bar again, but will likely wait until July to reopen. “We all want to go back to work. I miss my regulars, I miss seeing people, I miss saying hi to people and serving them a drink,” he says. “I think Oregon has done such a fantastic job of it, I think we’re pretty good. I’m not saying we need to go to business as usual... I’m in no rush to rush things and do it poorly.” For social distancing guidelines, he’s removing every two stools from the bar — letting couples that come in sit together — and every other table. But it’s not the distancing that bothers him, it’s the curfew, which he and other bartenders who rely on late night sales find arbitrary and harmful. “That’s the entire business model. I was thinking midnight would be fine, 10 p.m. is just… why? Why not 9 p.m, why not 11 p.m?”
Wine bars have transitioned into online or takeout wine sales, which has made up for some of the loss of business. Sami Gaston, the owner of Bar Diane in Northwest Portland, didn’t get much use out of the bar’s small courtyard patio last year, and she would prefer to not miss it again this year. “If June 12 rolls around and we have a green light, we’ll be ready to serve wine on our patio,” Gaston says. “We didn’t open quite in time last year to make the most of patio season, so we’re hoping we can all be safe and socialize on it this year in some capacity.”
Even before the announcement of a potential county reopening, restaurant owners have made substantial structural changes to their businesses to accommodate a more takeout-centric restaurant world. On Alberta, Proud Mary built a wooden takeout stand into the entrance of the cafe, selling coffee and more portable versions of their brunch staples to-go — the restaurant’s popular hash dish with bagna cauda and pork belly is now served as a wrap, almost like a breakfast burrito. “We’ve always wanted to do more takeaway business,” says Proud Mary’s Matt Lounsbury. “If [the walk-up window] is not here to stay, it’s here for a while to come.”
Down in Southeast Portland, restaurateur Joshua McFadden is turning the front doors of Ava Gene’s into a full-blown walk-up window with takeout, seafood sandwiches, and ice cream, which he’s calling Shipshape Goods. Soon, Tusk will start offering its own takeout at the original restaurant once again. “We’ve missed seeing the faces of our guests,” McFadden says. “The true Tusk and Ava Gene’s dining experience is on hold indefinitely until the time comes when we can offer that again.”
Plain-old takeout, however, isn’t going anywhere. Chef Johnny Nunn is looking into offering his cozy French bistro Verdigris as private dining for small groups, and will be opening the large patio at his brunch spot and bar Daisy; still, he foresees takeout continuing to be a major element of his model. “I just got off the phone with some regulars who ordered takeout for Saturday,” he says. “They told me, ‘We’re 75 and 80 and when things reopen we’re going to stick to takeout.’ That model is going to have to be part of whatever we do.”
Nan Chaison, co-owner of vegan Thai restaurant Kati and its neighboring Latin restaurant Mestizo, says that she’s sticking to just takeout and delivery for the being. “Realistically, our dining room is really small,” she says of Kati. “We would not be able to have tables six feet apart, we would only be able to fit four tables at the most.” For Mestizo, the decision to avoid reopening the dining room has a lot to do with staffing: Unemployment wages are high enough that she’s not confident she’d be able to rehire staff, and many restaurant workers don’t feel comfortable returning to work just yet.
For some business owners, it just means doing what they’ve been doing for a while: Testing the waters, and seeing what works. “I think for now we will stick to carry-out and see how things feel as summer goes on,” says Alan Akwai, the co-owner of Southern Thai restaurant Hat Yai. “Our customers have supported us with our phone and online order systems, and if they’re comfortable with that and our staff is comfortable with that, we’ll keep doing it. We’ll likely take a baby step and have some outdoor tables for people to enjoy our carry-out food picnic-style.” The summer is arriving, after all, whether Portland’s dining rooms are open or not.
• Portland Could Reopen Bars and Restaurants As Early As June 12 [EPDX]
• Han Oak May Not Reopen Its Dining Room Until a Vaccine Is Released [EPDX]
• Portland Chefs and Restaurant Owners Share When They Hope to Reopen for Dine-In Service [EPDX]
• Oregon cities embrace Euro-style street seating to help restaurants reopen during coronavirus crisis [Oregonian]
• OLCC fast-tracks restaurant, bar applications to expand alcohol sales to city sidewalks, streets [Oregonian]
• Ava Gene’s to Convert into a Semi-Permanent Marketplace [Portland Monthly]