Struggling Portland Restaurateurs Spent Thousands to Prepare for Winter — Now They’re Looking at Empty Seats

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Eric Nelson, the co-owner of Eem, gave a cut-and-dry forecast for the Oregon restaurant industry on Wednesday: “We’re all fucked.” Nelson recently installed covered patios around the celebrated Thai barbecue restaurant, with individual dining cabanas for customers, built-in ventilation to make sure each dining stall still had air flow, and heaters at each table. Starting November 18, those cabanas will sit empty.

Today, Gov. Kate Brown announced that restaurants and bars statewide will have to close for all dine-in service, including outdoor or patio dining. This pause starts next Wednesday and is intended to last for at least two weeks, but it could extend further; Brown says the restrictions will stay in place in Multnomah County for at least four weeks, re-evaluating based on the number of cases in the county.

The decision comes after restaurant and bar owners spent the past weeks and months investing in technology and structures meant to create safe onsite dining, be it outdoor patios with individual heaters or indoor air-scrubbers and HVAC systems. Many of those upgrades cost thousands of dollars, as reported by more than a dozen restaurant and bar owners across the city; now, many restaurant owners counting on the return of business are facing another nosedive. Without government aid, those business owners say the future looks dire.

Back in June, Portland-area restaurants reopened for onsite dining after a three-month shutdown, with the city’s Healthy Business permits allowing restaurants to build outdoor dining rooms in parking lots and sidewalks, some jutting out into Portland streets. But the shadow of Oregon’s famously long rainy season hung over many business owners, who began constructing full covered patios with heaters, electricity, and barriers between tables, expecting Portland diners to avoid indoor seating. Restaurant owners have reported a wide range of costs to build those patios, from as low as $ 1,000 to closer to $ 15,000.

Lyf Gildersleeve, the owner of Flying Fish Seafood, spent $ 10,000 on his tent, with heaters, plants, lights, and a fish mural painted by a local artist. He had planned to add a few indoor tables before winter, but now, he’s unsure of what’s next. “Since [Flying Fish] was a fish market first for eight years, the business basically shifted back to the fish market. My sales have been okay, because people were buying fish to cook at home,” he says. “I’m going to be fine… I’m really concerned about the fragility of everyone else.”

Even those who simply lease tents are spending thousands each month on upkeep and rental fees. Nicolle Dirks, the co-owner of vegan South American restaurant Epif, says the cost of renting the outdoor tent is $ 1,300 each month, which she splits with her neighbor, Montelupo Italian Market; the tent was an additional $ 1,800 to install. The two businesses decided to clear out the tent on Wednesday, to accommodate the new restrictions. But Dirks is supportive of the onsite dining pause, and feels more prepared for a switch to takeout and delivery thanks to the forced pivot back in March. “Everybody else’s lives are a little more important than us making money,” Dirks says. “If the government can support us, the health of the greater population is more important.”

Double Dragon general manager Daniel Casto says the Southeast Portland bar has spent $ 15,000 on its massive, forthcoming covered patio; the finished product will involve heaters, fire pits, movie projectors, and disco balls. Even though no one will be able to use the patio for at least the next month, the team is racing to finish it. “I don’t really see any way that we’re going to have people inside before April,” he says. “We’re halfway done with it, what else are we going to do?”

Casto believes that the government’s lack of financial support for bars and restaurant owners is putting them in an impossible position. “The fact that there has been no meaningful industry specific support from the state or federal government is an absolute disaster,” he said. “We know that social gatherings in confined spaces are how this virus spreads. Unfortunately, no matter how many air scrubbers you buy, that’s what restaurants are… Without that support, owners will be forced to choose between risking people’s lives and watching their businesses die.”

Restaurateur Mariah Pisha-Duffly feels similarly. She has spent thousands of dollars on the two restaurants she owns with husband Thomas Pisha-Duffly, from the individual dining huts at Gado Gado to the colorful tent at Oma’s Takeaway. After nearly a year of hopping between takeout and delivery and figuring out a socially distanced service model, Mariah Pisha-Duffly is exhausted. “People keep going, ‘Patios are going to save us, cocktails to go will save us, takeout will save us.’ None of them are risk-free, all of them are a ton of work,” she says. “Anything short of some form of aid for business owners and individuals doesn’t seem like enough.”

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