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As the Delta Variant Spreads, Some Oregon Restaurants Are Holding onto Their Walk-Up Windows

Although Oregon restaurants can serve customers inside without mask or vaccine requirements, some Portland food businesses have decided to stick to takeout and outdoor dining, hoping the delta variant begins to subside

A man looks from a lit window at Eem in the evening. A customer waits in the dark.
The walk-up window at Eem
Molly J. Smith / EPDX

When Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced that the state would lift the majority of its COVID-19 safety mandates, Steven Nguyen, the owner of the SE Hawthorne boba cafe Fat Straw, began to prepare. He planned to reopen the interior of his cafe two weeks after the restrictions disappeared, which would give him the time to staff up and clean up the space.

But in those two weeks, the delta variant — a highly contagious strain of the COVID-19 virus — gained ground throughout the United States, swiftly spreading through unvaccinated communities and even infecting vaccinated individuals. Hospitalizations and deaths crept upward, almost exclusively comprised of unvaccinated individuals. In Oregon, the delta variant is not quite as prevalent as it is in other parts of the country. However, COVID-19 is still spreading rapidly throughout the state, especially in counties with low vaccination rates: In late July, the state reported thousands of new cases each day, a peak in the spike that has occurred since the state dropped its COVID-19 safety mandates. And hospitalizations are continuing to rise.

So, Nguyen decided to postpone his reopening plans, keeping his walk-up window in place for the foreseeable future. While he’s fully vaccinated, he says the risk of breakthrough cases, and the potential for spread, is keeping him away from indoor dining situations. “I have two young kids, who are under 12 and not vaxxed,” he says. “My staff is definitely concerned about delta, so I’m waiting until delta gets under control or we get more people vaccinated.”

Fat Straw is one of many Portland restaurants and cafes that are keeping their walk-up windows, despite the state’s lack of COVID-19 restrictions on businesses. Although many of these restaurants’ employees are fully vaccinated, they, like Nguyen, are worried for the people they could infect, as well as the long-term effects of a potential breakthrough case. Many of the owners of restaurants and cafes that had planned to reopen for indoor dining by the end of July are hoping to be able to reopen before the winter begins, out of fear of yet another financial hurdle; however, they’re concerned that if more Oregonians avoid getting vaccinated, it could mean another disastrously slow season limited to takeout and delivery.

Early into the pandemic, when restaurants and bars were relegated to takeout and delivery service as a safety precaution, many Portland restaurants and bar owners started building walk-up windows into the facade of their buildings: Cafes like Either/Or and Proud Mary built pastry cases for their ordering counter, and places like Thai barbecue bar Eem and pie shop Lauretta Jean’s built in separate pickup and takeout windows, to reduce the potential for crowding. Lauretta Jean’s owner Kate McMillan set up her Division cafe’s walk-up window early into the pandemic, as a way to keep employees on and return to service. “It just felt like, ‘Wow, this thing isn’t going anywhere. What are we going to do to be able to serve people and also feel safe?’” she says. “It felt like it was working: customers felt good about it, and everyone was really happy to not have customers in the building.”

Once Portland restaurants and bars could reopen, some Portland restaurants with walk-up windows began to transition into more outdoor dining, building patios and cabanas to allow for something closer to dine-in service. Many of those businesses saw the outdoor model as a stepping stone back to a larger reopening: Eem co-owner Earl Ninsom planned to reopen the interior of the restaurant this summer but is holding off because of the rise of the delta variant. His Isan Thai restaurant, Paadee, was known for its larb and the intimate supper club Langbaan housed in a back room; now, both Paadee and Langbaan share a takeout window and patio, serving drinking snacks and noodle soups. As opposed to wrestling with the transition from summer to fall, Ninsom will close Paadee in September and October, so the restaurant team can visit family in Thailand. Langbaan will return to its tasting menu model on the patio in mid-September.

After that point, Ninsom hopes to be able to reopen his dining room, as the cold sets in. But that plan only works if the state — and country — can avoid another shutdown. Some cities, like San Francisco, have re-instated mask mandates, and New York diners will need to show proof of vaccination to dine indoors starting later this month. As of late, Oregon has not added any new restrictions to the state’s businesses; that being said, the Oregon Health Authority and Multnomah County recommend universal mask use in all public indoor settings, and masks will be required in the upcoming school year.

In general, these recommendations and re-instated mandates are meant to serve as a way to curb the rising number of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, as well as the potential for another shutdown. However, some business owners don’t feel comfortable reopening indoors with the current COVID-19 trajectory, regardless of what the state requires or allows. “At this point, my gut says that we will not be returning to the dining room in 2021. I would like for that to not be the case, that would be cool; I just have a hard time believing that is going to happen,” McMillan says. “I don’t want to lose my sense of taste and smell; that would be really hard for me as a chef, baker, person.”

The Delta Wave Has Arrived: Here We Go Again [E]
Why Vaccinated People Are Getting ‘Breakthrough’ Infections [NYT]
Breakthrough cases aren’t the cause of the US Covid-19 surge [Vox]
The Delta variant causes 83% of U.S. COVID cases. See the states where it’s most prevalent [Fortune]
Multnomah County Is Now Asking People to Wear Masks in Restaurants and Bars — Vaccinated or Not [EPDX]
How Coronavirus Is Impacting the Portland Restaurant World [EPDX]

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