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Portland Food Service Workers Are Nervous About Potentially Reopening Friday

Restaurant workers and bar managers are so dismayed at the possibility of serving customers again this week that some are sending letters to the governor

Last week, Multnomah County applied to move into phase one of reopening, joining every other county in the state of Oregon. After weeks of not naming a target reopening date, Multnomah County announced that it would begin the reopening process June 12 if the state approves the county’s application.

In phase one, restaurants and bars can begin to host customers for on-site dining and drinking once again, albeit with some safety precautions in place: Business owners must space tables six feet apart, staff need to wear masks or other face coverings at all times, and food and drink service must end by 10 p.m. If the state approves Multnomah County’s application, it would mean that Portland restaurants could fully reopen for the first time in months as soon as this Friday. (As of publication time, it remains unclear if it will do so.)

But for many food service workers in Portland, re-opening this week would be too early. A number of workers, from bartenders to servers to line cooks to general managers, have communicated their discomfort with a June 12 reopening date, especially considering the ongoing pandemic, continued protests, and wider instability of the industry at large. “Forcing and speeding up opening will bleed money from those that are already struggling,” says Mariyah Lowden, bar manager for the soon-to-open butcher shop and Italian restaurant Piccone’s Corner. “We should be focused on the backlog of people needing financial assistance from months ago that are still waiting, not focused on awkward rules and phases of reopening during a pandemic.”

To be approved for phase one reopening, a county needs to meet a number of different criteria, including a general 14-day decline in hospitalizations related to COVID-19 and an increased testing capacity. The county’s reopening status dashboard indicates a 14-day decline in hospital admissions related to COVID-19; according to that page, the only qualification the county does not meet is related to contact tracer numbers, which the governor has excused in the past when approving counties to reopen.

The virus still has a significant presence in Multnomah County, however. Johns Hopkins says there are still more than 1,300 total cases in the county, making it the Oregon county with the most active cases; the Oregon Health Authority announced 27 new confirmed and presumptive cases in the county yesterday.

As a result, many Portland establishments have committed to holding off on reopening, including names like Clyde Common, Raven and Rose, Kex, and Rum Club. In late May, several restaurant and cafe owners shared their discomfort with the premise of a June 12 reopening, noting the continued presence of COVID-19 and the lack of a vaccine. For many, the premise of opening up this early seemed like an experiment, to see how many people would get sick if restaurants reopened amidst the status quo. “We’re not going to be guinea pigs,” Pip’s Original owner Nate Snell said in an interview. In an Eater survey that 76 self-identified Oregon food and beverage service workers participated in, 56.5 percent said they were “unconfident” or “very unconfident” in their health and safety if they were asked to return to work within the next three months — and that was before the protests.

Nightly protests against police brutality have sprung up across the city, attracting crowds of hundreds — if not thousands — marching across the city’s bridges, gathering outside Revolution Hall, or occupying Chapman Square. In response, Portland police have also sprayed tear gas on crowds, which causes many people to cough and wheeze, accelerating the potential spread of coronavirus. The community’s imperative to stand up in the face of police brutality and white supremacy has received a wave of support from restaurant owners and workers, but it simultaneously has made many restaurant workers even more concerned about the potential spread of coronavirus if dining rooms were to open.

And yet, despite that concern — along with the hundreds of Portlanders still living with COVID-19, a lack of go-ahead from the state, and the ongoing protests against police brutality (and the police’s violent response to them), some bars and restaurants are indeed gearing up to reopen in the next 48 hours. Mississippi Street wine bar 45 North and Slabtown New American restaurant G Love plan to have outside seating only, for instance, while Portland institutions Jake’s Famous Crawfish and Jake’s Grill will open their dining rooms, albeit with limited seating.

Workers are concerned, especially among rank-and-file employees like bartenders, cooks, servers. For many, it’s simply too soon to welcome onsite customers, and unfair to ask employees to return to work already. A letter written by a local, unnamed bartender to Gov. Kate Brown has made the rounds in the industry, with the intent that other bartenders or servers sign their names and send it to the governor in solidarity:

My name is [] and I am a bartender in Portland. In light of the recent peaceful protests, resulting in crowds of thousands gathering, I implore you to strongly consider delaying the reopening of Multnomah County by a minimum of 2 weeks.

These events, while necessary and important, are no doubt going to cause a spike in Covid 19 cases. Myself and countless other service workers feel entirely unsafe returning to work at this time. We ask that the state please extend the stay at home orders for a period long enough to mitigate the potential spread of the virus. Bars are a unique animal in the industry, because of the effects of alcohol on a person’s judgement. We fear that customers who have been cooped up for months will be lax in their social distancing and sanitation protocols; and the burden of that responsibility falls onto us. The thought is frankly terrifying.

If we reopen now , the last 3 months will have been completely pointless. We all understand that the economy must get rolling again, but if the disease surges and we have to return to a full scale lockdown, the economic impact would be far worse than merely extending this already-in-progress lockdown.

Service industry workers are in fear for their lives. If the state of the country shows us anything right now, it’s that we need to be making decisions and crafting policies based on humanity and compassion.

Thank you sincerely for your time and your service.

Over the last week, Eater Portland spoke with a dozen hospitality professionals who regularly interact with customers. They uniformly expressed concern about reopening, though most of those people felt uncomfortable sharing their names out of fear of losing their jobs.

“I think reopening is unsafe and irresponsible until we have more tests and better tracking set in place,” says one bar manager, who wished to remain anonymous while in reopening talks with her restaurant owners. “Asking employees to become front line when cases keep fluctuating is anxiety inducing. I am very aware money, our economy, and rents are at stake, but unless we’re protected as an industry, what’s it all for?”

Another individual who bartends at a few spots across town, including a high end restaurant and cocktail bar, has similar concerns, especially about enforcing social distancing on inebriated guests. “I don’t feel remotely safe about it,” she says. “Personally I’m not ready, and it doesn’t seem like the city, or at least the industry part of the city, feels ready either... and policing drunk people to keep away from each other is hard.” She, too, wished to remain anonymous to maintain a positive relationship with employers.

A further complication is that many returning servers and bartenders will be making far less money as a result of the limited seating capacity, lack of interest in dining out, and reduced hours — making a long standing industry hurdle, having a child, an even taller one. “This reopening is going to deeply screw over working parents — most daycare centers aren’t open as usual and those that are may or may not be safe,” says one such recent parent who wished to keep her name private. “I would be paying for childcare simply to go to work, where I would then lose money. There is no amount of money that seems worth risking getting this virus or giving it to someone, but to know that I’m not even going to be making my rent while doing it? Feels awful.”

Still, not every server or sous chef wants to delay the reopening date; some see it as a necessary step forward, especially as coronavirus-related funding starts to run out. “The folks who are writing petitions against us re-opening because they don’t feel safe don’t have the credentials to make that call,” says Tanya, a server who asked to go by her first name to avoid retaliation or job loss. “Unemployment won’t last forever. How do they expect people to survive living on government checks?”

Other workers have pointed to a greater systemic problem with the way workers are treated, especially among the service sector. “Our fascist government would rather kill its ‘expendable workers’ than protect them,” says Olivia Starkie, a former cook and current organizer with farm program In The Weeds. Starkie points to the fact that many people in more affluent positions are able to stay and work from home, while service workers don’t have that luxury. “We are being asked to return to work for, frankly, an inessential service while Kate Brown instructs the wealthy to ‘continue to stay home.’ Low-wage workers have always known they are viewed as a commodity, but this makes it even clearer.”

Oregon Health Authority COVID-19 updates [Official]
Multnomah County Could Begin Reopening As Soon As June 12 [EPDX]
Portland Might ‘Reopen’ on June 12, But Many Restaurants Won’t [EPDX]

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