Because of the Gorge’s reliance on the summer tourism industry, many businesses are now struggling to maximize profits while working within COVID-19 restrictions so that they can survive the winter.
For those in the restaurant industry, this means following a plethora of state-mandated social distancing regulations that have changed the way they do business.
“It’s a different day here, but it’s still nice and clean and people feel safe here, so that feels good,” said Patrick Barr, who co-owns Hood Crest Winery and Distillers with his wife, Tess Barr.
Even though they’re at roughly 50 percent of their typical capacity for this time of year, Hood Crest Winery and Distillers is having no trouble filling the tables they’ve set up outside their tasting room, according Tess and Patrick. The outdoor tasting room reopened on June 5, with tables set up 10-feet apart and all-disposable silverware and containers.
“It’s definitely different, and it’s hard,” said Tess. “… It’s hard, when you’re closed down for three months like we were, walk in and look around, like, ‘Wow I can’t believe this happened and that we closed.”
Tess and Patrick presented at a July Hood River Rotary Club meeting alongside the owners of Solstice, Suzanne and Aaron Baumhackl, where they spoke about their experiences with the shutdown and how they adapted to stay afloat.
“We owe a lot to the past 13 years to give us optimism to get through this,” said Aaron, who described the current business environment as “an emotional rollercoaster,” but added that he is thankful for the community’s ongoing support.
Solstice closed for a couple of weeks in March before reopening for curbside pickup and takeout orders at their Portway Ave. site, and have since opened up seven tables on their patio for limited seating.
“We can seat indoors, but we’re just not ourselves, and our staff are just not mentally ready to basically invite people into what we consider our home,” said Aaron.
Solstice is currently operating with about half of the staff they’d regularly have for the summer season, but Suzanne said that the stresses of the pandemic make it feel like they’re managing a much larger staff. “You just have to be extra patient, extra caring, provide extra resources for people, to make sure that they’re well in all ways. So it’s good and it’s hard, we’re just happy that we’re keeping so many people employed that we are right now and that we have so much support,” said Suzanne.
Many Hood River businesses were able to secure loans or other forms of financial assistance to help them through the pandemic.
“It sounds like people are getting back on track and trying to navigate the new world that we live in,” said Kate Schroeder, executive director of the Hood River Chamber of Commerce, in an update to the Port of Hood River during a June 16 meeting.
However, looking ahead to when that financial assistance runs out, Schroeder said that she is concerned. “Looking across the landscape of business in Hood River, I’m really worried that some of these businesses are in such dire straights that they’re not going to make it.” She added that she wasn’t aware of any particular businesses getting ready to close. “I think it might be later,” she said. “I think, right now people are okay … people are just hoping tourism is going to come back, which is scary, but needed.”
The Dalles businesses are facing similar problems, according to The Dalles Chamber of Commerce Director Lisa Farquharson. “Some businesses were able to secure loans but they are just that, a loan. How long can they last at half capacity, and how long will it take for our economy to actually support them completely as they are still making payments on the loan?”
The Oregon CARES Act made several loans available to local businesses, the most common of which are Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, which provide small businesses with funds to pay up to eight weeks of payroll costs including benefits; businesses can also use the funds to pay interest on mortgages, rent and utilities.
“Some of our businesses did apply and receive the PPP funding but a large percentage of them received the funding (that had to be used in eight weeks) before the State was open,” said Farquharson, adding that when they were able to reopen, businesses had difficulty covering their overhead costs.
Financial assistance was harder to come by on the other side of the river, according to Mt. Adams Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Tammara Tippel.
“Many smaller businesses were challenged in procuring financial assistance. Many are leery of taking on a loan, even with small rates, or were overwhelmed by the process of applying and tracking,” said Tippel, adding that the smallest operations, typically family-owned businesses with one or two owners, “seem to be the most fragile at this time.”
Visitors from outside of the Gorge have continued to bring their business to the Gorge; but, according to Suzanne, these visitors tend to be the biggest offenders when it comes to following social distancing protocol.
“It feels different every day, and unfortunately, a lot of our customers, mostly coming from outside the Gorge, are being pretty challenging,” said Suzanne in response to a question from Rotary President Dillon Borton.
“… It’s hard for me to comprehend, but people seem to fall in the camp of … they’re either extremely entitled, rude, disappointed and vocal, or they’re kind of over the top accommodating, understanding and kind.” Suzanne added that some customers have been “verbally abusive” to employees, and that “people are being brought to tears every day.”
“It’s true,” said Tess, “especially when Multnomah County wasn’t open, it was just horrid what I was seeing. And we reserve the right to refuse service to anyone and we have had to do it quite a few times.”
Tess even calls herself the “mask police” when she’s working, she said. “Sometimes, I stand at the stairs with my arms crossed looking at people because I don’t want them here if they’re not going to wear a mask and they’re not going to follow rules. You don’t have to wear a mask if you’re seated; if you’re up walking around, you absolutely have to wear a mask, and the younger people have been really kind of horrid about it.”
The state mandate has somewhat helped with that attitude, said Suzanne, and she said she hopes people will soon recognize and appreciate how much of a privilege it is to dine out.
“It’s tough, but I really hope that dining out, and going out for a glass of wine and sitting on the patio and everything, that people still really value that — I mean, I hope that they do. Because we need it,” she said.
To those who don’t want to wear a mask in a business with mask requirements, Farquharson said she recommends they wait to go out until the mask requirements are lifted.
“The human wants to mingle, socialize, and network — it is natural,” she said, “but we are asking our business owners to be the referee and that is not right, fair, or responsible. We need to referee ourselves and start respecting each other. Wear the mask out of respect to each other.”