For Portland-area restaurants, the last few months have felt like the light at the end of a very long tunnel. In February, plummeting COVID-19 cases prompted Gov. Kate Brown to reopen dining rooms for the first time in three months. By March, Portland restaurants were allowed to expand indoor capacity further. And April has brought a sunny glimpse of the summer ahead — patio season is almost here.
Some of those gains will be reversed on Friday, when two of Oregon’s three largest counties — Multnomah and Clackamas — will return to the high-risk category, once again limiting restaurants to 25% capacity indoors, Gov. Kate Brown announced Tuesday. In all, six counties representing three fifths of Oregon’s population enter the higher risk category Friday (Deschutes, Klamath, Linn and Tillamook are the others).
For restaurants with smaller dining rooms and those sticking with takeout service, the new restrictions won’t have much impact. Indoor dining will still be allowed, albeit at a reduced figure. Table size remains fixed at six people per party max. Businesses will still be required to close at 11 p.m.
But for others, including longtime Northeast Portland Italian restaurant Amalfi’s, the reversal represents a major step back for an industry still reeling from a year of cascading crises.
“It’s a gut punch,” Amalfi’s owner Kiauna Floyd said by phone Wednesday. “It hurts. We are currently under construction to build an outdoor space that is not complete, so we can’t take advantage of that. It’s devastating to an already devastated industry.”
Floyd estimates her restaurant will lose between six and eight tables on Friday, each of which would have been filled several times each night. Last summer, the restaurant might have moved guests to the patio built on its large parking lot at 4703 N.E. Fremont St. But surface repairs aimed at filling potholes and smoothing out bumps aren’t expected to wrap up until May.
For Floyd, after a year of figuring out how to manage a business safely during a pandemic, the back-and-forth “yo-yoing” of her business has been “devastating.”
“I fully realize that next to running and operating a restaurant, there’s no more impossible position to be in than governing this situation,” Floyd said. “But from an equity standpoint, it’s frustrating as a business owner to know that we can travel. We can hop on an airplane and go to a different state. We can convene in households without wearing masks. And yet it’s the restaurants and bars that get penalized.”
Campana, also in Northeast Portland, is among the restaurants not expecting much of a change come Friday. Even when Multnomah County moved to the moderate risk category in March, George Kaden and Annalisa Maceda’s year-old restaurant didn’t have enough room to expand indoors while still keeping tables at least six feet apart.
“We never went up when they increased capacity,” Maceda said. “There was just no way with the way our layout is.”
For now, the restaurant, which replaced the couple’s Grand Army Tavern at 901 N.E. Oneonta St. during the pandemic, is focused on helping the remainder of its staff access the vaccine, and gearing up for patio season. Monday was the first day restaurant workers and other frontline workers officiallyl became eligible for vaccination in Oregon. But even here, the restaurant is taking things slow, choosing not to renew its on-street seating permit.
“We did that last year, but we’re just going to go with our regular patio seating on the sidewalk for now,” Maceda said. “Because it’s not just about increasing capacity. It’s about doing it in a way that’s safe, so we don’t have to hire a bunch of people that we have to lay off in four weeks.”
David Kreifels was just getting used to inviting diners back indoors at Laurelhurst Market, the steakhouse he opened at 3155 E. Burnside St. with Jason Owens and Ben Dyer in 2009. And then, on March 17, an employee tested positive for COVID-19.
Kreifels and his partners consulted various agencies to figure out the best course of action, eventually shutting down the restaurant for two weeks, disclosing the exposure on Instagram. When the restaurant reopened on March 31, it stuck with takeout service through its in-house butcher counter.
“The underlying message for me is just trying to keep everybody safe,” Kreifels said. “It’s such a downer. We’ve been doing so good, and then this happened, and it was kind of eye-opening. And that’s why we’re not opening indoors right now.”
Kreifels doesn’t foresee an immediate return to indoor dining, though he’ll be open to the possibility should COVID-19 cases fall or spring temperatures rise to the point where he can “open my doors and windows without freezing out my customers.”
Outdoor dining, meanwhile, has returned to the restaurant’s large deck, which was built during the first few months of the pandemic and opened last summer.
“I feel bad for people who don’t have that,” Kreifels said. “Without a parking lot to build that deck on, we’d be in a whole different ball game.”