Marion County building in downtown Salem (Caleb Wolf/Special to Salem Reporter)

A Salem business that has flouted state Covid regulations has been awarded a grant by Marion County aimed at helping companies weather the pandemic.

Marion County still hasn’t sent out its checks because of a technical glitch. But Courthouse Club Fitness, which has received two citations for refusing to comply with the governor’s order, is slated to be one of 932 businesses to receive $3,700 from Marion County under the grant program.

In response to spiking Covid transmissions, Gov. Kate Brown announced a two-week set of restrictions on businesses that closed gyms and limited restaurants to takeout and delivery beginning Nov. 18. Brown also made available $55 million to help businesses, particularly bars and restaurants, stay afloat while the regulations were in effect. County governments were tasked with directing the money to businesses in the form of grants.

Following the governor’s order in November, Courthouse took to Facebook to announce it couldn’t survive another shutdown and would be staying open. In November, Courthouse was given a $90,000 citation from the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration for staying open, which it has appealed. After continuing to stay open, the company received another $126,749 citation in January.

Marion County’s grant program requires businesses to be in compliance with all state, local and federal regulations.

County spokeswoman Jolene Kelley said in an email that all businesses were required to attest that they met the grant criteria at the time of the application.

When reached by phone, John Miller, the president of Courthouse, said he was traveling and declined to comment on whether his business violated the county’s grant requirement.

“I’ll look into that,” he said.

Colm Willis, chair of the Marion County Board Of Commissioners, said he couldn’t comment directly on whether Courthouse violated the county’s grant requirement. He pointed out that Courthouse has legal counsel and is appealing the citation. Additionally, Willis further pointed out that Courthouse was found to otherwise be in compliance with public health guidelines at its gyms and that no case of Covid has been linked to the business. 

“I’ve been very clear to business owners that everyone has to make their own decisions and protect their employees in this very challenging environment,” he said. 

Polk County has awarded $15,000 to Cafe 22 West, located at 5172 Salem Dallas Hwy N.W., in west Salem. In August, the restaurant was fined $14,000 by the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration for not following masking and social distancing regulations.

To be eligible for the grants, Polk County also required businesses to be in compliance with state, local and federal regulations.

When asked about the fine, Polk County Administrator Greg Hansen said that the business is currently in good standing with regulations and is eligible for the grant.

Aaron Corvin, spokesman for the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said Cafe 22 West has corrected the violations.

While Marion County opted to give each business the same grant amount, Polk County evaluated each application and awarded varying amounts depending on their circumstances. Polk County distributed its $1.25 million in grants to 172 businesses that ranged from $1,500 to $20,000.

Hansen said business owners have been grateful for the money, some calling the county in tears.

But Marion County businesses are still waiting for their checks.

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

Delayed grants

As he was preparing to open Heroes Tap House on Thursday in south Salem, Donovan Wallace said he still hasn’t received his $3,700 check from Marion County.

“We’re still behind from the last shutdown,” said Wallace, who expects to use the money to pay down bills.  

While Marion County swiftly approved checks for 932 businesses in December, they’ll have to wait a little longer because of a hiccup with a county contractor. 

Earlier in the year, the county had been in talks with Public Partnerships, LLC to facilitate a refund of environmental health fees, which range from a few hundred dollars to $1,500, to local businesses as a way of stimulating the local economy, said Kelley.

When Marion County received $3.5 million from the state for the grant program, the county switched course and instead contracted with the company to distribute the grants.

Willis said the county kept its focus on helping bars, restaurants and other businesses in the county's leisure and hospitality industry, most of which already had paid environmental health fees. Those businesses also included campgrounds and pools. Courthouse is listed as a “pool” in county documents.

“It was really important to the board to give a meaningful amount that could cover a month's rent cover utilities to help the business get through if possible,” she said.

However, distributing the grants was more complicated than expected and the company ran into technical difficulties in uploading information from applications businesses submitted for the grants.

Because the grant money came from the federal pandemic relief funds, counties had to spend the money before the end of 2020. But late last year, Congress approved a second pandemic relief package that extended the timeline to spend money from the first package. Now, the checks will hit the mail no later than Feb. 12, Kelley said.

“We’ve heard that $3,700 with a small business will go a long way,” said Kelley. “There is probably some frustration, but nobody is turning them down.”

About half of the businesses that will receive the grants are restaurants or bars, which have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. Also included are some campgrounds, pools and barbers. A few nonprofits received grants as well including the Salem Art Association and the Salem Multicultural Institute.

Dee Brown, the owner of Brown’s Town Lounge located at 145 Liberty St. N.E., said in a Facebook message that if the money had come sooner they would have used some of it for Valentine’s Day promotion.

“We could all use something special for that this year, and spread some love!” she said.

Now, she said the bar will use part of the money to pay state taxes and fees for its lottery machines, which will be due about the time the grant comes in.

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

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