Salem area reacts with frustration to yo-yo shift in Covid restrictions

Cindy Gerkman prunes geranium planters outside of Ritter’s Housemade Foods on May 12, 2020. Ritter’s Housemade Foods reopened for business on Friday for take-out and delivery after being temporarily closed. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

As Salem braced for the third round of stringent Covid restrictions last week, Matt Learn, the owner of Salem’s Christo’s Pizzeria and Lounge, decided it was time for a vacation. 

As Covid restrictions have shifted for the last 14 months, Learn also shifted the operations of his pizzeria, located at 1108 Broadway St. N.E., offering takeout and adjusting his staffing and amount of food on hand. 

When Gov. Kate Brown again ordered restaurants in 15 counties, including Marion and Polk, counties to close indoor dining beginning Friday, April 30, Learn said he decided to take some time off after an “emotional rollercoaster” of a year. He sent his employees home with pizzas, dough and steaks that would otherwise spoil, and posted on Facebook that the restaurant would be closing temporarily.  

But Learn along with other business owners across the state had to again change his plans. On Tuesday, Brown announced that with increases in the Covid hospitalization rate dropping below a key threshold, she would again allow indoor dining to resume on Friday, May 7.  

“It’s really frustrating,” said Learn. “It’s hard always switching gears.”

Learn said the shifting restrictions have made scheduling workers and knowing how much food to buy difficult. With some cheese in the freezer, he was preparing to order vegetables, seafood and steak again to open. 

Brown said the heightened restrictions, which also affected gyms and churches, that went into effect last week would last a maximum of three weeks as vaccination rates increased. Her sudden decision to relax the restrictions, announced late Tuesday, was met with annoyance, confusion and resignation. 

“Oregonians deserve stability, but the Governor is giving them whiplash,”  Oregon Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod, R-Lyons, said in a statement. “Local business owners and workers cannot even plan their lives a week in advance. No one person should have all this power over the everyday lives of Oregonians.”

In a statement, Girod noted that the Legislature had voted down legislation that would have subjected extensions of the governor’s emergency powers to be reviewed by lawmakers after 60 days. He also called the metrics the governor has used to tighten and relax Covid restrictions “arbitrary.” 

State Rep. Bill Post, R-Keizer, attributed the reversal of restrictions to media scrutiny of how the governor applied the metrics and Portland Trail Blazer Damian Lillard taking to Twitter to point out that the team wouldn’t have fans in seats. 

Tom Hoffert, Salem Area Chamber of Commerce CEO, said in an email that he was relieved that the restrictions had been eased for businesses in Marion and Polk counties, which he said need every chance to survive. But he said businesses still face challenges around labor shortages and the governor’s orders had a particular impact on restaurants. 

“I am disappointed for all the restaurants who needed to cancel food orders or even donate inventories they anticipated not using over the next series of weeks – this is both expensive and wasteful,” he said. 

The most recent numbers from the Oregon Health Authority show that the seven-day percent change in hospitalized Covid patients was at 14.99%, just barely below the 15% threshold established by the governor to ease rules. Marion and Polk counties had been placed in the “extreme risk” category based on local Covid case rates and the state’s hospital capacity. The category carries the most stringent rules. On Friday, both counties are among 15 that will go back to the “high risk” category.”

“With our statewide hospitalization rate stabilizing, our hospitals should have the capacity to continue treating patients with severe cases of COVID-19 and other serious medical conditions in the coming weeks,” Brown said in a statement announcing the relaxed restrictions. 

Katrina Rothenberger, Marion County Public Health director, gave the county board commissioners an update on Covid trends that included some good news and bad news. 

For the last two-week period between April 18 through May 1, Marion County saw 1,146 new Covid cases, giving it a rate of 329.6 cases per 100,000 county residents, according to the most recent numbers.

Rothenberger said that’s a 10% increase from the previous two-week period. But she said 43 people in Salem Hospital are being monitored for Covid, which is lower than the past week. She also said that 37% of Marion County’s population has at least one dose of a vaccine against Covid. The vaccination site at the fairgrounds is offering walk-ins with no registration required, she said.

But members of the board remained irked by the sudden change in restrictions. Commissioner Danielle Bethell called attention to a T-shirt she was wearing with the slogan “Support Local” that she had purchased at Felicity Boutique in downtown Salem. 

“They had this shirt in the window, and I thought, ‘That is a message to me because I’m so pissed off at our governor and the fact that she just keeps squashing local businesses,’” said Bethell. 

Last week, Gov. Kate Brown announced she would work with the Legislature on creating a $20 million package to help businesses that were placed in the extreme risk category.  

Bethell pointed out that Marion County would be receiving state money for another grant program to help businesses. But she said she was troubled that the government was falling into what she called a pattern of enacting bad rules followed by money.  

Commissioner Colm Willis called Brown’s shift in regulations “unAmerican.”

“It’s literally not what we do here,” he said. “We have a legislative process. We have a rulemaking process.”

But for other Salem area businesses, the shifting regulations have just become another part of doing business. 

Matt Dakopolos, brewer at Xicha Brewing, said staff has been monitoring Covid numbers and the layout of the building has made it easier to shift its approach. Before the pandemic, 50% of the indoor seating at the brewery, located at 576 Patterson St N.W., was at the bar. 

At 25% indoor capacity only about 12 people have been allowed indoors and the brewery has focused on the 10 tables on its patio, where it has allowed to offer service for much of the pandemic, he said. As a result, Xicha has been able to change its operations without a big impact on staff and inventory, he said. 

He said another factor has helped it get through the pandemic. 

“By and large the community has been really supportive,” he said. 

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

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