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So far, so good for Summer Celebration

Good news has been almost impossible to come by since March, and what little there is seems to be quickly chased away by COVID-19 concerns.

That’s especially true for small businesses — particularly those that rely on tourism in this reconfigured stay-at-home world — so Sandra Slattery’s optimism regarding the early reviews of the Ashland Summer Celebration Series likely does not come without some trepidation.

But the executive director of the Ashland Chamber of Commerce says the predominantly positive responses she’s received from business owners and shoppers has warmed her heart.

“It just makes me feel so happy that it’s helping support our small businesses,” she said, “and everything that we’ve been working on, as hard as it’s been, is worth it. As challenging as it is and as hard as it’s been, there’s opportunity. And I think what makes me happy is to see people that have embraced that opportunity and worked with us.

“We’ll continue to figure out ways we can work through the challenges that are existing and move forward. Not to give up, not to say, ‘It isn’t what it was.’ To have a negative perspective, I don’t think that way, and fortunately the people we work with don’t think that way.”

The Ashland Summer Celebration Series, Ashland’s answer to the vice grip the novel coronavirus has applied to the local economy, is a chain of outdoor market-style events in the Plaza set to themes. It is scheduled for every weekend until Sept. 27. It kicked off last week after a whirlwind tag-team effort that brought together the chamber, the city and business owners.

Months in the making, the series was in limbo for weeks as Slattery and her team hammered out details and dodged barriers on the fly, but by all accounts its opening weekend — the July 10-12 rollout, with a “Full Bloom” theme — went off swimmingly. Business owners who may have been skeptical that enough locals would show up to make the whole endeavor worthwhile were greeted with large crowds of paying customers.

The North Main Street loop was closed to traffic and the sidewalk and street there opened up to umbrella-covered tables, creating a European-style dining experience.

“I think it went great, actually,” said Andy Card, owner of Oberon’s Restaurant and Bar and Masala Bistro and Bar. “I think we should do this every summer, first off. It increases all of our capacities; people love to be outside. I think when more restaurants participate it just brings a lot of action to the Plaza, and I think the customers just really loved it. We hardly had anyone wanting to sit inside.”

The sentiment was similar next door, at Louie’s.

“It’s a really nice thing,” Louie’s manager Tom Dubois said of the Ashland Summer Celebration Series. “It doubles the capacity of our outside, because we already had tables outside, and we have that many more all day long on Friday and Saturday and Sunday. And let’s face it, some people are just more comfortable sitting outside, so it’s a nice thing to be able to offer them both.”

It wasn’t only restaurants and bars that appreciated the extra exposure. At TreeHouse Books, 15 N. Main St., owner Jane Almquist set up tables so customers could participate in activities in front of her store. The reaction, both at TreeHouse and in the Plaza in general, she said, was so positive that Almquist is planning to expand the store’s hours during the series. TreeHouse Books usually closes at 5:30 p.m. but will remain open until at least 8 p.m. during the series, she said.

“We noticed that there were a lot of families coming downtown in the evening, and the restaurants were very lively,” Almquist said. “It had such a great community feel that we decided we wanted to be part of the evening celebrations, too. So we’re going to offer some fun activities for families and people. It’s just a beautiful setting downtown, it’s festive, it’s uplifting, and I think our customers are going to love it.”

Last week, Almquist said, customers could make tissue paper flowers or an herbal sachet to match the “In Full Bloom” theme. The series theme this weekend is “Our Earth,” and for that TreeHouse Books customers can make a badge that explains what they’re going to do to make the world a better place. For $1, the cost of supplies, they can “upgrade” their project into a pin.

“I thought it was a great showing for the first weekend,” Almquist said. “Once word gets out, I think we’ll even have more families. But we’ll do some social media around that and let people know we’re open. We’re just, in fact, writing our copy right now to send to the chamber.”

Eli Katkin, owner of Brickroom, said he saw a clear “uptick” in the number of customers and praised the city and the Oregon Liquor Control Commission for moving quickly to make sure the restaurants and bars would be cleared to stretch their legs.

One challenge that participating businesses must rise to, Katkin said, is that of serving customers while still adhering to safety precautions to help slow the spread of COVID-19. That may be especially true this weekend, only days after Oregon Gov. Kate Brown mandated masks outdoors in spaces where social distancing is impossible.

Brickroom, Oberon’s and other Ashland restaurants have similar strategies relating to COVID-19, requiring customers to wear masks while moving around and going to and from their tables, while spreading tables out to adhere to social distancing guidelines.

“My hope is that everybody who’s out on the Plaza engaging in commerce can come together and maybe have a unilateral application of refusal of service without a mask,” Katkin said. “I can’t speak for other businesses, but that’s what I’m hoping to see, where basically if you’re downtown, you’re doing it you need to be wearing a mask.

“We’re hyper aware and (don’t want) any kind of slip-ups here or regressions. Like I said, we’re threading a needle and we don’t want to poke our finger with a needle.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

Andy Atkinson / Ashland TidingsFront of OBERON’s on the plaza.