By mid-March, Oregon’s coastal towns usually are beginning to buzz, as hiring for the coming tourist season picks up. But all is quiet in downtown Astoria this week, as cities along the coastline grapple with restaurant closures and social distancing prompted by the spread of COVID-19.
“Yesterday, I walked downtown Astoria and it was shocking how many empty parking spots there were,” David Reid, executive director for the Astoria Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce, told “Think Out Loud” Wednesday. “The restaurants that are usually alive and hopping were either closed or doing takeout.”
Terry Robinett co-owns two of those recently closed Astoria restaurants — Labor Temple Diner & Bar and Merry Time Bar & Grill. She had been scrambling to adjust schedules as business declined when she learned of the governor’s order limiting all bars and restaurants to take-out only.
“It felt like a big punch in the gut,” Robinett said. Both restaurant locations closed Tuesday, putting 35 regular employees and another nine fill-ins out of work.
“These are people that we are a lot about,” she said. “We have been encouraging everyone to apply for unemployment.”
But state unemployment offices and websites have been overloaded and unable to process every application, she said.
Robinett said she’s pinning her hopes on the possibility that she may be able to reopen in a month, when the governor’s closure order expires. She has negotiated rent breaks with the landlord at one restaurant, and a mortgage delay with her bank at the other.
“We look forward to opening in April if we are able,” she said. “If we are not, we will adapt.”
Reid foresees a ripple effect from restaurant layoffs. “In a community this size, every job is important,” he said.
Other coastal businesses that are still operating have changed their business models, including the bookstore Reid owns with his wife, which is now selling books at the door or delivering them directly, instead of inviting readers in to browse.
“Is there a thaw coming that will get us somewhat back into business?” he asked. “The level of uncertainty is messing with business owners right now, because they don’t know how to plan for it.”
With some forecasts predicting that COVID-19’s spread could continue through the summer or beyond, Robinett said she’s hoping for government action to help tourist-dependent coastal businesses survive.
“I hope there is a wave of economic relief that comes through that gets us through this next little bit of hard time,” she said. “If we have to stay completely closed through summer? I don’t know. I don’t know.”