Food & Drinks

With No Clear Vaccination Plan, Portland Restaurant Workers Are Uneasy About Indoor Dining

On February 9, Gov. Kate Brown announced that risk levels for COVID-19 in Multnomah, Clackamas, and Washington counties were low enough that restaurants would be permitted to serve a limited number of diners indoors this week. Indoor dining rooms closed in November, when infection rates were triple that of 2020’s summer peak; since then, bars and restaurants across Portland have worked to design winter-friendly patio seating, as well as takeout and delivery options, including cocktails. But starting Friday, February 12, dining rooms may reopen with seating limited to 25 percent of maximum capacity or 50 diners, whichever number is lower.

The sudden news was met with a variety of responses from those in the service industry; restaurant and bar owners as well as workers expressed everything from excitement about returning to work to dismay at the thought of allowing customers to return indoors. Some front-of-house workers described the difficulties in enforcing mask wearing and other safety precautions, while others shared fears and concerns about general increased exposure, especially with new, more infectious variants of the virus appearing in Oregon. And even with social distancing and mask wearing while face-to-face with diners, studies have suggested that no amount of indoor dining is safe.

Throughout the local restaurant industry, even among industry groups and restaurant owners reopening dining rooms this weekend, owners worry about welcoming diners indoors while restaurant workers remain unvaccinated. Currently, only seniors over 80 years old, incarcerated Oregonians, health care workers, and teachers can get vaccinated in Oregon; the state has yet to identify when restaurant workers would be able to receive COVID-19 vaccines. At this point, the state estimates that Oregonians over 65 will be able to receive the vaccine on March 1, and it’s still unclear whether restaurant workers will be considered “critical workers,” who will be eligible for vaccinations after those seniors, by the state’s designation.

This lack of clarity has inspired some restaurant workers to campaign on social media to be prioritized for the next round of coronavirus vaccines. The combination of delayed aid for restaurant workers, both financial and related to the vaccine, has left many chefs and restaurant workers frustrated with the state. “They literally do not give a fuck about the people that work in restaurants,” says Han Hwang, owner of Korean food cart Kim Jong Grillin’. “Without any of us getting the vaccine, what the fuck is the difference between last week and the 12th of February?”

For restaurant workers who feel uncomfortable with the Friday opening, concerns center on the fact that people see vaccinations and reopening of indoor dining as a sign that the threat of the pandemic has been alleviated. “Our current COVID case numbers are still twice as high as this past summer’s COVID cases,” said one bartender who wished to remain anonymous for fear of professional retribution. “I can have some hope in the fact that vaccines are rolling out, but just because you’re vaccinated doesn’t mean you aren’t a carrier. Those carriers are walking around feeling loose when the majority of the food and beverage industry still haven’t gotten the vaccines.”

In many cases, restaurant workers have become the main enforcers of COVID-19 safety protocols. Back in the summer of 2020, when onsite dining first reopened, Portland restaurant workers and bartenders witnessed and interacted with diners who regularly forgot or ignored state guidelines for mask-wearing and social distancing. The idea of reopening again and taking on that role has some restaurant workers dreading the premise of returning to indoor dining — especially unvaccinated. “We don’t even have a date or even an idea of when we’re going to get vaccinated,” says Adriana Garnica Alvarez, bar director for República, a new Mexican restaurant in the Pearl’s Ecotrust building. Garnica Alvarez has been working to serve takeout or in-person meals since before she started at República, and expressed frustration with how some customers behave. “We are on the frontline, we’ve had a year to use masks, and people still don’t know how to keep them up over their nose.”

With concerns coming from many workers, a large number of Portland restaurants have already announced that they would not reopen for indoor dining. Bars like Aloha’s 649, St Johns’ Leisure Public House, and Foster-Powell’s 5 & Dime will remain closed for indoor dining for the time being, as well restaurants like lauded Thai spot Eem and pizzeria Char. None of these restaurants are particularly small, and most could accommodate a decent number of guests. But even with the possibility of a snowstorm, the owners are choosing to only offer takeout and outdoor dining.

Nevertheless, some restaurants are moving toward indoor seating. Quaintrelle, a dark and normally intimate restaurant on Mississippi Avenue, will open its indoor dining room in time for Valentine’s Day (weather permitting), with around six tables in the double-decker space; the restaurant will also continue serving customers on its patio. For bar manager Camille Cavan, the choice to reopen for indoor dining is an understandable but fraught one. She doesn’t fault business owners for wanting to keep their restaurants open and their workers employed, but resents that the state is allowing diners to eat inside without developing what she calls a “foundation” for restaurants and their workers: “no package from the government, no health insurance, no hazard pay, nothing to provide ownership or management help for if [their] workers get sick,” she says. “Bottom line: if the state is going to look at us like essential workers, they need to treat us like essential workers.”

The hesitation to return to indoor dining is not universal, though, even among workers. For some of those who have been unemployed since Brown closed indoor dining in November, a return to work is desperately needed. “I haven’t been able to pay my rent since last June, I haven’t been able to go to my gym, to take the kids anywhere fun besides the park. I’m really ready to open up a little bit,” says bartender Amy Snyder. A single mother of two, Snyder works as a bartender at strip clubs Lucky Devil Lounge and Kit Kat Club, both of which plan to reopen on Friday after being completely closed since November. Snyder supplemented her unemployment with a mask-making company at home, but sales died off over the last few months. “I’m shocked … hearing from people who are hesitant. All my friends are stoked — we cannot wait,” she says about returning to bartending.

Cliff’s, a neighborhood tavern on NE Russell Street, will open for some limited indoor seating as well, says co-owner Sierra Kirk. She and her husband currently operate the bar as a skeleton crew with just two other occasional workers. Being able to run the bar with her husband, without having to put multiple employees at risk, helped aid in their decision to open the indoor dining room. “Obviously, it’s scary, it’s an unknown thing, but I feel more comfortable about it because I’m in charge of the protocols,” she says. “if something is making me uncomfortable, I can immediately address it.” Like many others, Kirk also stresses the dire need for vaccinations for workers.

Other workers were less than thrilled, but resigned to return to work. “I’ll deal with it, as I need the money. But I’ll probably be more anxious,” says a barista who wished to remain anonymous. “I’m not looking forward to all the people who will inevitably want to wander maskless around the cafe.”

Beyond the threat of COVID-19 infections, there’s also the risk to business owners and workers who may be forced to close or laid off once again. In November, COVID-19 rates spiked enough that Gov. Brown temporarily closed all restaurants, including outdoor dining, only to reverse some of that decision weeks later. Naomi Pomeroy, owner of cocktail lounge Expatriate and meal service Ripe, has been a vocal advocate for the industry since the pandemic began, even after closing her seminal restaurant Beast. “There are people who have been waiting for this moment, they’re hanging on by a goddamn thread, but it’s unfair to have this toggling back and forth,” she says. “We’ve been asked to open and close so many times.” Only time will tell if restaurants will be forced to shut down their dining rooms again.



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