Ghost town in a shutdown
Friday morning, Randy Lehman and his wife, Gloria, left their Prospect home and drove north to Union Creek for breakfast. The whole time they sat in Beckie’s Cafe, him eating French toast and her clam chowder, only one other table filled, with two customers.
Back at their own business, Prospect Pizza, Lehman sat facing his own empty dining room.
“Winter is slow anyway,” he said, “but in some ways it kinda amplifies it.”
“It” is the partial government shutdown, which came to an unceremonious halt during day 35, with President Donald Trump and Congress reaching a temporary agreement Friday that should deliver back pay to furloughed or essential federal employees. During those five weeks, court cases stood frozen, TSA agents and National Weather Service employees worked hundreds of hours without pay, and national parks, including Crater Lake National Park, remained closed and unattended.
For businesses situated along Highway 62, the main access to Crater Lake, the national park’s inaccessibility sent ripples into their livelihoods.
Union Creek Resort and Beckie’s Cafe, which are about 20 miles from Crater Lake’s Steel Visitor Center, felt some of the worst loss, which resulted in reduced hours and temporary furloughs of their own staff.
Julius Cathcart, manager at Beckie’s Cafe, said he had to tell some staff not to come into work as tourist traffic trickled downward steadily over the weeks.
Like Lehman, he said winter months are usually slower, but layoffs and reduced hours are not typical.
“It’s been a long time since we had to do something like that,” he said.
Without customers coming in, Cathcart said, hours on the clock are spent “sitting there cleaning and then cleaning over stuff you already cleaned.”
“I care about all the employees,” he said. “Having to lay them off and seeing their faces — that’s really hard. ... It’s hard to talk about.”
At the Prospect Cafe and Trophy Room 11 miles south, co-owner Dave Aikens said he and his partner, Rose Hall, are new enough to the business that it’s difficult to tell how much the lost business will affect them.
In fact, the slower customer traffic has allowed the owners to focus on other projects, including opening a full-service bar at the historic establishment.
“In some ways, it’s not all bad,” Aikens said.
But it’s not just the absence of tourists that is impacting businesses like Lehman’s. No Forest Service employees or contractors who work on federal forestland are passing through, either.
Prospect Pizza, which attracts a good deal of federal employee traffic, is impacted by that absence more in winter than during the months of summer wildfire smoke, said Lehman. When a fire camp was established at Lost Creek Lake, many of those firefighters visited Prospect businesses — so even with the smoke, business was steady.
Those contractors’ absence in the winter “hits you at a time when you’re most vulnerable,” he said.
Even as the government temporarily reopens, it will be difficult to make up the ground lost during the shutdown.
Still, businesses find ways to take care of themselves and each other. Having an established reputation can help them weather the dry winter seasons.
Cathcart said that every day since the restaurant and lodge began updating their Facebook followers on their reduced hours and the layoffs, a handful of people, coming from down south or as far north as Bend, arrive to support Beckie’s.
“They’ll come up just to give us business. ... Every day we get a few,” he said. “It’s pretty cool.”