COOS COUNTY ─ “We’re frightened… This is our livelihood,” said Sandra Jones, owner of Coney Station, as her business struggles amid the ongoing pandemic. She, along with many other local restaurant owners, are seeing savings run out and may need to shut their doors if things don’t change.
Jones and Mardarito Rodriguez, owner of Puerto Vallarta, alongside Selena Christensen of Little Italy, made a plea to the Coos Bay City Council to advocate for them.
“I want to be open,” Rodriguez said. “Give me the chance to work. Give me the chance to make a living. I don’t want to depend on the government. I want to depend on my work.”
These three restaurant owners are asking government officials to consider allowing restaurants to open at 25 percent capacity for in-person dining. Rodriguez said that opening at just 25% could save his business.
“Give us guidelines,” Rodriguez said. “The health department can come and say what we can do, where to put signs… I can’t speak to the governor. So, this goes to (Mayor Joe) Benetti. This is for our local officials. Let us open. At least at 25% capacity … that can pay the bills, not even make a profit. I want (local officials) to fight for us.”
When asked about this plea from local businesses, Benetti said he has fought and will continue to fight for them.
“All restaurants are struggling and dealing with (the restrictions) in different ways,” Benetti said. “As a restaurateur, I understand there are challenges in being in the … industry to begin with… The restaurants are being impacted far more than any industry and is being destroyed.”
Benetti used to serve as chairman on the Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association Board and has heard that restaurants in the Portland area are being devastated by the pandemic as well.
“…There are many restaurants that closed and will never reopen,” he said, adding that the pandemic’s impact is changing Portland’s dining dynamic and “is changing it here.”
As for what he has done so far to advocate for local restaurants, Benetti said the Coos Bay City Council has done a Gift Certificate Program. This program was an effort to raise money and generate business to local eateries and said it was able to raise $900.
Then in late December of 2020, every Coos County mayor, as well as County Commissioner Melissa Cribbins, sent a signed letter to Gov. Kate Brown asking for restaurants to be allowed to open to higher capacity.
Benetti said that the letter never received a response.
“…The longer the current restrictions/metrics are in place, the greater the adverse impacts will have both short term and long term on our small businesses, the Oregonians they employ and our overall economy which is not in the public’s interest,” the letter read, adding that though “we fully support and have continually advocated reasonable pandemic related restrictions … we are urging you to reduce the metrics and restrictions on Oregon businesses.”
The letter pointed to research out of New York where restaurants and bars only accounted for 1.4% of COVID spread.
“…Contact tracing in New York reveals that the spread of the virus was attributed to household gatherings in 74% of the cases and just under 8% was related to medical facilities,” the letter stated. “… While restaurants, bars, fitness centers, and indoor entertainment has been shuttered for months in and around Portland, the virus is still spreading. That spread has been contributed to small social gatherings where arguably virus protection best practices are not being followed. The current restrictions and related metrics have and are adversely affecting the lives and welfare of our constituents.”
And while the letter highlighted the importance of safety precautions, those who signed the letter stated their constituents are concerned about their businesses.
These restrictions are adversely impacting lower-income workers the hardest,” the letter said. “Some of our small businesses have gone out of business and others are close to doing the same. The loss of these businesses will result in a ripple effect in the service industries … and the food/restaurant supply sector.”
Benetti said because the current restrictions are an executive order from the governor, “our hands are tied.”
“…There’s nothing we can do … other than ask for things to be reconsidered,” he said. “Unfortunately, our numbers keep going up and put a strain on businesses.”
Benetti encouraged local restaurants to call the city of Coos Bay to find out about incentive opportunities that might help keep things afloat as the restrictions continue. He especially encouraged restaurants to ask about the permit process for outside dining.
“They should check with their banks to see if they can get more PPE money,” he said. “My heart goes out to them. I would say try to hang in there… This community is supportive of all business and hopefully they step forward and help any little bit they can.”
Eric Gleason, assistant director at Coos Health and Wellness, echoed Benetti in that opening restaurants up to 25% capacity is not a local decision and said it is also “a dangerous game.”
“I know there are locations that have ‘outdoor’ dining, that is not necessarily outdoor, with a lot of people and probably far more than 25% capacity,” Gleason said. “If you have that many people in one place without a mask on, it makes the possibility of the virus spreading even greater.”
He said this was seen at the recent karaoke event which led to a community outbreak.
“…There were some people who didn’t participate at all who were on the other side (of the bar) having a bit to eat and were positive for the virus,” he said. “That’s the airborne nature of the virus… When you start putting more people in closed areas without masks and without ventilation, it’s a dangerous game and our numbers are already going in the wrong direction.”
A looming ghost town
Jones described Coney Station as an icon in Coos County’s rural coastal town, one that has been around for 30 years. However, she anticipates needing to close in as little as two months.
“…We need some kind of solution to help us keep the community going or it will be a ghost town,” she said, sitting alongside owners for Little Italy and Puerto Vallarta who are also struggling and afraid. “The pandemic has totally devastated my restaurant and bar.”
For Coney Station, Jones said the takeout option during the current shutdown isn’t viable because the business makes most of its money in alcohol sales. And in the past year, the on-and-off again closures have led to Jones’ 14 employees to rely on unemployment.
“We’re all a piece of a puzzle,” Jones said. “Once the puzzle breaks, it won’t be whole again. If we shut down, my hope is to reopen … but when my hands are tied, I can’t even fight… We’ve done everything we can with our savings to keep it going and even that’s running out.”
Jones has never thought of herself as a depressed person, she said, but has found herself not returning phone calls from her friends and “that’s not me.”
“I don’t even know me,” she said. “I want to be away from me.”
Rodriguez, owner of Puerto Vallarta, said the mental health aspect has been troublesome as small business owners try to survive.
“We’re bringing the stress home,” he said. “It’s not just economics because you go home and you might explode in the home for no reason and later realize and say sorry but sorry doesn’t do it all the time. Mental health for restaurant owners and workers is in jeopardy. Workers don’t know when they will go back to work. They aren’t making enough to make it. We live in uncertainty.”
In fact, Jones, Rodriguez, and Little Italy’s Selena Christensen said they haven’t taken home a paycheck for themselves for almost two months.
Jones said it takes approximately $500 a day to keep her business open. At least. She said because they are closed, they average $0 a day. Christensen said “we’re lucky” if we make $200.
“If we sell $500 a day, we break even to pay the bills but without paying ourselves,” Rodriguez said. “We had a stimulus check and managed to pay bills, but not ourselves. We worked for free. We are still working for free.”
“We are all working for free,” Christensen said.
Christensen was handed ownership of Little Italy a week ago. After looking at the piling bills and how much is made each day, she is at a loss and estimates possibly needing to close in four months.
“I’ve never had to do this before and I’m learning how to do the restaurant thing on my own,” she said, having worked at Little Italy for the past four years. “I called the previous owner and he said it will get better, but it’s not. I go home at night and can’t even sleep. I don’t know what I’m going to do or how to keep my doors open.”
She still has a cook and one server who does the dishes. She says she can see their fear as well.
“If Gov. Brown doesn’t let us open to 25% capacity, we won’t make it,” she said.
At Puerto Vallarta, a family-owned business for the past 30 years, Rodriguez and his business partner Manuel Delatorre have taken on delivery to boost sales.
“Sometimes we do $100 or $200 in deliveries, but we are doing it ourselves and it’s stressful,” he said. “You take the order, do the delivery, but you have to do something to pay the bills… But closed or open, you’re still losing money.”
And to make it even harder, he can tell which customers are struggling, too.
“It’s easy to know when people have money because they leave a tip,” he said. “If they don’t, they say they wish they could. They have the heart, but not the money.”
He said that if another COVID relief package comes through, to survive it would have to increase the amount it provided small businesses by another 50%.
“Not to make anything, not to have a profit, but keep us open,” he said. “Right now, you decide which bills to pay… We’re not making it.”
Rodriguez pointed to big name stores like Ross and Walmart that are still open and asked to be given the same chance.
“I’m not pointing fingers, I’m looking for solutions,” he said.
Gov. Brown’s office was contacted for comment. There was no response.