Salem restaurants, bars lay off workers after dining-in ban takes effect

People shop in downtown Salem in the winter. (Caleb Wolfe/Special to Salem Reporter)

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Birthday celebrations, anniversary dinners and family gatherings in restaurants have to be put on hold for the next month after Gov. Kate Brown directed restaurants and bars to stop seated service and shift to takeout and delivery, the latest effort in Oregon to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The Salem metro area has 866 restaurants and bars, employing 12,975. In the third quarter of 2019, $63 million was paid in wages, according to the state Employment Department.

Local restaurants, bars and coffee shops have already had to lay people off and others are contemplating if they’ll have to as well.

Liz Resch, owner of Westside Station, said she had to lay off nine people on Monday.

“I’m not very happy,” Resch said.

She said if she has success with to-go orders she might be able to bring some of them back.

Resch said it’s the first time in 25 years she’s had to close. Now, the west Salem bar will have someone answering the phone and cooking, but on Monday Resch wasn’t sure if she could open her door to let people in.

Brown’s executive order is expected to come out Tuesday morning and provide more details on the prohibition.

Jim Madden, owner of Busick Court Restaurant, said he’s trying his best to keep people employed by having cleaning shifts and offering to-go orders.

“We’re in uncharted territory here. We don’t have a clue what’s going to happen,” Madden said.

He said some of his employees feel like family after working at the breakfast spot since 1997.

When reached Tuesday morning, Madden said he’d had four orders all morning.

“If I don’t have money coming it’s going to be really hard to keep people employed,” he said.

Madden said most of his menu offerings are fresh, but employees went through the perishables Tuesday and put what they could in the freezer. If he doesn’t use the rest this week, Madden said vegetables will go home with workers.

Karen Ehrmantraut, owner Westside Taphouse, said the pub’s employees are going on a modified schedule and the business will be open from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. to offer cans and growlers to go.

“If that ends up not being sustainable, we’ll have to close her down,” Ehrmantraut said.

She said the west Salem taphouse saw a similar number of customers last week as it did this time last year.

 “A good portion of our business is pint sales,” Ehrmantraut said. “It’s definitely going to hurt not being able to have people come in.”

Tiffany Bulgin, co-founder and general manager of Isaac’s Coffee, Wine & Dessert, said the coffee shop is reducing its hours and evaluating changes daily.

She said she’s had to lay off several people and is talking with staff and customers daily to evaluate if to-go is going to work. 

McMenamins announced Tuesday it would close all Oregon locations during the shutdown, including Boon’s Treasury and Thompson Brewing and Public House in Salem. The closures will impact thousands of workers.

Jason Brandt, President & CEO of the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association, said restaurants aren’t set up to weather a two-month storm without an infusion of cash.

“It’s our collective responsibility if we care about the Salem restaurant scene to seek out restaurant owners and take stuff to-go so they have the cash they need to keep people employed,” Brandt said.

He said people buying gift cards should find out if the service is run through a third-party vendor. If so, the third party doesn’t release the cash to the business until its spent, Brandt said.

He said the government needs to remove the one-week waiting period to get unemployment insurance and remove the requirement that recipients need to be actively searching for work.

Tom Hoffert, CEO of the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce, said the ban could be devastating to the workers who are going to be without a job starting Tuesday.

“We need to put the health of our citizenry first, but then how can we provide some sustainability and relief for these businesses that are really going to be put in perilous spots,” he said.

Hoffert said it’s too early to determine what the impacts on the Salem dining scene will be.

“It’s going to be really interesting how this plays out from a labor standpoint,” he said.

Hoffert said chamber is setting up a webinar for businesses to navigate liabilities from the novel coronavirus.

“To think that businesses are going to come out of this unscathed I think is an incorrect assumption,” Hoffert said. 

Have a tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected] or @daisysaphara.