'Every jaw in the room fell'
March 2020 in Ashland began like pretty much every other March.
A story in the Tidings on March 3 previewed the 16th annual Chocolate Festival, which was just around the corner. The Southern Oregon University men’s basketball team had suffered a frustrating road loss to rival Oregon Tech in the Cascade Conference semifinals, but perhaps that was just a bump in the road — a trip to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for the NAIA Division II National Championships and a chance at redemption was fast approaching.
Ashland City Council, meanwhile, was dealing with a longtime rival of its own: aging buildings, namely City Hall, Pioneer Hall and the Community Center. All needed fixing, and on Tuesday, March 3, the council had committed to restoring rather than razing City Hall as part of an $8.2 million bond proposal.
And dusting off the cobwebs for what promised to be another successful season was the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the bedrock of Ashland’s economy, which kicked off its season — not counting a late February preview — the first Friday of the month, March 6, with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Those who follow the news know that three days prior, the Washington Post had reported that a new virus, known then only as the coronavirus, had spread to 14 states. The death toll was only six, but an outbreak at the Life Care Center nursing home in Seattle, Washington, was “deepening fears about the outbreak’s rapid spread and the medical, psychological and economic toll it will exact on the United States.”
On East Main, where businesses generally ride the wave of OSF’s eight-month season from March to November, owners necessarily attuned to economic trends considered the virus a dark cloud on the horizon, a threat similar to the wildfire smoke that cost the festival $5.6 million over the 2017 and 2018 seasons. Less than a week after “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” opened, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed an executive order that prohibited gatherings of 250 people or more. The next day President Donald Trump declared the novel coronavirus a national emergency, and on March 27 OSF announced it would remain closed for at least five months and lay off 80% of its staff and actors.
On May 8, OSF canceled the rest of its 2020 season. The decision was unavoidable after details of Oregon’s phased reopening emerged a day prior, and that, along with executive orders that essentially shut down most small businesses for about eight weeks, has had a devastating impact on Ashland’s economy.
Oberon’s Restaurant and Bar, Arden Forest Inn, Bloomsbury Books, Paddington Station and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival each represent different sectors of Ashland’s tourist-based economy, and each business continues to deal with the financial consequences of a pandemic that still rages with no end in sight. But in those confusing early days that transformed 2020 into the year of COVID-19, Ashland business owners were only beginning to understand what it all meant.
‘We gotta stop this’
Paul Christy, OSF acting executive director, says the events that led to the shutdown and the decision to close are burned into his memory. Festival staffers were on high alert Thursday, March 11, after word got out that Gov. Brown was planning to make an important announcement within a week. That turned out to be a conservative estimate, because later that night Gov. Brown announced an executive order prohibiting gatherings of 250 people or more.
Artistic Director Nataki Garrett gathered the department heads — about 17 people, Christy said — for an emergency meeting that went deep into the night. Christy fell asleep at 2 a.m. Four hours later, his phone buzzed. It was Garrett.
“OK,” she said, “you and I are going to decide right now; what can we do?”
Christy said the decision came down to safety and rudimentary math. Given the restrictions, a theater with 600 seats, each 27 inches across, could be filled to only about 25% capacity, a prospect that was neither economic nor safe.
“And we decided this is it, it’s up to us, we gotta stop this,” Christy said. “It was heartbreaking, but at the time we didn’t know it would be for such an extended period. We thought it might be weeks.”
Only hours later, Christy was sitting in an Ashland Chamber of Commerce meeting awaiting his turn to speak during the round-robin catchup portion.
“I announced what we were planning on doing,” he said, “and every jaw in the room fell.”
‘Trust the numbers’
Andy Card may have been one of the few who was not taken by surprise. A North Medford High alum who earned his master’s in business administration from Southern Oregon University, Card, 34, worked at the corporate level for a shipping company in Brussels before bolting on a whim to buy Oberon’s.
Card and his wife, Sachta Bakshi Card, were convinced to take the plunge by her father, a “true entrepreneur” who saw potential where others saw only a money pit. The Cards scouted Oberon’s and agreed, but only after examining the books.
“You talked to local people and they were like, ‘This was a horrible decision, you don’t know what you’re doing; this place is a failing business,’” said Card, who also owns Masala Bistro. “But they don’t know the details. The numbers say everything you need to know, so that’s why we picked this place up.”
That was four years ago, and Card was feeling pretty good about that decision before what he describes as a “global friend base,” which included a few acquaintances with PhDs in microbiology, started warning him about COVID-19.
“So that conversation was already floating,” he said. “The perspective was, it is going to come over here, but what’s going to happen? I would say it wasn’t shocking, it was just more like, ‘What is it going to look like? What are the policies going to look like?’ So when that happened, my wife and I knew right away that OSF was most likely going to be canceled for the year.”
A numbers guy through and through, Card ignored the panic seizing business owners statewide and focused his energy instead on what he could control. Like an airplane pilot steering a Boeing 737 through a storm, ignoring the clouds in favor of the instrument panel, Card went back to his training and put his faith in the data. And what did the spreadsheets say?
For Card, the real question wasn’t whether Oberon’s could last 12 months without OSF. It could, and he knew it — he had investments and savings at the ready. The question was whether keeping it afloat would be worth the heavy cost. But shortly after OSF’s decision sent shockwaves through the Chamber of Commerce, Card put that big-picture conundrum aside to consider a more pressing one: how, specifically, to proceed given Gov. Brown’s orders.
Takeout and delivery were still allowed, so should Oberon’s reinvent itself? Could it?
“And we thought a lot about, ‘Do we try to make it our model now?’ And we decided no, we’re not going to,” Card said. “So we immediately laid everybody off. Everybody. That was on the 17th (of March).
“I think we talked to everyone individually, whether it was in person or a phone call. And basically, our position was, ‘Listen, get on unemployment, we want all you guys back once we can, if you want to come back.’ You try to say this isn’t like a termination. It’s really a strategy.”
As Oberon’s offseason staff of nine got in the unemployment line, the Cards were left alone with an empty bar and their numbers. They got to work.
“For us, we want to be very honest with ourselves,” Card said. “It’s easy to not want to look at facts, and that’s why we love numbers and we always go to the spreadsheets to see. That really helps us make decisions. We don’t want to have wishful thinking. You can’t have wishful thinking in these times. You trust the numbers, and then you have to move quickly.”
‘Nobody prepares for this’
For Bloomsbury Books co-owner Sheila Burns, COVID-19 could not have come at a worse time. A book lover who moved here from New York City in 1980, Burns suddenly found herself wondering whether her labor of love would go out of business weeks before its 40th anniversary.
“Nobody in Ashland prepares for this,” she said. “You got over Christmas and you go through a really awful January and February, you are not saving money because you’ve got March, the tourists are coming back. So it hit us all at just the wrong time.
“There is no planning in advance. We were ordering crazily because the tourists were coming back it was disastrous. I mean, all of a sudden we had payrolls coming and we had vendors to pay for all these books we had ordered, and we were going to shut down our store.”
Immediately, Burns and co-owner Karen Chapman decided to limit Bloomsbury’s hours of operation to three per day, curbside pickup and delivery only. Layoffs weren’t much of a factor, Burns said, since most of her staffers, age wise, were in the high-risk category and decided to stay home. Suddenly, the staff of 10 was down to four, business was tanking, and Burns and Chapman were like a couple of 20-year-old undergrads cramming to learn the book distribution business.
“There were points when it just seemed very, very bleak,” Burns said.
‘You just can’t believe it is happening’
It was a similar story for Arden Forest Inn co-owners Corbet Unmack and William Faiia, who in 1995 cashed out of lucrative, high-stress tech jobs in San Francisco in their 40s to chase the quiet, if not necessarily laidback, life of bed-and-breakfast owners. It worked out pretty much as they’d hoped for the first 24 years, but 2020 has pushed Unmack, 65, and Faiia, 71, to their absolute limits.
How bad has this year been for the partners? So bad that Unmack’s idea of a silver lining was the major back surgery he underwent Feb. 25. Doctors used a spinal fusion to fix a damaged disc and the recovery process was much harder and more painful than Unmack had anticipated, which has him feeling thankful that, with no guests to speak of, at least there was no temptation to pitch in and risk reinjury.
As for the Arden Forest Inn, a property that has three main buildings on two-thirds of an acre that’s within walking distance from the Plaza, business is nonexistent with little hope of a summer resurgence. The reason is that like many bed and breakfasts in Ashland, the Arden Forest Inn is even more reliant on tourists than the restaurants, bars and shops in the Plaza. Locals may snatch up the latest Colson Whitehead title at Bloomsbury or go out for a drink with friends at Oberon’s, but they’re far less likely to spring for a night away at a local B&B.
Faiia estimates that 95% to 98% of their guests are there for one reason, to watch theater, and 65% to 75% of their customers are repeat guests. After the pandemic hit, Faiia and Unmack stocked up on all the supplies they thought they would need to make their guests feel comfortable, but without OSF — or any theater, for that matter — the guests started canceling.
“We were open for a week and a half and had like two or three rooms (booked) — typical early season,” Faiia said. “But we had guests canceling right away because they were nervous.
“We felt like we were in a dream; it was a nightmare. We’ve seen too many movies like that. It just really felt like we were walking through smoke. We were kind of walking around like, ‘This is real.’ I didn’t think I would ever live to see something like this.”
Unmack said that as bad as the smoke was in 2017 and 2018, it didn’t have the same immediate catastrophic impact that COVID-19 had right from the start. Not even close.
“I guess it’s probably because you were in a certain amount of shock,” he said, describing the dazed existence that settled on Arden Forest Inn in early March. “You just can’t really believe that what is coming to you through the news media is really happening. Like, the governor is closing the state — how do you process that? We still got guests during the smoke. But now, there is nothing that’s even bringing people here. Nobody wants to travel.”
‘Fear in everyone’s voices’
Even before the virus brought business to a standstill, Paddington Station mother-daughter co-owners Pam and Kelly Hammond were so struck by a foreboding sense of uncertainty in downtown Ashland that they decided to take matters into their own hands.
Business had already died down considerably, and on March 7, the Saturday before Brown’s shutdown order, the Hammonds, who run four Paddington-themed Ashland stores in all, decided to walk door to door to every neighboring small business that was open. By the time they were done, Pam Hammond said, they had visited 50 retailers in the downtown area.
The purpose, she said, was to inspire a sense of solidarity. And to talk.
“So almost every store we went into there were no customers in there,” she said. “It’s eerie. It is so eerie. And we just heard fear in everyone’s voices. Whether they were the owners of the store, the managers of the store, a sales associate, it was the same: ‘They can’t keep me, there’s no business, I’m sure I’m going to be let go.’ Or the manager going, ‘There’s nothing I can do to make business,’ and the store owners saying, ‘How am I going to pay rent? How am I going to pay for my product? This is just not going to work.’
“We didn’t know what was going on. And then, of course, we just shut down and there was a period of several weeks where we were just all shocked. My message to them was, ‘We are in this together, call me. Call me if you want to just talk because we all have the same problem, I can listen; I don’t have any answers.’”
But Hammond had to come up with at least a few answers because important business decisions had to be made, and since Paddington employs a shade under 40 employees — about half of those full-timers — at its four stores, many of those decisions concerned staff. In the end, the Hammonds decided to lay off everyone but the general manager, Joe Collins. That left Collins, Kelly and Pam Hammond, and her son and son-in-law to figure out how to run the whole operation for the foreseeable future.
Pam Hammond said letting go of nearly her entire workforce ended up being the worst two days of her life.
“Many of them had worked for me for five, 10, 15 years,” she said. “We furloughed a lot, we tried to do workshare, but then it became apparent there was no work to share.”
‘That’s what keeps me up at night’
Right around the same time the Hammonds were delivering their bad news, just a few hundred feet to the north, at 45 N. Main St., Card’s employees at Oberon’s were picking through the food that would have otherwise rotted away — a parting gift for the newly unemployed.
Meanwhile, a couple blocks south, at 290 E. Main St., Burns was puzzling out the details of a new door-to-door delivery service that would keep the few Bloomsbury employees still working — busier than ever, in fact.
And roughly half a mile north at the Arden Forest Inn, at 261 W. Hersey St., Unmack and Faiia were settling into a daily routine that included maintaining the grounds, fending off debt collectors and, of course, that other mundane task with which all of the above small-business owners have since become well acquainted: chasing the money.
“I was waking up at like 4 a.m.,” Card said. “I wasn’t sleeping really. I was sleeping maybe three, four hours, and as soon as I woke up I would just be on my phone reading every article I could about what’s Congress talking about, what is the state doing.
“My thought is, logically, something has to happen. You know all of these things, but then there’s the unknown of what is it actually going to look like. And that’s what keeps me up at night.”
Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or firstname.lastname@example.org.