Clatsop County was among 31 counties Gov. Kate Brown approved to start easing coronavirus restrictions on Friday.
But after outbreaks at two local seafood plants, opinions are mixed on how ready the county is to open the economy and potentially attract more visitors.
Brown announced which counties were accepted for reopening during a press conference Thursday. Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties — the Portland metro area — did not apply. Marion and Polk counties around Salem did not meet reopening criteria because of rising rates of hospitalization.
Brown stressed that she can’t please everyone, with some believing the state is reopening the economy too quickly, and others thinking the process is too slow. More than 3,800 people in Clatsop County have applied for unemployment benefits since her restrictions on businesses and gatherings began.
“I’m focused on protecting the health and safety of Oregonians, while understanding that job losses have a negative impact on public health, both physical and emotional health,” the governor said. “The shared goals of good public health and a strong economy are intimately connected, and it’s not an either-or scenario.”
Brown’s framework for a phased reopening includes hospitalization benchmarks, adequate protective equipment and sufficient hospital capacity to treat a potential surge of virus patients.
The county’s first phase focuses on locals, allowing up to 25 people to congregate. Restaurants, retail stores, child care facilities and personal care businesses like gyms and salons will reopen with reduced seating, social distancing, increased sanitation and employees required to wear face masks.
The county will still restrict vehicle access to beaches on weekends. Nonessential travel and short-term lodging in the county will remain closed until a second phase. The first phase will last at least three weeks before a possible further reopening.
“We knew we had met the criteria with the governor’s plan, but we hope that people will continue to be careful,” Kathleen Sullivan, the chairwoman of the county Board of Commissioners, said.
“We’re dealing with a very dangerous virus that does not have treatment or a vaccine yet.
“I think that we have shown that we care about our neighbors, and it’s shown over and over again — people looking after each other and staying home. And I hope that we continue to do that.”
The number of people testing positive for coronavirus in the county ballooned from six to 36 after outbreaks among employees at Bornstein Seafoods in Astoria and Pacific Seafood in Warrenton.
The county didn’t see the outbreaks as fatal to reopening, though, with nobody so far hospitalized from the virus. Patrick Allen, the director of the Oregon Health Authority, said Thursday that the county passed muster because it could trace the outbreak to specific facilities, giving the state confidence it could contain the spread of the virus.
The county certified it has adequate testing, ability to trace the contacts of those infected, isolation facilities and health and safety guidelines for businesses. The Public Health Department recently began drive-thru community testing at a household hazardous waste facility near CMH Field and hopes to test 300 people a week.
“All business will be required to follow detailed state guidelines on numbers of customers, physical distancing, cleaning and other measures to help prevent the spread of COVID-19,” the county said in a statement.
Shuttered or restricted for weeks, local businesses have different views on how quickly to reopen.
Jim Defeo, the co-owner of the popular Astoria Coffeehouse & Bistro, laid off more than 40 employees after closing his other restaurant, Carruthers. He turned the coffeehouse into a to-go window a day after Brown banned seated dining in March. He plans to continue the to-go window during the first phase of reopening, with limited seating outside. Carruthers will remain closed.
After spending weeks on back order trying to get his stock of protective equipment and sanitizers, he worries about the crush of business owners who will be seeking supplies.
“I’m definitely concerned about everybody else as they start thinking about it now,” Defeo said.
Lauren Wright, the owner of Bellisima Salon & Spa in downtown Astoria, wrote an email to Brown asking her to keep personal care businesses like hers closed until a last phase of reopening, worried about her ability to stock enough protective equipment and sanitizers to keep staff and customers safe.
“Hands-on personal care professionals, who work in places such as salons, spas and tattoo shops come in as close contact with our clients as many medical professionals do with their patients,” Wright wrote. “Social distancing is not an option in my industry, as I must directly touch my clients in order to provide service.”
Kurt Englund, president and co-owner of Englund Marine & Industrial Supply, described searching out alternative sources of equipment as supplies ran dry and prices climbed higher.
“Demand is up everywhere, so … we’re scrambling to get alternative vendors lined up, just so we can get some sort of product in here,” he said.
Englund supplies many industrial customers with protective equipment, including the blue gloves required by seafood processors. The company supplies masks and other equipment to the region’s fishing fleet.
Gloves, masks and eye protection have all been in short supply, Englund said. He’s also seeing new supply lines emerge, from Chinese variations of the N95 mask to blue disposable paper masks.
“For us, we never sold that type of mask before,” he said. “So, gee, how many do you get? What’s the demand? Who knows what’s going on here? Like everybody else, you don’t know what’s coming next.”
Michael Angiletta, the co-owner of Blaylock’s Whiskey Bar, said he plans to open within state guidelines while using technology to make things safer.
“We’re creating a no-contact menu,” he said during a recent conference call of downtown retailers. “It will all be online so people can access it with their phones. We’ve already spaced all of our tables 6 feet apart, and that gives us 50% capacity.”
Some of Astoria’s larger operations are approaching reopening cautiously.
Fort George Brewery said on social media it is still working out the details to safely reopen its Duane Street pub, while continuing to-go service and deliveries.
David Kroening, the president and general manager of Buoy Beer Co., said the brewery doesn’t anticipate reopening its restaurant until the second phase.
“We’re going to play it slow until tourism picks back up a little,” he said. “That’s what supports the number of bars and restaurants we have in this area, I think.
“We’re also kind of realistic (about) that aspect and know that there are a lot of restaurants earlier on that are going to need support from the town. We also don’t want to take some of that away until there are more people able to travel and things are a little bit safer for that.”
Kroening and other owners from Buoy Beer Co. recently acquired a controlling stake in Pilot House Distilling, where they converted from distilling to making hand sanitizer.
Originally meant for emergency responders, the sanitizer is available for sale to the public at Pilot House.
Brown praised retailers, many of whom voluntarily closed to stem the spread of the virus. Some downtown Astoria retailers are planning to open only by appointment or to small groups while continuing curbside delivery and enhanced online sales.
Some business owners took issue with state guidelines telling them to consult legal counsel before requiring customers to wear face masks. Sarah Lu Heath, the executive director of the Astoria Downtown Historic District Association, said she reached out to an attorney and heard casually that the policy would be similar to a businesses’ clothing requirements for customers.
Heath stressed a coordinated approach among downtown retailers.
“What (the downtown association) needs to be saying this weekend is, ‘Downtown is going to have a soft opening,’” she said. “Even if we are open for business on May 15, you need to be prepared to order in advance, contact people by phone, arrange curbside delivery. This is not going to be a shopping-as-usual experience.”