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Businesses hope COVID-19 vaccine provides a shot in the arm

Jackson County businesses took a beating this past year, but 2021 offers hope for a dramatic turnaround in the months ahead.

With a COVID-19 vaccine in the pipeline, the prospects should improve for hotels, restaurants, and the entertainment industry.

“There is a silver lining, and Southern Oregon is doing better than other areas,” said Brad Niva, executive director of Travel Southern Oregon.

Some relief is needed almost immediately for restaurants, the owners of which are predicting that 39% will go out of business if they don’t receive some form of government assistance in the next six months, according to a survey of the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association.

Dave Thomason, who owns and operates 47 food service businesses in Oregon such as Elmer’s and the Human Bean, said, “Not being able to open dining rooms is a killer.”

Other operations, including big box stores, are allowed to have 50% occupancy, so restaurant owners such as himself think they should get similar treatment. He said he thinks restaurants have barely contributed to the spread of the virus.

Once the vaccine is available, he said he’ll get the shot, and he thinks many of his employees will get it as well.

He said restaurants have done a good job taking precautions to deal with the pandemic, such as sanitizing surfaces and requiring employees wear masks all the time.

Thomason said some owners are so worried about going out of business that they are considering reopening their dining rooms in January despite state restrictions.

“I’m being asked to help lead the effort,” Thomason said, but acknowledging he’s wary of taking such a bold step.

“I’m not prepared to say that I’m going to do that,” he said. “But there is this growing emergence of restaurant owners angry about what’s being done. There comes a time when all bets are off.”

He said he’s had to layoff about 500 workers during the latest shutdown of dining rooms, the second time he’s been forced to do layoffs this year.

Management has been helping do curbside takeout at Elmer’s, and Dash Delivery has been handling deliveries.

He said he was thrilled to hear that Douglas County has been downgraded from extreme risk to high risk for spread of the virus, hoping that restrictions will lessen there.

Thomason owns Taprock Northwest Grill on the Rogue River in Grants Pass. He said it’s normally his busiest location, but with no indoor dining he’s only getting 15% of his normal sales.

He does offer outdoor dining, but the electric heaters have added to his bottom line even though it’s helped keep the customers coming.

Hospitality is the second largest industry in Oregon after health care.

According to the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association October survey, 66% of restaurant operators say their current staffing levels are 20% below 2019 levels.

A national survey by the National Restaurant Association found 110,000 restaurants have closed nationwide, and of those restaurants the average amount of time they had been opened was 16 years.

The survey found that 52% of former owners of shuttered restaurants say they will not return to the industry. In part because of the extra precautions they’ve taken, 59% of restaurant owner say costs have gone up while sales have gone down, the survey found.

Hotels have struggled as well, although Almeda fire survivors have kept occupancy rates higher than they would be otherwise.

Also, there has been a significant amount of leisure travel over the past year from Northern California and also Portland.

Travel Southern Oregon anticipates that tourism should start rebounding by September after a good portion of the population gets the vaccine.

Restaurants and hotels depend on local attractions to keep rooms full, but the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Britt Festival won’t likely be at full operational levels this year because they typically have to plan six months or more in advance.

The earliest that OSFcould open is in the fall.

Britt had asked the city of Jacksonville for a permanent extension of its season, but withdrew the application and received approval to extend the season to Oct. 15 only for 2021.

Typically the Britt season lasts from the last full week in May until the second full week in September.

Other organizations have also struggled, including the popular Kid Time Children’s Museum in Medford and ScienceWorks in Ashland.

ScienceWorks has closed through January because of concerns about COVID.

Erin Endress, interim executive director for ScienceWorks, said 2020 was a challenging year for her organization.

Some of the high-touch displays are in storage, and the staff has shifted to more remote learning offerings.

But, with the vaccine rolling out, Endress said, “We are set to resume normal operations as soon as summer.”

That means summer camp should open up again as it did over the summer of 2020.

“The kids were pretty good about wearing masks,” Endress said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @reporterdm.

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