LINCOLN COUNTY — The announcement of a “two-week freeze” was grim, unexpected news for local businesses, forcing them to once again adapt their models on the fly and make cuts to their workforces.
In the months after Gov. Kate Brown instituted her “stay home, save lives” order in mid-March, Lincoln County’s unemployment rate became the worst in the state. While showing a slight improvement in the months since reopening in late May, the county still has the highest number of unemployment claims in Oregon, and now the local economy is facing a return to many of those strict limitations.
The conditions of the stay home order looked similar to those under the two-week freeze announced on Friday, with some exceptions, allowing such as personal services like salons and spas to remain open. Starting today (Wednesday), retail stores and pharmacies are limited to 75 percent capacity, and restaurants can only provide delivery or take-out service. Gyms must close. The Oregon Coast Aquarium must close. Ripley’s Believe it or Not! must close, along with movie theaters, bowling alleys and arcades.
In March, Lincoln County only had one positive COVID-19 case. As of this week, there have been more than 500 total, but the county’s new case rate has remained low for months even as a dramatic rise statewide prompted the governor to take executive action last week. The move drew immediate protest from local business owners and operators, who say the “one-size-fits-all” approach applied in the spring in unfair and unwise now.
In a letter to the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners co-signed by more than 20 other Newport businesses, The Chowder Bowl owner Michael Franklin urged the board to demand that Brown maintain her county-by-county approach. Franklin wrote that while the spring lockdown “drastically harmed many businesses, including my own, at that point we had far less information about COVID-19 and how it spread, and therefore the shotgun approach was somewhat more understandable.”
“Since that time, we have learned more about COVID-19 and how we can balance opening the economy with keeping the spread in check. To that end, once the initial crisis was over, Gov. Brown recognized that a regional approach to combatting the spread of the virus made the most sense,” Franklin wrote. With the two-week freeze, he wrote, Brown “abandoned her promise to our county … needlessly causing both a public health and economic issue.”
Commissioner Claire Hall said during Monday’s board meeting she’d participated in a call with the Oregon Health Authority following the freeze announcement on Friday, during which she asked why counties with low spread had been included in the restrictions. She was told it was largely due to the interconnectedness of the hospital system — patients are frequently transferred from Lincoln County hospitals for a higher level of care in Portland facilities, and those metro-area hospitals are now facing a real crisis of capacity.
Another key difference between the current climate and the beginning of the pandemic is the lack of federal aid for businesses and workers. In April, PPP loans were available to make payroll, $1,200 stimulus checks were issued and an extra $600 in pandemic unemployment assistance provided a vital lifeline for employees who were laid off. With the current lame duck Congress, a similar relief package seems unlikely anytime soon, while debt service and living expenses continue apace.
Judy Kuhl, executive director of the Greater Newport Chamber of Commerce, said 60 chamber members in food and beverage were working to adapt menus and operations to facilitate a return to take-out only, and 17 attraction-type members would be affected or have to close. Many restaurants had major Thanksgiving plans that must now be canceled or drastically altered — most are devising ways to convert that inventory into take-out service.
Joshua Conrad, general manger of the Best Western Plus Agate Beach Inn, said the hotel’s restaurant had expected to serve a four-course Thanksgiving banquet to 150 or more from 1 to 6 p.m., which he said they could do safely under existing capacity limits. Those meals can now be ordered as to-go platters, but Conrad said he had to put five employees on furlough due to the freeze (about 15 positions in the hotel’s banquet department were already on pause because of existing event restrictions). The freeze has already had a direct impact on the hotel’s bottom line — $3,000 in cancellations the past two days, Conrad said Monday.
“Not only do I not get a break from my debt service or expenses — the electricity bill still has to be paid every month — now I’ve got five people who are looking for unemployment. They’re not laid off, and they’re not fired, but at the end of they day they still have to figure out how to cover those two weeks,” Conrad said. He’s also not confident it will, indeed, be just two weeks, after the spring lockdown stretched into months.
Janell Goplen, owner of Clearwater Restaurant on the Newport Bayfront, told the News-Times Monday, “I just yesterday spent more than six hours calling every reservation for the next two weeks, which would have been more than 500 people, and canceled them all.” Clearwater’s Thanksgiving dinner will be available to go, but the reconversion to take-out means a heavy blow to the workforce. Goplen expects she will have to furlough around 40 employees due to the freeze (they’ll remain on the payroll with access to benefits).
“The nightmare is that we don’t really know when it will end,” Goplen said. “We were going full out for Christmas decorations this year, and our plan was to put everything up the night of Thanksgiving. And now, it’s a big pause. Do we do it or not? Will we really be able to open Dec. 3?
“We hope people who love our food will order online. We have delivery and pickup. It’s safe and easy, and it keeps our staff employed. And it does the same for other local businesses. Most places sell gift cards. We all need the community’s support,” she said.