LA GRANDE — Kate Schaffner’s excitement of being back in business could probably speak for all business owners in northeast Oregon who are reopening their doors.
The owner of Blue Mountain Barbers, along with four additional barbers who work as independent contractors in her La Grande shop, was able to resume seeing customers Friday after nearly eight weeks of not operating due to stay-home orders and the closure of businesses deemed nonessential in the wake of the coronavirus.
“(It’s) a necessity,” she said of going back to work, “and I think by nature, people who work in the business need people. We built ongoing relationships, and we worry about them a lot.”
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced Thursday morning that most Oregon counties will be able to enter into a phased approach for reopening, leaving behind the limits on activities she put in place in March with an executive order to fight the spread of COVID-19.
By the end of Thursday, 31 of 36 counties received approval for partial reopening. All counties east of the Cascade Mountains can enter Phase 1, as can southern Oregon counties. In the Willamette Valley, the populous counties of Lane, Linn and Benton also received permission to reopen. Businesses will have to follow the reopening requirements the Oregon Health Authority established.
For Schaffner and Blue Mountain Barbers, this means keeping their work stations at least 6 feet apart, using new capes for each customer and cleaning the stations in between clients, which she said will take about 10 minutes each.
“We’re going to take turns cleaning as we get through people,” she said. “One person will be assigned to do extra cleaning. With all of us there, it’ll be more efficient.”
The reopening began the same morning as the Center for Human Development Inc., Union County’s public health authority, announced the county’s fifth case of COVID-19. Later Friday, Oregon Health Authority confirmed a second case in Wallowa County.
The Union County case was a contact to a confirmed case, according to the center’s press release, and the center is working to find out who else may have been in close contact with the person and isolate them. Close contact, according to the center, is anyone within 6 feet of an individual with the virus for more than 15 minutes.
Elizabeth Sieders, communicable disease nurse at the center, said in the press release with reopening comes the anticipation of “a growing number of people identified as contacts to a confirmed case.”
Shop owners, employees endure tough times
Schaffner said it has been a challenge since her shop closed in late March.
“We have literally gone without income since March 23,” she said. “It’s been tough, and we’ve been watching and waiting and talking to each other to find out what the governor is saying, what’s happening — it’s been interesting.”
As independent contractors, they were unable to immediately file for unemployment, and she could not get a Paycheck Protection Program loan from the federal government.
“I fell in a gray area because they are not employees,” Schaffner explained.
She has been working to prepare the shop for reopening and has stocked up on supplies, including disposable capes, Barbicide — a disinfectant used in barber shops and salons — bleach and alcohol wipes.
She also has kept in touch with customers who after two months without a trim are likely in need of a haircut, which provided some levity during the challenging time.
“We’ve asked them to post pictures to keep everyone entertained,” Schaffner said. “Oh my gosh, it’s funny.”
The shop will see customers on a drop-by basis, rather than by appointment, and will ask clients to sign in at the door, then either wait in their cars or on the porch until they can come in.
Jenny Coles also reopened her doors Friday, and the owner of Jenesis Salon, like Schaffner, is anxious to resume work after nearly two months away. But Coles also expressed some worry about restarting business in the world of COVID-19.
“It’s kind of bittersweet honestly,” she said. “I want to get back to work, want to take care of my clients (and) need to make money. But at the same time it’s kind of scary to be a guinea pig of Phase 1. (We were) kind of mentally prepared to go into Phase 2 and all of a sudden we are (part) of Phase 1.”
Coles gathered a group in her salon to pray about any fears before she reopened the doors for business early Friday afternoon.
She later called the reopening another new beginning for her, which is perhaps fitting given her salon name is the same as the first book in the Bible with just a letter change.
Coles has four other independent contractors at her salon, and no one was able to apply for unemployment until just two weeks ago.
She also elected not to apply for a PPP loan.
“I decided to just hang on by my fingernails and take it a day at a time,” she said.
Jenesis Salon will have a different look than the last time customers entered it, with all the stations socially distanced.
“I’ve completely revamped my salon,” she said. “It’s not as much a reflection of me as it was before. I’ve always joked that my salon is an image of myself.”
Coles will be taking clients by appointment only and require customers to wear masks — she has masks in the salon if customers don’t have one. And like other service-based businesses, Jenesis Salon will have to screen customers for COVID-19 symptoms. Customers will be asked to answer a questionnaire before they are brought in for their appointment, and they will have their temperatures taken.
“I think everybody wants to stay safe,” she said.
An additional change for the salon — where Coles also is a nail technician — is customers who would as a rule get their nails done after a haircut won’t be able to, but will instead have to have the appointments on separate days. And Coles will offer what she called “drive-by coloring” for customers who might have concerns, and will split color and cut appointments, if a client desires.
“I can put their base color on for them, and then they can go shampoo it out themselves,” she said of the coloring option. “We can break up color and cuts — do a color and then reschedule for a cut.”
Eateries eager for patrons
Restaurants and other dining venues will need to follow the Oregon Health Authority’s guidelines, including keeping occupancy at 50% capacity, maintaining 6 feet of distance between tables, restricting parties to 10 people or fewer, and closing on-site consumption of food and drink by 10 p.m. Self-serve food is a no-go, and restaurant staff members have to wear masks.
Denny’s on Island Avenue, La Grande, only in the last week or so reopened to do takeout after doing it early in the outbreak. It is now open to serve customers in the restaurant for the first time since March.
“We’re pretty excited just to get back to normal, hopefully, and get back to business,” said Lori Crites, general manager. “Start serving the public, getting people out, hoping it doesn’t come back. It’s exciting to see.”
Distancing obviously will be the key factor for Denny’s, and Crites said the restaurant is cutting down on seating and making other changes.
“We’ll be doing every other booth, and we’ll do a limited menu,” she said. “We’re doing disposable menus. It’ll change a few things, but luckily our restaurant’s large. We’ll be able to fit in quite a few people.”
Staff will be wearing masks, per the Phase 1 requirements, but customers will not have to. And instead of operating 24 hours a day, Denny’s now will be open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Crites said Thursday before the reopening she was uncertain of what the restaurant would see in the way of customers, though there appears to be an interest in patrons getting back into a booth.
“We are kind of in unknown territory,” she said. “We’ve had some real positive feedback. People are excited to come and sit down at a restaurant.”
Matt Scarfo, owner of Benchwarmers Pub & Grill and the Longbranch Bar & Eats, both in La Grande, said Thursday he was happy to learn he would be able to open his restaurants.
“It will be great to be back up and running,” said Scarfo, a member of the Union County Board of Commissioners.
Scarfo said he would like to see tables closer than 6 feet apart if there were plexiglass partitions between them to protect people from exposure to the sneezes and coughs from other diners. He said operating a restaurant will be harder because of the new rules for preventing the transmission of COVID-19.
“It is going to be more work,” Scarfo said.
He also said he wants to do everything possible to keep his customers and employees safe, and he credited the state with making positive strides overall.
“It will be a very different world going forward. Anything in the direction of normal is good,” he said.
Fred Bell Jr., the owner of La Grande’s Short Stop Xtreme with his wife, Tara, said reopening is posing a number of challenges related to social distancing. The establishment includes a Skippers restaurant and a yogurt shop, both of which closed for nine weeks but provided takeout. Bell noted his restaurant will have only a third as many tables as it did before.
“Our space will be extremely limited,” he said.
On the plus side, Bell said the Short Stop will continue to have six outdoor tables after moving them to different locations to accommodate social distancing rules. He also is encouraging customers to be patient as the Short Stop adjusts to social distancing rules.
“They need to understand that we are doing everything we can to keep our customers and employees safe,” he said.
Mamacita’s International Grill, a popular restaurant on Fourth Street in downtown La Grande, will reopen to dine-in seating Tuesday. The establishment has been offering a limited menu for takeout during reduced hours. Mamacita’s will operate Tuesday through Saturday, 4:30-8:30 p.m. for in-person dining and continued takeout.
“We want to fully reopen in order to further support both the community that has supported us during this difficult time and also to support our employees who have a passion for the restaurant and the community,” said Connor Bracken, Mamacita’s assistant manager. “We try to source our ingredients locally whenever we can. By reopening we can provide more business for the local ranchers and farmers who have supported us throughout the years.”
Ron Bruce, the owner of Bud Jackson’s Eatery and Taps, La Grande, said he is delighted his restaurant, which has been providing takeout service, can now operate closer to normal. He also said he is pleased to have his full staff back.
“It is exciting to have them back. We have awesome people,” the restaurant owner said.
Bruce said during the shutdown he made some renovations in the restaurant.“We gave it a little facelift,” he said.
Retail gets rules, too
Retail stores did not have to wait for the OK to reopen, but like their food service counterparts, stores have to regulate the number of patrons to ensure proper distancing. Employees will have to wear masks and follow strict sanitation rules. The state also recommends retail businesses use plastic or glass barriers, but those are not a requirement.
Tim Osterloh, the owner of Clank-Tronix, a La Grande electronics store, said he is changing how his shop operates to better protect others from COVID-19.
The business will take orders and offer curbside pickup, said Osterloh, whose store is within The Archives, a used bookstore his father, Walter Osterloh, owns. Tim Osterloh helps his father and said he will be taking orders for the bookstore as well.
He is in the process of barcoding the inventory in Clank-Tronix and The Archives so he will be able to operate with greater efficiency. He also is taking additional precautions, such as handling on his own any boxes of used books the store receives and isolating those boxes for three days before wiping them down with disinfectant.
“We are going to be very, very careful,” he said.
The nonprofit thrift store Community Kindness of Eastern Oregon, La Grande, announced May 28 as its first day back in businesses. Co-owner Liz Meyer said she is taking extra steps to sanitize donations, including spraying them down with cleaners, steaming clothing and keeping new donations separate for several days before selling items to make sure they won’t present a danger to anyone.
“I am doing all these extra steps because it is what our community deserves,” Meyer said.
Clothing that customers try on will be cleaned before being returned to the racks, and all employees and volunteers will wear gloves and masks.
Community Kindness also will have a plastic barrier at the checkout counter and operate only Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. for a couple of weeks. If the situation remains stable, normal business hours may resume.
“We will monitor conditions locally and if needed will close again,” Meyer said. “One of our main objectives is to keep everyone safe.”
Alpine Archery and Fly, La Grande, remained open for shopping and appointments. However, the business closed its shooting range to ensure customer safety. Owner John Appleton said the store was operational as of Friday morning, including reopening the range.
“We are absolutely excited to reopen,” Appleton said. “It brings people down here, gives them a chance to socialize. With the rain and people being out of work it gives them something to do and gives an opportunity to work with their equipment.”
The range will be open only for recreational use. Phase 1 still prohibits classes in a group setting. Appleton said he hopes this phase of reopening will bring in some of the walk-in traffic that stopped due to the stay-home order.
Appleton also used the past several weeks without heavy foot traffic to improve his store with a carpet to present a cleaner look to the entry.
Some businesses, meanwhile, did not open on the first day available as they are still working out the details. Grande Ronde Fitness Club will open Monday after setting how it will stay compliant with Phase 1 regulations.
Jim Whitbeck, owner of Blue Mountain Outfitters, is also finalizing details before he reopens his shop.
“We are very excited to reopen, but also cautious,” said Whitbeck, who expects this weekend to finalize when he will reopen. “We can’t wait to get back to work, but the safety of our staff and customers is our first priority.”
The business has been doing delivery and online sales, but Whitbeck said the store itself “feels frozen in time, not just because the snow goggles are still out on sale but also because our business thrives on the energy of our staff and customers.”
Community bears onus to stay open
Carrie Brogoitti of the Center for Human Development is the public health administrator for Union County. She said the county is in a good position to reopen, with enough resources to maintain contact tracing and response should the reopening lead to a spike in cases.
While the center’s work to educate and inform the public about issues related to COVID-19 won’t be different, she said the reopening plan means business owners and employees will be taking on efforts as well.
“It will likely be a different experience because we are asking businesses to put mitigation in place,” Brogoitti said.
Counties will remain in Phase 1 for 21 days. While the number of cases of COVID-19 could increase as more people interact, according to Brogoitti, the hope is mitigating factors and guidelines will prevent the spread from occurring at an overwhelming rate.
Reopening could come to a halt if Union County reaches certain thresholds: eight positive cases per week, five hospitalizations, two people on ventilators and 40% capacity at surrounding area hospitals.
Union County meets the state’s requirements through having a limited number of positive and active cases as well as the ability to provide contact tracing through the Center for Human Development and to test for the coronavirus through Grande Ronde Hospital and supporting facilities. Additionally, the hospital has maintained a 14-day supply of personal protective equipment.
Brogoitti said it will be up to county residents to ensure a successful reopening.
“What we need now,” Brogoitti said, “is for the community to help us stay open.”
Editor's note: The Observer updated this article to reflect Ron Bruce is the owner of Bud Jackson’s Eatery and Taps. The Observer regrets the error.