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Wooden chairs appear stacked on a bar alongside a window in a closed restaurant.
Restaurants in Portland will soon be able to reopen indoors, despite the potential for another surge
Photo by Thierry Monasse/Getty Images

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Portland Restaurants Can Reopen for Indoor Dining Friday. But Should They?

Data released by the state Monday implies Multnomah County may have low-enough COVID-19 numbers to reopen. Indoor dining could undo all of that work.

Multnomah County restaurants will be able to reopen for indoor dining February 12. Statistics released by the state indicate that Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas counties all fall under the threshold for cases to exit the “extreme risk” category, meaning they have fewer than 200 cases per 100,000 residents. That allows restaurants within those counties to open at either 25 percent or 50-person capacity — whichever is lower. Many restaurant owners in the Portland metro area will celebrate this possibility. Jason Brandt, CEO of the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association, called the reopening of restaurants in the Portland area a “significant step in the right direction,” and called on the state to reopen even more counties for indoor dining.

However, not everyone is celebrating the prospect of indoor dining. Back in June, restaurant employees and bartenders expressed anxiety at the thought of returning to work unvaccinated; daily coronavirus numbers were lower then compared to where they are now, according to the Oregon Health Authority. There is a real possibility that by reopening dining rooms in the middle of winter, as more contagious COVID-19 variants begin to gain ground within the state, we will see community spread skyrocket in a way that will be more detrimental to food-service workers and restaurant owners down the line.

Many states around the country have begun to loosen restrictions on restaurants and bars, allowing limited indoor dining ahead of one of the restaurant industry’s biggest business days, Valentine’s Day. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has put Manhattan on a similar timeline, reopening for indoor dining on Friday. His argument, and the argument of many other governors around the country, is that restaurant owners are financially drowning without indoor service and case counts are down. That’s true in Oregon as well: There is absolutely no denying that restaurants are bearing an unbelievable financial burden without sustained support from the federal government, and daily Oregon case counts have been dropping in recent weeks.

But opening indoor dining (along with gyms and other businesses) only increases chances that numbers will go up. Back in June, when restaurants in Portland reopened for outdoor and limited indoor dining, cases started to climb. As soon as the weather started to turn, when outdoor activities — and dining — seemed less appealing compared to indoor gatherings, cases skyrocketed: In mid-November, when Oregon shut down onsite dining statewide for the second time, cases tripled compared to where they were at the peak during the summer.

It’s unclear what we actually know about restaurant spread. Back in August, OPB reported that contact tracers were not asking COVID-19-positive Oregonians about “whether they are eating at restaurants and which ones.” (Eater Portland has reached out to the governor’s office and the Oregon Health Authority to see if this is still true; they have not responded to requests for comment.) But with the added risk of more contagious COVID-19 variants, there’s a possibility the disease will spread more rapidly than it did when Portland restaurants last reopened for indoor dining. That doesn’t even touch on the fact that contact tracing may not be as effective as previously thought; delays in test results, or a delay in actually getting the test, will alter the actual number of people a COVID-19-positive person may have exposed, and many people do not know or do not disclose where they have been exposed.

The only — potentially incomplete — data we have on COVID spread is related to workplace outbreaks, where workers face a real risk. Even considering the fact that Oregon restaurants are only employing a fraction of their normal workforce, Oregon restaurants have been the site of workplace outbreaks, and considering many restaurant workers are uninsured, there is a serious possibility employees are not getting tested when they may have been exposed.

Those aren’t just numbers: Those are human beings, who serve us and feed us, who are at risk of serious physical harm. Portland’s restaurant community has already seen death related to COVID-19. A recent study from the University of California-San Francisco found that line cooks and agricultural workers were at the highest risk of death from COVID-19. Portland’s restaurant workers might not be vaccinated for months; we only started vaccinating Oregonians over 80 on February 8, and we still have three more population groups scheduled through the month. People over 65 won’t be eligible until March 1. After those populations are vaccinated, the state is planning to open up vaccines to “critical workers,” but the state hasn’t explicitly said when restaurant workers will be vaccinated, or if they’re considered “critical workers” by the state’s standards. Prioritizing financial stability over the lives of restaurant workers illustrates the grim reality of life in this country, where people are making incomprehensible choices simply because we are unwilling to pay to keep people at home.

This is not to say that indoor dining is inherently and always unsafe. People like University of Oregon professor Kevin Van Den Wymelenberg have spent years studying the conditions that allow viruses like COVID-19 to spread in indoor spaces. With the right combination of volume of outside air, rate of air filtration, and lack of touch-points, the potential for spread does decrease. However, not many restaurants can afford to research and install the kinds of updates and retrofits required to pull that off. And while local agencies like the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, Oregon Occupational Safety and Health, and local county health inspectors do evaluate restaurants and bars for their COVID-19 safety, the regularly shifting county guidelines and lack of resources make it inevitable for restaurants violating health and safety guidelines to slip through the cracks — unknowingly, out of desperation, or out of willful ignorance. Making it easier to potentially spread COVID-19 within a restaurant space will not help.

It feels almost Sisyphean: Oregon, compared to other states around the country, has done well in curbing the spread of COVID-19. However, when we loosen restaurant restrictions without vaccinating their employees, we risk prolonging the arduous reality of life during the COVID-19 pandemic. We risk more deaths, more illnesses, more long-haulers who live with oppressive fatigue and body aches. And the people who will be at risk are those restaurant workers, choosing between paying rent and losing their lives, between losing their job or infecting their family members. That risk is not hypothetical; it is a weight thousands of restaurant workers — and restaurant owners — stare down every day.

Restaurant owners and restaurant workers are undeniably struggling right now. Oregon jobless claims jumped in December as winter started and restaurants closed. The stagnation of January business impacted restaurant owners and workers; the lack of interest in dining outside as the weather becomes progressively colder and rainier has slowed business at local restaurants and bars. And restaurants hibernating have left many without a steady income. Those interested in supporting restaurants can — and should — buy restaurant merchandise, order takeout, and campaign for prolonged and sustained payments for everyone, including restaurant workers. They should call legislators on the state and federal level, asking for more stimulus payments, protections, and grants for this industry. This state — and country — need to focus on ramping up vaccine efforts, figuring out long-lasting training and infrastructure to regulate and evaluate restaurant safety, securing funding for a more stable safety net for this vulnerable industry. But by dining indoors right now, we will likely be doing more harm than good.

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