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Restaurants continue social distancing as Marion and Polk counties reopen

Oregon State Capital Park and Capital Building in downtown Salem. Photo by Cecelia Love-Zhou

As Marion County begins shifting into Phase 1 of reopening businesses and public life, restaurants have to adapt yet again to new restrictions.

As of Friday, May 22, businesses in Marion and Polk counties were given the green light to reopen their dining rooms, with some stipulations: tables must be spaced six feet apart, employees must wear masks, regularly disinfect menus, tables and other high-touch surfaces. Restaurants that can’t meet these requirements must keep their dining areas closed and focus on delivery and takeout, according to guidance from the Oregon Health Authority. 

But even as restaurants are allowed to reopen, many are still feeling the impact of decreased business. 

“These times are hard for our friends in the restaurant industry,” said Zachary Sielicky, the membership coordinator for the Salem Chamber of Commerce. 

That includes not only restaurants but their supply chains, he said. Restaurant closures have a “trickle-down effect” on growers, product delivery drivers and other businesses that rely on restaurants for their own economic prosperity. 

Brian Kato-Dilks, the owner of Annette’s Westgate Cafe in West Salem, reopened his restaurant for dine-in on Memorial Day. 

Even though he could’ve reopened the previous Friday, he said his staff decided to take the weekend to regroup prior to reopening.

“We try not to react quickly—let’s breathe, let’s think about it,” Kato-Dilks said. He said his staff visited other restaurants over the weekend to see how best to handle the transition. 

Due to physical distancing restrictions, Annette’s reduced the tables in their dine-in area from 21 to 10. There’s also an employee dedicated to sanitization every shift and all employees wear masks throughout their shits. 

“The face masks have been a huge adjustment for everyone in the building,” Kato-Dilks said. Customers are not required to wear masks, he said, but he encourages customers to bring a mask to use when interacting with employees for everyone’s safety. 

The two months of take-out and delivery only service was a struggle for many restaurants. Annette’s had a 63 percent decrease in revenue during that time. Kato-Dilks said he had to dip into his family’s “rainy day” savings to maintain employees and also received a loan to help cover costs. 

But Annette’s was still in better financial shape than others, Kato-Dilks said, with access to those emergency funds. Other restaurant owners he knows are still waiting on loans, he said. 

The Salem Chamber of Commerce has been in touch with local restaurants during this crisis. The chamber supports businesses in normal times but has seen need increase during the pandemic.

One of the Chamber’s initiatives to support restaurants specifically is the Salem Eats Facebook group.

“It’s supposed to be this communal place where people can champion their favorite eateries,” said Sielicky. It’s also a way for restaurants to communicate with their customers and advertise new deals. The group currently has almost 18,000 members. 

Sielicky, whose family owns a restaurant and worked in the industry as a young person, said restaurants operate on low-profit margins even during stable times, so the financial strain of the pandemic has hit restaurants particularly hard. 

Even so, he said, he’s seen restaurants find creative ways to support their communities.

He cited the example of Rudy’s Steakhouse. After the stay-at-home order ceased dine-in services, the restaurant found they had too much product stocked for the decreased demand.  Instead of letting the food go to waste, the restaurant began offering free crisis meals to medical workers, first responders and laid-off employees. 

“Tough times really highlight the true colors of a community,” Sielicky said.

Annette’s also wanted to support their struggling community, so during the restaurant’s take-out and delivery only period, they reduced the cost of 90 percent of their meals to $10. 

“That was a decision we made because we knew our customers were struggling too,” Kato-Dilks said.  

Sielicky said he’s optimistic the community will continue supporting restaurants and predicts that the extended community quarantine will motivate people to get out and support local businesses once the restrictions end. 

In the meantime, Sielicky encourages customers to continue supporting local businesses. 

“Every $1 you spend with a locally owned restaurant is keeping someone employed,” he said. 

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