For a third time, Salem braces for stringent Covid restrictions

Wild Pear in downtown Salem urges diners to get takeout during the COVID-19 pandemic (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Matthew Rolph, a 33-year-old Salem bartender, had one word to describe bars and restaurants being ordered to again shut down for indoor service in response to rising Covid numbers. 

“It’s stressful,” he said. 

Having worked as a bartender for the last 13 years, he said he made decent money between wages and tips. But with capacity in bars and restaurants reduced over the last year, he said he’s seen his take-home pay drop working at Chattyshack and at 19th At Battle Creek Clubhouse.

“Basically, you move down the ladder to a minimum wage worker,” he said. 

With a mortgage and kids, he said he’s had to spend through five years’ worth of savings over the last year to make ends meet. With Salem restaurants and bars being restricted from offering indoor service beginning Friday, Rolph said he’s turned to building and selling planters and outdoor furniture through his Facebook page to try and make ends meet. 

In response to rising case rates, Gov. Kate Brown on Tuesday announced that 15 counties, including Marion and Polk, would move into the “extreme risk” category that comes with heightened restrictions. 

That means that beginning Friday, April 30, restaurants will no longer be able to offer indoor dining, outdoor social gatherings will be limited to six people instead of eight, and churches will have to cut capacity. Gyms and movie theaters 500 square feet or larger will only be allowed to have only six customers at a time. Video lottery terminals will still be allowed in bars. But regulations only allow six people at a time who aren’t allowed to eat or drink and must wear masks. 

The governor made the move in response to rising Covid cases that she said could overwhelm the state’s hospital system. Unlike the previous heightening of restrictions, these will stay in place for a maximum of three weeks. As vaccinations continue, the governor has indicated restrictions could be lifted even further by June. 

Until then, the more stringent restrictions were met with a mix of resignation and outrage.

The Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association blasted the governor’s move in a statement saying that no large outbreaks had been traced to restaurants, which were now being unfairly treated after a decimating year.

“The move by the Governor’s Office is tone deaf and offensive to tens of thousands of Oregonians working in restaurants and bars across our state attempting to pay their bills,” said Jason Brandt, president and CEO, in a statement. “COVID-19 closures and restrictions on indoor dining are clobbering Oregon’s restaurants, bars and hospitality sector. We’ve seen more than 1,000 close because of the pandemic recession.”

Sybil’s Omelettes, a decades-old Salem business located at 2373 State St., has had an experience similar to other businesses: It closed its doors during the initial shutdown last year, reopened with the help of a pandemic-oriented loan, shifted to takeout and delivery and then had to shut down again during the surge last winter. 

“Honestly, it’s not surprising to me anymore,” said Stefani Shirley, the manager of Sybil’s Omelettes.

She said the business will have an outdoor dining area open “very, very soon.” In the meantime, it’ll offer a carhop service where staff brings food to customers in their vehicles on compostable trays. 

“It’s very frustrating because we do everything as you’re supposed to,” she said. “We’ve sanitized, we don’t go over our limit of customers.” 

Under the extreme risk restriction, gyms 500 square feet or larger will be allowed a maximum of six people (not including staff) with 25 feet of physical distance between customers. For those under 500 square feet, it’s a maximum capacity of one customer (not including employees).

Tracy Bybee, the owner of Snap Fitness, said the restrictions won’t have that much impact on her 4,000-square-foot gym. Under the “high risk” category, which Marion County is under until Friday, gyms could have a 25% maximum capacity or 50 people, whichever is smaller. 

She said at the most she’s had about 10 people in her gym and six is manageable. Larger gyms might have a harder time, she said. Her customers have been confused by the shifting guidelines and what’s acceptable for people who’ve been vaccinated. 

Bybee said a common refrain from her customers has been, “Why did we get vaccinated if we have to stay home?” 

Charles Boyle, Brown’s spokesman, said in an email that forecasts show that the new restrictions along with more vaccinations should address the fourth wave the state faces. 

“In the unlikely event those metrics don’t improve after three weeks, we will be working with (Oregon Health Authority) to assess what other measures might be needed,” he said. 

During a press call last Friday, Brown said that it’s possible most restrictions could be lifted and Oregon could fully reopen the economy by the end of June. 

Dr. Renee Edwards, chief medical officer at Oregon Health and Science University, said during the call that unlike previous Covid surges, vaccines against the virus are now widely available. 

“The other good news is that we’re truly seeing the light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “Previously, when we were facing restrictions, we weren’t sure how long they would last. This time we have vaccination on our side, such that in about three weeks, it is unlikely that the virus will be able to grow at significant rates based upon the number of vaccinated Oregonians.”

Less than a third of Oregon’s population has been fully vaccinated, generally requiring two doses of vaccine spaced several weeks apart. In Marion County, about 121,000 people are fully vaccinated, about a third of the county’s population. In Polk County, nearly 34,000 people have been fully vaccinated, 40% of the county’s population. 

Despite the increase in vaccinations, both counties have seen a rise in new cases of Covid

In Marion County, the case rate rose to 299 cases of Covid per 100,000 people between April 11 and April 24. That’s up from 204 cases per 100,000 from the previous two-week reporting period and 137 per 100,000 the period before. 

Polk County saw its rate rise to 215.8 per 100,000 people for the most recent reporting period. That’s an increase from 200 per 100,000 in the previous period and the 191.7 per 100,000 before that.

Counties with more than 200 new Covid cases per 100,000 residents over two weeks are considered “extreme risk,” but in early April Brown said she would not impose new restrictions on those counties until Covid-related hospitalizations increased. 

The governor enacted the restrictions because the state meeting two thresholds: hospitalizations of Covid-positive patients exceeded 300 and the seven-day total of Covid patients rose by above 15%. 

On Monday, both those thresholds were met with 319 Covid-positive patients occupying hospital beds statewide and the seven-day total of Covid-positive patients rising by 37.4%. 

Salem Health said in a statement that it is currently at 89% of its normally licensed bed capacity. The health care provider has been preparing additional bed capacity since 2019 the company said. Typically, the hospital has a capacity for 494 patients. Currently, it has a bed capacity for 534 patients and is caring for 56 Covid-positive inpatients. 

“Like other systems, we have done worst-case scenario planning that would allow for us to care for patients beyond this capacity,” the company said. “We don’t expect this to be necessary, but are prepared if it is.” 

Brown also said she’s working with the Oregon Legislature on a $20 million small business relief package for businesses located in counties with the extreme risk designation. 

In a statement, Oregon Business and Industry urged the governor and lawmakers to act quickly setting up the fund, referencing the large amount of federal dollars that will be coming to the state under the most recent federal stimulus package.

This story has been updated with a statement from Salem Health.  

Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.

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