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Uncertainty arrives with latest 'freeze'

The latest pandemic-driven restrictions are being greeted with groans and predictions of financial pain — but with understanding that, whatever we did last spring, it flattened the curve — so we just need more if we’re ever going to get back to a healthy normal.

Starting Wednesday, Oregon goes under a statewide “two-week freeze,” which Gov. Kate Brown has ordered. It calls for a six-person limit on gatherings, take-out only at restaurants and bars, closure of all indoor and outdoor recreation venues, closure of visits to long-term care units, 75% capacity in grocery stores, pharmacies and retail businesses, fullest use of work-from-home jobs. Faith venues can have up to 25 people indoors or 50 outdoors

The governor issued her executive order last week after a “record smashing” 1,122 new daily cases, four deaths and over 300 people hospitalized.

“She left it open-ended and will notify us if it needs to be extended,” said Andrew Card, owner of Masala and Oberon restaurants in Ashland. “It has frustrated many business owners. Oregon has shut down. We will survive, but it’s painful.”

Winter is usually the time for restaurants to train staff, renovate and do deep cleaning, but Card said there’s no money for that now “because we’re in survival mode. We will see more restaurants go under by March. We’ve all been hoping for a second round of stimulus. It should have come months ago. The longer the feds wait, the more of us will go under.”

Card notes he’s hopeful President-elect Joe Biden “will actually have a plan based on science and fact” to attack COVID-19 — and make deals with Republicans if they control the Senate.

Meanwhile, Brown announced Tuesday that the state will commit $55 million in financial assistance to support Oregon businesses that have been impacted by COVID-19 restrictions.

The funds will be allocated to counties to distribute to businesses that have been financially impacted, with a priority for the hospitality industry, businesses impacted by the freeze, small businesses, and women, Black, Indigenous, People of Color, and Tribal-owned businesses.

Each county will receive a base of $500,000 plus a per capita allocation of the remainder of the funds. The counties will be responsible for deciding how businesses apply to receive funds and communicating the application process to businesses.

State Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, says the new restrictions “recognize that social gatherings are the primary factor in the spread of the disease. ... If you live alone, choose up to five people to be in your group, but even when you gather indoors, you are encouraged to mask, distance and often wash hands.”

In response to new rules on indoor recreation, the Medford YMCA is closing the pool, fitness classes and wellness programs but will continue emergency child care, which began when COVID-19 first hit in mid-March, says Executive Director Brad Russell.

Of huge help is a $100,000 grant to the Y from Rogue Credit Union, which has been going to child care for kids from fire-scourged Phoenix, Talent and Eagle Point — that and new grants will now go to children from families shaken by pandemic, he says.

“Emergency child care is much more difficult to operate than after-school programs,” Russell says. “But we did this once and we will do it again.”

Ashland’s 124-year old Omar’s Restaurant posted a note on Facebook saying they laid off 23 now and 32 in the last freeze.

“The freeze is hurting all business,” a restaurant representative said in a social media post Tuesday. “Please shop local, and small business. ... You will decide which businesses fall and which remain this winter.”

Patrons commented they would order much takeout and gift cards.

In a Facebook survey conducted by the Ashland Tidings and Mail Tribune, many commenters were upset with the freeze order; but the dominant theme carry on but also look for solutions to the financial chaos.

“I think people got tired of being isolated (COVID-fatigue) or just didn’t believe in the virus’ strength, didn’t wear masks, and ‘gathered’, leading to out-of-control numbers,” says Carolyn Shaw. “We really need to get the infection rate down, as our hospitals are at the brink of being overwhelmed.

“However, I am extremely concerned about the economic impact of another shutdown. I manage property and if tenants are out of work, they can’t pay rent. One property, a commercial building, houses 40 businesses (with multiple staff), and many are already struggling. Some will be unable to survive or pay rent with business curtailed further. Meanwhile, property taxes, utilities, repairs, HVAC and elevator maintenance, and, oh yeah, a leaky roof, all those costs continue. There is absolutely no assistance for the owners who are already stretched beyond their resources. I am watching the dominoes start to fall.”

Lucie Scheuer of Ashland, wrote, “It is placing my ability to stay in my home in jeopardy, and my ability to work, but it is probably better than losing my life. It is hard to deal with emotionally because one of the things that keeps me going is knowing something I’m going through, is eventually going to end. But with this, it just keeps coming back and coming back. And even though we were adequately warned, it is emotionally exhausting.”

Linda Peterson Adams of Ashland said, “Glad our Governor is doing the right thing. Will still be doing takeout and shopping and my daily walks. Hope restaurant folks can collect speedy unemployment benefits and Mitch (McConnell) compromises with the Dems for necessary aid to folks who desperately need it.

“And our County Commissioners quit playing politics and start wearing masks!”

ScienceWorks Hands on Museum in Ashland has been open weekends only for two months, but now is closed through November, says Executive Director Dan Ruby.

Financially, he said, ScienceWorks is “doing very well, all things considered. Many such businesses are closed permanently, but we’re chugging right along. Donations have increased and grants are way up.”

“We’re a science institute and we support the freeze. We’re in the middle of a health crisis and shutting down is the smart thing to do. We don’t want to attract people because of COVID, so we’re already there. This freeze won’t affect us. We’re in this for the long haul,” he notes. “This feels pro-active, a shift from reactive.”

Asked what the country did wrong to make the pandemic explode like it has.

“Scientifically,” Ruby said, “the country did not address a serious threat soon enough. Every country that controlled it took drastic measures early on.”

Rep. Marsh cautions that while the two-week freeze might flatten the curve in Jackson County, the battle against the pandemic goes on and “after two weeks, the situation on the ground will be reassessed. \ It is likely that some counties will need longer to flatten the curve and curb transmission of the virus.”

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

correction: This article has been corrected to say retail businesses can allow 75% capacity.

Mail Tribune / Jamie LuschEmpty Streets in downtown Ashland during the March COVID-19 shut down.