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Food fight

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Wes Hunt, owner of the Hawaiian Hut restaurant in Medford, cooks chicken at the South Riverside Avenue location.
Restaurant owners and their customers say restaurants should be allowed to offer indoor dining

Restaurant owners displayed a range of reactions this week after 15 counties moved back to the extreme COVID-19 risk category, which restricts many activities, including indoor dining.

Restaurant owners say the latest round of restrictions could irreparably harm struggling businesses already grappling with labor shortages and the added expenses related to COVID-19, including sanitation products and masks.

Angered by the public safety measures that closed indoor dining as of Friday, Hawaiian Hut owner Wes Hunt said on social media Wednesday that he would not shutter indoor dining Friday. Hunt said that he has complied with mask mandates, social distancing and enhanced sanitation, but said that he and “other businesses who are not sheep” would not comply with the state restrictions.

Some community members rallied to his side, sharing his post and lining up to patronize his business, but Hunt said he worried the attention would put a target on his back. His lawyer advised against allowing indoor dining. Hunt backpedaled within hours of opening Friday and switched to takeout-only service, he said, for the sake of minimizing conflict for employees.

“We just had no idea how much this would blow up. It turned into, somehow, like me leading this whole thing, so I want to be really educated on how to go about it all. I’m going to slow down and take a little break, because I want to put my employees first and figure out how to do things the right way,” Hunt said.

“Since I posted on Facebook this thing was just steamrolling.”

On Thursday, R&D Sandwich Factory in Medford announced it was closing down after 25 years in business. The company’s announcement garnered over 500 social media comments and was shared 1,000 times in two days.

Owners Brian and April Kenyon posted on their business page that they’d already been struggling to find willing employees. The post read, “After the recent decision our governor made to shut down restaurants again in Jackson County, we came to a sad realization we just can’t keep going on. … Small businesses is what this country was built on, and to see so many close down is sickening. I get we are in a pandemic situation and we need to take precautions, but to suck the life out of a very successful business is horrible. We have followed every protocol and guidance the government has given in relation to the pandemic, and to feel like they do not have our backs is draining.”

A post Friday said the family was “incredibly surprised and overwhelmed” by the support shown Thursday, with locals turning out in droves to order food.

Terry Hopkins, membership representative for the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association, said it was heartwrenching to anticipate the aftermath of the latest closures when already more than 1,500 restaurants had shuttered since the pandemic began.

“As the governor continues to recite making decisions based on science and data, we have experts like (state epidemiologist ) Dr. [Dean] Sidelinger, who admitted today that only 3% of all COVID outbreaks recently had been traced back to restaurants,” Hopkins said.

“We absolutely share in the frustration with restaurant operators that continuously hear about ‘science and data.’ The irony is that cleanliness and sanitation are no strangers to the restaurant industry. When this all began, it was not hard for restaurant operators to implement new strategies for enhanced cleanliness and sanitation because those procedures were all largely already in place.”

Hopkins said he had spoken to numerous restaurant owners who were reduced to tears in recent months.

“For many of these people, the choice becomes: Do I break the law and continue to try and feed my family or do I go out of business?” he said.

Rosario’s owner Mike Hogan said he had expanded outdoor seating a handful of times so customers could dine on-site. While his business enjoys a loyal following and “is going to be fine,” Hogan voiced frustration for fellow business owners who would likely not weather the latest closure.

“I don’t like watching my friends going out of business. It’s hard to watch what all this is doing to so many local businesses and their employees and families,” Hogan said.

“Our job is to ensure people don’t get sick and enjoy our food, and the health department’s job is to ensure we’re doing our job. But they haven’t been able to do their job because of all the COVID Karens calling them up to say, ‘I saw so and so not wearing a mask!’”

Hogan added, “You’re more likely to get COVID going to the hospital, visiting your doctor or going to the grocery store than you are sitting down to eat at a restaurant. They’re OK with people going into Walmart, but God forbid you come into a restaurant.”

Billy Lund started a support group for Rogue Valley restaurants, Southern Oregon Restaurants Group, to give community members a place to network and share ideas for supporting local restaurants. Within 24 hours the group had gained over 3,300 members.

“I’ve been working with restaurants in Southern Oregon and Northern California for the last 9 years, and a lot of these people I consider them friends. I can’t help feel like they’re being targeted when I can go into Dick’s Sporting Goods, and it says 970 people can be in the building, but yet we can’t have 50 people inside a restaurant,” said Lund.

“I’m not pushing for anybody to break the law or stay open, but I’m saying that the community, especially now, needs to really rally behind these people and support them however we can. There are a lot of places we have all been going to for a long time, and some of them are not going to come out of this.”

Hunt said he hoped local restaurants and community members would rally and come up with a way to fight the latest closures.

“I know there’s a huge target on my back if I stand up and if we do this. I may not be the most profitable business, but I’m one of the luckiest. I’ll be OK whether I offer dine-in or not, but these other people can’t be as vocal as me. They can’t afford fines because they’re struggling just to keep the doors open. They want to stand up but they’re afraid it will make things worse,” said Hunt.

“How sad that they’re scared of the government and it could kill their businesses. It feels like somebody needs to do something to stand up against what’s happening. It’s tyranny … it’s literal tyranny.”

Reach freelance writer Buffy Pollock at buffyp76@yahoo.com.