Jan. 5, 2021 — Florence rang in the new year last Friday with two additional cases of COVID-19 confirmed by Lane County Public Health, bringing the total number of active cases to 86. However, by Monday, Jan. 4, that number had jumped by another 15 cases — an exponential two-day spike since the first confirmed case of the virus within the 97439 zip code back in September.
Though the number of cases within the Florence area had been steadily rising in past weeks, the previous largest weekend spike had been five cases in early December following the Thanksgiving holiday. Last weekend’s rise from 86 cases to 102 by Monday morning is a trend mirroring Lane County, which remains in the “extreme risk” category as determined by the latest state metrics. The county continues to struggle with not only containing the virus but reducing the number of infections — which would help the county meet “high risk” or “moderate risk” metrics thresholds and allow for reduced restrictions, such as limited indoor seating for restaurants and other venues.
“Oregon’s health and safety measures are in place to protect Oregonians, save lives and keep our hospitals and health care workers from becoming overwhelmed by COVID-19,” Gov. Kate Brown said in a statement issued Dec. 31 in anticipation of New Year’s Eve and the potential for social gatherings. “Oregonians have made incredible sacrifices throughout this pandemic and, now, many communities across Oregon are reducing the spread of COVID-19 and moving into risk levels that allow restaurants and businesses to reopen to at least some indoor service.”
In Florence, two restaurants — Little Brown Hen and Firehouse Restaurant — have re-opened for indoor dining despite the ban instituted by the governor for restaurants located within “extreme risk” counties.
In an interview last week with Rick Dancer, host of “Get Real,” Little Brown Hen owner Stacey Brown Wilson said the decision was difficult but necessary.
“It was either open and try to salvage my business and my employees’ livelihood or close the doors permanently,” said Wilson. “We are simply trying to survive. For those who presume I don’t care about my community, they couldn’t be more mistaken.”
Wilson added that while the decision was “difficult” and that her actions are not intended to make a statement about the state or governor’s authority, she added that she is exercising a constitutional right to run a business.
The reaction on social media from Florence residents, as well as out-of-towners, has been mixed; some are applauding the decision while others are calling it irresponsible given the county’s current infection rates and Florence’s large population of at-risk seniors.
“Good for you. Thank you for opening up. We will be there soon for breakfast from Eugene. We support you 100%!!!!” commented Allison Lengele.
“The Firehouse was hopping tonight and the food was excellent! Thank you Kylie McKenzie Cook,” posted Florence resident Kelly Wall Kawahara.
“Praying for your continued blessings and success. We know the struggle you are fighting against and want you to know that we will honor and support your restaurant whenever we come to Florence, which is as often as we can,” said Jan Hickman.
But Florence resident Mark Immel was among those opposed to restaurants opening during the mandate, commenting to Eugene news station KEZI, “I think it’s irresponsible to put other people at risk and give them a potentially fatal disease. I think it’s a really bad idea. I can certainly understand people’s economic woes in this time but, you know, so many of us have to just pivot and do business a different way.”
But speaking with Dancer on Dec. 29, Florence Area Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Bettina Hannigan said businesses have been backed into a corner and are feeling desperate.
“I think there’s a lot of desperation. There’s a lot of unfairness going on. Some people can reopen. Some people can’t,” Hannigan said. “Right now, I understand some of the counties south of us have opened. So, people here in Florence who want to eat out — instead of eating here locally — they’re going to drive down to Coos Bay. How fair is that?”
However, in her statement last Thursday, Brown responded to the decision to defy the state’s COVID-19 mandates.
“If businesses reopen too early and, instead, create new spikes in COVID-19 cases, the actions of a few business owners could set entire communities back and keep them in the ‘extreme risk’ category for even longer,” said Brown, reminding businesses that OSHA and the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) will enforce the orders through citations, fines and red-warning notices.
According to a spokesman for OSHA, the agency has already received multiple complaints regarding the Little Brown Hen and its reopening to indoor dining, noting that an investigation is currently underway.
In the meantime, the challenges faced by those trying to save their businesses, as well as Florence area residents trying to avoid the rise in COVID-19 infections, continues without a clear path for either.