Dine-in restrictions initiate pushback, disagreement among restaurateurs

Jan. 30, 2021 — The long-term effects of the pandemic on local businesses are not yet known, but the short- term impacts have proven challenging — and potentially fatal — for some area businesses due to the current restrictions associated with Lane County’s “extreme risk” designation during the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular peril are local restaurants, which have taken the brunt of the restrictions imposed by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown.

The struggle to navigate the path forward during a time of literally unprecedented challenges to the restaurant industry has some owners saying they are being forced to make a choice between following the law or openly breaking it in order to survive — in many cases, with the support of sympathetic community members.

There are three tables, with six chairs, outside of the Little Brown Hen Café on Highway 101.

At lunchtime on Thursday (Jan. 28), Siuslaw News observed no customers at any of those tables. Inside the restaurant, however, there were five tables with a total of 12 customers sitting, eating and talking amongst themselves.

The kitchen was bustling, there were three to-go orders placed and two orders to go were picked up within a few minutes of each other.

Servers and kitchen personnel were wearing cloth masks, and there were five employees visible — all busy. But three of the five employees visible were not wearing their masks properly.

As per state guidelines for restaurant patrons, none of those seated were masked.

Over the past several weeks, Siuslaw News has received numerous inquiries and complaints from concerned community members that the popular eatery has been serving in-house meals in direct defiance of state regulations.

In response, owner Stacy Brown has decided to take a public stance in opposition to the state regulations from the governor’s office and Oregon health Authority (OHA) by openly refusing to comply with the latest mandates.

"I am simply exercising my Constitutional right to run my business. I have spent the last nine months complying. It was a difficult decision to re-open. It was either open and try to salvage my business and my employees’ livelihood or close the doors permanently,” Brown said in a statement to Rick Dancer, host of “Get Real,” in late December. “We follow strict safety protocols and have the utmost respect for our customers’ health and well-being. We are simply trying to survive.”

She added that, for those who feel she doesn’t care about the community, “They couldn’t be more mistaken. We have always supported our community in numerous ways and will continue to do so. … COVID is real. We are not denying that. And of course, we do not want it to spread in our community. We are being diligent to help prove that COVID doesn’t spread only in restaurants, in the hope that many more will be able to open safely."

According to data listed on coronavirus.oregon.gov, the state clearing house for updates and news on the pandemic, as of Jan. 28, Lane County has a positive test rate of 3.6 percent, warranting the “extreme risk” level designation.

Gov. Brown held a press conference on Jan. 26 to update the public on the pandemic, with the updated guidance for indoor recreation to be posted yesterday (after press deadlines). 

“Most of the state remains in the ‘extreme risk’ category," the governor said. "This is an important reminder for all Oregonians to continue to do their part by abiding by the health and safety guidelines in place. Until vaccines are widely available with high participation rates, the surest way to lower our risk and open our businesses and communities is to continue practicing the measures we know are effective in reducing the spread of COVID-19 — wear your mask, keep physical distance from others, avoid gatherings, wash your hands often and stay home when you are sick." 

Gov. Brown also announced modifications to the guidance for indoor activities in extreme risk counties, which went into effect yesterday. These modifications allow for a maximum of six people indoors at facilities over 500 square feet, with associated guidance for ongoing social distancing, cleaning protocols and face coverings. For facilities smaller than 500 square feet, the modified guidance allows for 1:1 customer services, such as personal training.

However, restaurants are not included in these modifications — meaning current restrictions still apply for indoor seating.

“The science has shown us that outdoor activities are safer than indoor activities when it comes to the spread of COVID-19, which is why we have clearly delineated guidance between indoor and outdoor activities,” said Gov. Brown. “We have seen over the last several weeks that Oregonians have largely complied with risk levels to the point that we have not seen a surge in hospitalizations that would have jeopardized hospital capacity. This means we are able to make these adjustments for ‘extreme risk’ counties, which should assist both businesses and Oregonians as we continue to work to stop the spread of COVID-19.”

Locally, Florence Police Department (FPD) Commander Jon Pitcher said the police department is aware of citizen concerns related to indoor dining.

According to Pitcher, the department is taking the complaints seriously. However, at this time the response is to forward any reports generated by resident complaints to OSHA (Occupational Safety & Health Administration) which, along with the OLCC (Oregon Liquor Control Commission), is the only real enforcement mechanism for the restaurant mandates — which include heavy fines and even temporary closures.

There is currently no policy in place which would compel the FPD to act more directly to curtail the indoor seating occurring.

Later Thursday afternoon, the Firehouse Restaurant on Bay Street, whose windows are covered with a reflective surface that blocks viewing of the eatery’s interior, had no one seated at the tables outside, as none are available for use.

However, customers were unmasked inside the busy establishment. And while some members of the staff were masked, most who were wearing a mask did so incorrectly.

Food was being served to eight tables, with a total of 16 customers seated inside.

The Florence Area Chamber of Commerce has been reticent to denounce illegal interior dining, with Chamber President/CEO Bettina Hannigan stating, “The chamber has taken no official position on this issue. But as I said last week to the Eugene City Club, what these owners are doing has been described as defying the governor — but they are really acting out of desperation, not defiance.”

There are many other restaurant owners who are aware of the few that have decided to push back against the restrictions. Several were willing to speak off the record about their thoughts and the loss of business they have experienced due to the limitations of outdoor-only seating.

These owners asked to remain anonymous primarily due to their fears of being targeted on social media posts or, in some cases, actual physical violence directed at their business or employees.

One of the common issues shared by each of the four restaurant owner interviews conducted this week by Siuslaw News was the question of fairness.

All of the owners began with the same basic point, which is that all Florence businesses have been impacted by COVID and most have done what they could to adapt to the guidelines in the spirit of communal support and respect for Florence’s predominantly at-risk demographic.

Many of these businesses are family owned, with two or three generations of a family working to keep their businesses afloat while following the rules established by the state in order to reduce community spread.

“It’s not only about the money aspect of this; it’s about keeping people we know and live with safe,” said one restaurant owner. “It is just not safe to let people from who knows where come in, sit down and eat with no idea where they have been or who they might have come in contact with while a community member I know is sitting a few feet away at another table.”

The overriding point made in these comments by owners choosing to follow the guidelines was the concern over maintaining their businesses as best they can whole also keeping their family, employees and customers safe.

As Lane County continues to remain in the “extreme risk” category along with 24 other counties over the next two weeks, until the next round of reassessments by the governor, some business owners are beginning to see some relief through the updated state guidance.

But for now, restaurateurs will continue to face the challenge of navigating uncharted waters and what they are either willing to do — or must do — to remain afloat.