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Restaurants say $55 million not enough to prevent closures

Restaurant and other business organizations say the $55 million promised by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown for pandemic relief is a good first step, but not nearly enough to prevent widespread closures caused by a temporary “freeze” to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The state’s two-week freeze on indoor and outdoor dining, indoor exercise and entertainment activities — and social gatherings of more than six unrelated people — took effect Wednesday. It will last for four weeks in Multnomah County and possibly the rest of the Portland region.

The day before the freeze started, Brown’s office announced the federal CARES funds will be prioritized for businesses in the hospitality industry, those hurt by the freeze order, small businesses, and those from Black, Native American and other historically disadvantaged communities. It will be distributed by the counties on a population basis.

“Our iconic main street businesses have sacrificed too much already in this pandemic,” Brown said.

“Our industry applauds the decision by Gov. Brown to create a $55 million relief fund with an emphasis on supporting hospitality businesses. The support represents a starting point for much needed federal action to assist Oregon’s restaurants and hotels in fighting through the upcoming months,” said Jason Brandt, president and CEO of the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association, who had previously called for the Oregon Legislature to create a $75 million relief fund.

“We were very happy to see Gov. Brown set up this fund and appreciate that she is prioritizing the businesses that have been hardest hit by the new closures,” said Sandra McDonough, president and CEO of Oregon Business & Industry, whose organization opposed the freeze before it was announced. “We remain very concerned about the devastating impact the closures will have on small businesses across our state. Many may not survive this latest blow. While this fund won’t offset all of the inevitable business losses, it will help many.”

“It’s a start,” said Katy Connors, chair of the Independent Restaurant Alliance of Oregon, “but it will not go a long way with all the debt that’s already been created by the crisis and the shutdowns that are occurring,” The alliance is pushing for a special session of the Oregon Legislature in December to provide more relief and to legalize the sale of cocktails to go.

On Wednesday, Speaker of the House Tina Kotek also called for a December special session of the Legislature.

Connors said Brown’s ban on outdoor dining is especially unfortunate because many restaurant and bar owners recently have spent tens of thousands of dollars on tents, heaters and other equipment to cope with the wet weather. She noted that Washington Gov. Jay Inslee allowed outdoor dining to continue when he banned indoor dining earlier this week.

Brandt, McDonough and Connors all said that people not taking precautions at social gatherings are causing COVID-19 cases to spike in Oregon, not restaurants and bars.