COOS BAY — Oregon’s two-week “freeze” ended Wednesday, but for some businesses, it never really began.
“I’m glad we did it. I think it’s started a lot of conversation,” said Teka Brown, who co-owns Coos Bay’s Kaffe 101 with her mother.
When state officials announced the temporary closure of indoor dining for two weeks starting Nov. 18, Brown and her mom decided to defy those restrictions, planning to keep their dining room open for guests to sit in.
And when they saw a local gym, Coastal Fitness Center, publicly announce its plans to stay open in spite of a requirement to close, the cafe owners decided to back them up, going public on Facebook with their decision.
“We didn’t think it was fair that Daniel (the owner of Coastal Fitness) was taking all the heat,” Brown said.
It’s a decision that divided community members, some who supported the business’ choice to stay open, and others who opposed the move to flout public safety regulations — and it’s a decision that could cost the cafe, if the governor’s mandate gets enforced.
But for Brown, the move was about more than just “sticking it to the man.”
“It’s not that we’re saying the virus isn’t real. We absolutely believe it is,” Brown said.
Instead, Brown argues that a business like hers shouldn’t have been touched by state restrictions. No cases have been concretely traced back to the cafe, and the business spaces its tables and sanitizes regularly, she said — though face masks have been optional for employees in the kitchen, and some customers could be seen without them.
Brown and her mother also wanted to open for the community, since the cafe provides WiFi for online learning students, as well as drinks or meals for some homeless people who stop by. Some of the cafe’s regulars don’t have anywhere else they can sit and eat, she said.
The pandemic’s first closure was hard on the cafe’s bottom line, and Brown said she’d need more state small business support in order to keep her employees paid during another closure.
“All we feel is restrictions, restrictions, restrictions. We need to feel help,” Brown said.
At a city council meeting Tuesday, Coastal Fitness owner Daniel Fox told councilors about his decision to keep the gym open.
“Being closed for two full months earlier in the year when this whole pandemic started, we couldn’t survive another shutdown," Fox told the council, not wearing a face mask as he approached the microphone to address councilors.
He too argued that the "freeze" approach didn't work for businesses struggling without additional financial assistance.
“Myself as well as many others disagree with the path that has been taken, mainly the statewide, one-size fits all approach to the two-week freeze, as well as many of the other restrictions imposed on businesses,” he said.
Hard to enforce
The “freeze” restrictions came in the form of an executive order from Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, and violations could technically be charged as misdemeanors by police.
But that’s easier said than done.
“We have such large call volume as it is,” Chris Chapanar, deputy chief of the Coos Bay Police Department, said at the beginning of the freeze. “Really, the Coos Bay police’s enforcement action is going to be education-first.”
The department already has trouble keeping up with the calls for service that it gets, Chapanar said. And with the Coos County jail accepting fewer types of crimes for booking during the pandemic, officers sometimes have to deal with the same people multiple times per day.
“Voluntary compliance is what I believe we’re all hoping for,” Chapanar said of the executive order’s regulations.
Instead, Chapanar said the department would forward any violations to state civil authorities, like Oregon’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration or the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.
Those authorities focus largely on businesses. OSHA, for example, can fine businesses which violate employee safety regulations, and OLCC can suspend or revoke restaurant liquor licenses.
Both of those have already happened during the pandemic.
In May, the owners of Kozy Kitchen in North Bend decided to open a few days before the county was approved for “phase one” reopening, which would have partially lifted the state’s ban on indoor dining.
At the time, owner Dave Grover told the World that he decided to open up in order for his employees to get paid.
But that choice came at a price — the same week, OSHA investigators visited the restaurant and recommended an $8,900 penalty for a “willful” violation of that executive order. Grover appealed the penalty, which still hasn’t been paid, according to agency staff.
OLCC has issued penalties in Coos County, too. In August, it temporarily suspended the license of the Coos Bay Speedway for failing to require guests to wear face masks during an event. The speedway will face a $2,475 fine and 33-day license suspension, OLCC documents show.
At Kaffe 101, Brown says she’s already heard from OSHA investigators about complaints lodged against the business for remaining open. The public safety authority has received at least 19 complaints, she said.
She’s not worried, though.
“Worry? No. Expect? Probably,” she said of an OSHA response.
Brown says it’s not even the place for OSHA — which regulates employee safety in the workplace — to monitor COVID-19 regulations, and that a fine from the agency wouldn’t be enforceable.
“If my employees feel safe, then OSHA has no reason to be involved,” she said.
Brown doesn’t plan on paying a fine if the agency does issue one.
Freeze begins to thaw
On Thursday, a new slate of statewide restrictions will take affect as the statewide freeze officially expires. Under the plan, each county will have restrictions based on four virus risk categories, determined by a county's two-week case rate.
Coos County is one of the lucky ones: Starting in the "high risk" category, it's one of just 11 counties in the state that won't be subject to "extreme risk" restrictions.
The rules mean gyms, like Coastal Fitness, will be permitted to open at 25% capacity, and that dining establishments will be open for indoor dining up to 25% capacity too.
Both business owners welcomed the news — but said that the low capacity still wouldn't be enough to fully support their businesses.
"Small businesses are the backbone of the economy," Kaffe 101's Brown said, calling the new mandate "progress."
At Tuesday's city council meeting, Coastal Fitness' Fox told councilors that more assistance would be needed to keep businesses open, encouraging them to be outspoken about future restrictions on business.
“A strong statement would go a long way," Fox told the council.
Councilors responded by saying that business owners should consider applying for grants from the CCD Business Development Corporation, or for funds for permanent projects from the city's Urban Renewal Agency.
Mayor Joe Benetti, a former restaurant owner, noted that the new slate of restrictions are an improvement.
“It’s a step in the right direction. Do I think that more needs to be done in that direction? Yes. And hopefully we can get there," Benetti said.
The owners of Coastal Fitness didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment left with the business.