Downtown Portland businesses say they have taken a major economic hit due to the coronavirus pandemic and nightly protests against systemic racism and police brutality spanning nearly 100 days that have captured national attention.
Portland business leaders and others came together Thursday morning to host a volunteer clean-up event in an effort to encourage people to travel downtown, despite those factors.
SOLVE — an Oregon environmental nonprofit — as well as the Portland Business Alliance and the Portland Lodging Alliance put together the second annual “Hospitality with Heart” event in which an estimated 450 people volunteered to clean up litter throughout the downtown area.
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler spoke at the event Thursday.
“We’re all out here because we love our city,” Wheeler said. “We care about it.”
Before joining the clean-up volunteers, Wheeler spoke on the ongoing downtown demonstrations — some of which have resulted in an investigation into police violence against protesters, a multitude of arrests and damaged buildings and structures.
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Last week a person was shot and killed in downtown Portland during a pro-Trump car caravan that drove through the city. Wheeler said the city is preparing for additional violence that may occur in coming days.
“The first thing we’re doing is we’re telling people if you’re coming here to commit acts of retribution — because that’s out there on the internet after last week’s death — we don’t even have all the facts yet,” Wheeler, who is also Portland’s police commissioner, said. “We haven’t been able to speak to all the witnesses; we haven’t been able to process all of the video that’s come from local businesses … so, if people are planning to come here to commit acts of violence or seek retribution, they’re doing so without even hearing what all of the facts are.”
He continued: “It’s Labor Day weekend. There are a lot of families here. There are kids here. People are going about their Labor Day weekend the way people do, and what we do not need is groups confronting each other on the streets violently.”
Wheeler, who is in the midst of a reelection campaign, has been feeling the heat locally from Oregonians on all parts of the political spectrum, as well as nationally from President Donald Trump who has continuously criticized Wheeler’s tenure as mayor.
Related: Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler finds himself politically squeezed by months of protests
“I cannot respond to all of the president’s tweets. He has a lot more time than I do, apparently,” Wheeler said. “We’ve got a COVID crisis to manage. We’ve got an economic crisis to manage. We have the issues on our streets which we’re dealing with … I don’t have time to spend all day long on Twitter responding to each and every social media post by the president of the United States.”
During the Thursday event, organizers attempted to regain a sense of normalcy in downtown — though it was hard to ignore the reverberations the pandemic and demonstrations have caused, with clean-up volunteers wearing masks and many downtown businesses’ windows boarded up.
“It’s a no-brainer. It’s hard,” Andrew Hoan, president and CEO of the Portland Business Alliance, said of how downtown businesses have been doing.
“First off, COVID is a once-in-a-hundred-year devastating economic event … You layer that with some of the challenges that we’ve had with some of the bad behaviors associated with the protests that have truly sent a message that maybe we’re closed, or maybe it’s not safe to go downtown, but it’s not true,” Hoan said. “We’re here to say that downtown’s open for business and that people can come here and enjoy it, not just people from Portland, but from all over the world.”
Tauseen Malik, general manager for The Hilton Portland Downtown and the Duniway Portland, said the hospitality industry has especially suffered economically, initially from the pandemic and now additionally due to fears and assumptions tourists have about the demonstrations.
“When the pandemic started, obviously the hospitality industry took a huge hit, and in the beginning, the calls that we were receiving were moreso, ‘What are you doing with the pandemic?’ ‘Is it safe?’ ‘What are the measures that you’re putting in place?’ … But, in the last few weeks, those calls have changed,” Malik said. “Now guests are calling and they’re not asking about [the pandemic], it’s like, ‘Is it safe to come to Portland?’ ‘How far are you from the protests?’”
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Malik said because of the pandemic, hotel guests are in search of a stress-free environment.
“People are looking for an escape,” he said. “And they’re like, ‘Well, is Portland that place?’”
Malik said Portland is safe for tourists, and he is encouraging people to continue traveling to the city and patronizing downtown businesses. He also said it’s not the demonstrations that are specifically deterring tourists, but the acts of violence that sometimes occur within them.
“We support the movement. It’s for the right reasons and it’s for the right cause,” he said. “Where the concern has been, is sometimes where there’s violence. I think that is what impacts our business and other businesses also.”
The purpose of the clean-up event, Malik said, is to “send a clear message to the community that Portland is unified, strong and resilient in their efforts to lift each other up and take care of the place that we all call home.”
As for violence and criminal acts in the demonstrations downtown, Wheeler said he can’t predict how, or when, it will end.
“I believe in part it’s going to be law enforcement holding people accountable,” he said. “But I also believe the larger piece of this is going to be that those few people engaged in acts of criminality or violence are going to hear loudly and clearly from the community: We don’t support it. We don’t approve of it. We don’t condone it.”