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Restaurant owners fed up with changing orders

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneOwners and staff of Debby's Diner Thursday morning at the S Pacific Hwy location between Medford and Phoenix.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneDebby's Diner's street sign Thursday morning at the S Pacific Hwy location between Medford and Phoenix.
While glad restrictions have been lifted, they’re frustrated by state actions

Restaurant owners breathed a collective sigh of relief this week after Gov. Kate Brown announced Tuesday that COVID-19 restrictions would be eased starting Friday.

Jackson County was one of 15 counties across the state that moved to the “extreme risk” category April 30, due to rising COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations — a move that meant, among other things, restrictions on indoor dining.

Restaurant owners were up in arms, and some threatened protests. Some restaurants, including Hawaiian Hut locations in Medford and Central Point, initially planned to rebel against the order by remaining open, but backpedaled after receiving legal advice.

Debby’s Diner serverBeth St. Arnold said it was “ironic” that the move to extreme risk last week, and back to the “high risk” category this week, both came with several days’ notice, before changes took effect.

“So here (the governor) goes again ... messing with people’s lives, and literally nothing actually had changed,” St. Arnold said.

Another restaurant, R&D Sandwich Factory, announced last week it was going out of business.

Terry Hopkins, membership representative for the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association, criticized the lack of data on which the restrictions had been enacted. Hopkins said it was unfortunate for struggling restaurant owners to have lost another week of sales. A number of restaurants threw out or used up supplies in anticipation of another long closure. Hopkins criticized closure of dining rooms last week, citing minimal COVID-19 cases traced to eateries.

“Needless to say, restaurants continue to feel frustrated. While they are happy to be reopening, many had laid off staff again on Friday to now find out, four days later, that we would reopen,” said Hopkins.

“The announcement Tuesday came out very late and results in challenges of getting an already decimated work force back on the schedule and food ordered for one of the busiest days (Mother’s Day) for restaurants. We are hopeful by the messaging in the governor’s press release language from Tuesday that states ‘my expectation is that we will not return to extreme risk again for the duration of this pandemic.’”

Local restaurateurs expressed feeling a whiplash after a handful of closures since the pandemic began.

“Thankfully this was different than the last time we closed down for supposedly two weeks. That ended up being almost four months,” St. Arnold said. “I added it up, and I worked for four months out of the last 12, between COVID and the fires. It’s been utterly ridiculous. People have said, ‘Oh, 2021 will be so much better than 2020, but it’s literally been just a continuation. I think people are finally saying, ‘No more. We’re done.’”

Debby’s Diner owner Amie Springer said local restaurants were networking to find ways to fight further restrictions. Springer said closures had been devastating on businesses for a range of reasons, from hardships for employees to wasted food.

“It’s been especially hard since we’re in Phoenix. We dealt with the (Almeda) fire last year, so we were closed from COVID, then closed for the fire, then opened a month and a half after the fire only to be closed down again. When we closed in November for two weeks, that went on for three-and-a-half months. I don’t know if anybody else is used to having three-and-a-half months’ worth of two weeks, but I’m not a fan,” she said.

“And what’s with announcing the risk levels will be changing. If we’re supposedly in a big mess of trouble, why wait a few days for it to start? It’s all been too much. Restaurant owners feel like we’re literally fighting for our lives at this point. COVID. The minimum wage hike. The fire. A lot of us aren’t coming back.”

Punky’s Diner owner Jim Ronda said he hoped to see restaurant owners fight back if more closures are attempted.

“(Brown) decided to cut me down for a full week of what’s remaining of my life and cost me a couple thousand dollars to prove absolutely nothing,” Ronda said.

“It’s absolutely insane. None of the metrics they’ve come up with make any sense at all to anyone with any level of intelligence. Restaurants are not the problem.”

Ronda thinks mask rules and closures have gone “too far.”

“I see people in Costco, kids walking around with these masks on, gathering carts and whatnot, outside by themselves. Or people driving alone, with masks. I want to honk at them and laugh at them,” he added.

Springer said she was hopeful to see restaurants ban together to fight future bans on indoor dining.

“Next time she tries this, we – and I mean all of us – need to stand together as business owners and say no,” Springer said.

“Whether you own a little yogurt shop or a diner, we all have to stand together and say that this is not OK. If we all stay open, what are they going to do? They say you can’t fight city hall, well, OK. Maybe not by myself. But we all have to band together and fight.”

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