Signs in the window of Brown's Towne Restaurant and Lounge on Wednesday, September 30. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

After doing everything he’s supposed to for months, John McGrath, the owner of McGrath’s Fish House, said he feels singled out.

When the state eased Covid restrictions this spring, he made sure to implement new safety requirements to prevent the spread of the disease at the three Oregon locations of his restaurant company.

That meant installing Plexiglass between booths, requiring masks, seating diners at every other table and customers waiting in their cars to be seated because of limited capacity.

“It’s a very, very safe environment,” said McGrath.

While the situation wasn’t ideal, McGrath said he made it work and avoided laying off staff with the help of a federal pandemic relief program. 

But McGrath said he’s worried about the future of his restaurant, which includes a Salem location at 3805 Center St. N.E.

Beginning Wednesday, Nov. 11, Gov. Kate Brown imposed new two-week restrictions in nine counties, including Marion County, in response to record daily counts of Covid. Her order limits the number of people that can be inside gyms, museums and restaurants. It spells new difficulties for the state’s food service industry just as it was recovering from the pandemic’s initial shock.

Restaurants in Salem — including Salem Ale Works and The Portland Press — and elsewhere closed after seeing income drop. Others stayed open by adapting their business models and the industry has added back jobs after losing more than half its workers.

McGrath said that before the pandemic his dining rooms could hold about 250 people and that was reduced to 100 after reopening.

The new restrictions only allow parties of no more than six to be seated together and cut restaurant capacity to 50 - a number McGrath said includes staff.

He said he’ll have to lay off about 70 of his roughly 190 employees. In the meantime, he said that he still has rent, utilities and other expenses.

“Honestly, it scares me because our revenues are going to be cut back and everyone wants their money,” he said.

The Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association has criticized the new restrictions as running contrary to the governor’s data-based approach to reopening the economy.

In a statement, the association said only two food service companies were identified as having Covid outbreaks out of 75 workplaces included in a report issued last week by the Oregon Health Authority. The association said the new restrictions are “arbitrary” and unfairly burdened restaurants when public health officials have attributed the rise in transmissions to small, private gatherings.

“These new restrictions do not follow the data available to us,” Jason Brandt, the association president and CEO said in a statement. “This action will directly result in more Oregonians interacting in uncontrolled, private environments as opposed to restaurants with controlled, regulated environments.”

According to an analysis of Oregon Health Authority data by the Oregon AFL-CIO, food service and drinking establishments account for 3% of all workplace outbreaks. Workplaces classified as public administration make up the most at 17.7% followed by food and beverage manufacturing at 16.3%.

The most recent data for Marion County shows that long-term care facilities have been the biggest source of outbreaks at 34.2%, followed by prisons at 18% and food processing at 14%. Restaurants accounted for 2.7%.

Businesses generally haven’t been identified as a key source of Covid infections and Brown has said that a “vast majority” of them are complying with the restrictions.

Charles Boyle, Brown’s spokesman, said in an email that the new restrictions are intended to work alongside the governor’s request that Oregonians limit their social interactions and keep group gatherings to six.

“Covid-19 health and safety measures mitigate the risk of spread. They do not eliminate it,” he said. “Limiting the number of different people that Oregonians come into contact with will help to lower transmission rates.”

While restaurants haven’t been identified as a source of outbreaks, information on where Oregonians have picked up the virus is incomplete. To control the spread of the virus, public health officials have used contact tracing to determine where cases originate. But the strategy has had limited success.

The Oregon Health Authority has set a goal of having no more than 30% of cases coming from an unknown source. But the authority has struggled to meet that goal. Facing a record number of cases, 80% of a record number of cases statewide couldn’t be traced as of Nov. 3.

In September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a study that found people who went out to eat were more likely to contract Covid. Another study by researchers at Stanford and Northwestern universities found that going to restaurants increased the risk of catching the disease.

Even without the new state restrictions, winter is expected to be a difficult time for restaurants. The city of Salem closed streets during the summer to allow restaurants to expand their seating outside where the virus is less likely to spread. Earlier this week, Salem City Council set aside $200,000 for grants to help restaurants buy tents or coverings for the winter to continue the outside dining.

Tiffany Bulgin, manager of Isaac's Coffee, Wine & Dessert, said that the new restrictions don’t have much bearing on her business. She only seats four to a table and the capacity is under 50. But she said she worries about the perception despite all the safety precautions restaurants are taking.

“It’s negative for anyone who operates a restaurant,” she said. 

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

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