Cat Frum, Santiam Brewing bartender, puts together an order for delivery on Friday, April 10. Frum has had to expand her job duties to include assembling and coordinating the delivery of orders direct to customers' homes in recent weeks. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Kim Parker-Llerenas, executive director of local workforce development organization Willamette Workforce Partnership, said that businesses are looking forward to opening back up as Gov. Kate Brown prepares to begin lifting orders that have shuttered much of the economy.

But she said that eagerness is mixed with caution and fear.

Last week, Brown unveiled her plans to gradually lift restrictions imposed on businesses to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Her plan hinges a steady decline in cases, increased testing and ensuring the health care system can handle a surge of infections.

As the governor prepares to relax state orders, Salem businesses are preparing for a new set of challenges that come with reopening. Social distancing and other requirements will stay in place and businesses will have to adjust to keeping employees and customers spread apart. Businesses will have to retool operations and retrain employees for an upended economy.

Parker-Llerenas said that businesses also run the risk of opening too fast only to have the virus flare back up.

“This is a push-and-pull between science and economy,” said Parker-Llerenas. “And it’s hard to find a balance.”

Bars, restaurants and major retailers such as Nordstrom and J.C. Penney have shut their doors. In Marion County, 17,305 have filed for unemployment benefits since March 15. For Polk County, that number is 3,999.

Uncertainty hangs over businesses.

Marion County officials have asked for permission to allow a phased opening beginning on Friday, May 15, but a recent surge in cases makes that unlikely. But when approval does come, restaurants and bars will open at half capacity and barbershops and salons will work under tight restrictions.

The governor did authorize closed retailers across the state to open up on Friday, including everything from furniture stores to jewelers.

Nicole Miller, public information officer for Salem’s Urban Development Department, said in an email that the city is relying on direction from the governor. Officials from the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce couldn’t be reached for comment.

Patrick O’Connor, regional economist for the Oregon Employment Department, said in an email that the department hasn’t looked into challenges facing the local labor market. He said public health guidelines will drive the economy’s reopening and the biggest initial challenge will be meeting industry-specific guidelines set by the Oregon Health Authority.

“I have more questions than answers,” he said.

While some businesses will be able to meet public health guidelines, they may make it difficult to stay profitable, said O’Connor. Guidelines from the governor’s office call for reduced seating in bars and restaurants. O’Connor said these establishments might have a hard time turning a profit with such limits.

Riley Vannoy and Raymond Pelas, the co-owners of Noble Wave, said in an email that the restrictions hit right after their downtown Salem restaurant had its best months of sales and was about to start selling its own beer. While the restaurant, which specializes in southern food, reworked its operations for to-go orders, it still took a 50% hit, they said.

While they were reluctant to comment on what the new rules will mean for Noble Wave, they expect another transition.

“We’ll continue to do our best to make lemonade out of whatever lemons we’re thrown,” they said.

As the state’s economy reopens, restaurants and other businesses will need gloves, gowns, masks and other personal protective equipment that’s been in high demand.

Erik Andersson, president of the Strategic Economic Development Corp., sees a possible opportunity. He said that his organization is working with local manufacturers that could reorient their operations to produce such goods. That would be similar to how Salem-based WaterShed began manufacturing hospital gowns. 

“We think there is going to be a long-term demand,” he said.

But he said that maintaining social distancing requirements in manufacturing environments will be difficult and could cut into capacity.

A government-funded nonprofit, Willamette Workforce Partnership identifies the employment needs of local employers and helps connect them to job-seekers through training.

Last month, the county contracted with the partnership to distribute $200,000 in grants to small businesses. After quickly running out of money, the county made another $800,000 available.

But Parker-Llerenas said there’s a big question over how the partnership will operate.

Many educational programs are moving to online only. Parker-Llerenas said it’s unclear what that will mean for someone training for a job in manufacturing or welding.

“If you are going to do career technical education, there is an element that just has to be hands-on,” she said. “The whole concept of workforce training is shifting.”

People receiving unemployment benefits now get an extra $600, which might be a disincentive to return to work. Parker-Llerenas said that legally workers have to return to work if offered a job. But if some don’t feel safe, they might not.

She said her group recently received $445,000 in disaster relief and she’s seeking guidance on how the money can be used. She said her group is considering directing it for emergency food aid or hiring contact tracers. Such workers question those infected with COVID-19 about other people they have been in contact, considered by health officials to slow the spread of the disease.

Jim Vu, treasurer and one of the founders of the Salem Main Street Association, said Salem businesses will also face questions over liability if employees contract COVID-19.

He said some companies are getting Paycheck Protection Programs, a new federal program that offers companies forgivable loans to keep or rehire employees. But he said many businesses have less work. That means some employees will be paid to do nothing while others do work, creating a source of friction, he said.

“That’s an HR issue right there in itself,” he said.

He said that downtown businesses are in survival mode.

“You have to not only survive but thrive,” he added.

Despite the uncertainty, there’s still optimism.

Hazel Patton, interim executive director of the Salem Main Street Association, said that her group is already planning events such as its First Wednesday pop-up market, on Your Feet Friday scavenger hunts and others. She’s just not sure when they’ll happen.

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

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