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'Open Up or Lose Everything': Restaurant Owners Band Together to Defy Devastating Lockdown Orders

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A line formed out the door during the lunch rush at the Carver Hangar, a family-owned restaurant and sports bar, and waitresses zipped in and out of the kitchen trying to keep up with orders as customers backed up in the lobby.

Indoor dining has been banned in much of Oregon for nearly two months, but the eatery 20 miles southeast of Portland was doing a booming business.

The restaurant’s owners, Bryan and Liz Mitchell, fully reopened Jan. 1 in defiance of Democratic Gov. Kate Brown’s indoor dining ban in their county despite the risk of heavy fines.

“We’re not going to back down because our employees still need to eat, they still need that income,” Bryan Mitchell said.

“The statement that we’re making is, ‘Every life is essential. You have the right to survive. Nobody should tell you what you can and cannot do to provide for your family.’”

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A growing number of restaurants in states across the country are reopening in defiance of strict coronavirus rules that have shut down indoor dining for months. Restaurants can serve people outside and offer carry-out, but winter weather has crippled revenues from patio dining.

In Oregon, an organized effort to get businesses to reopen for indoor service starting Jan. 1 has been championed by several mayors, who formed a group to raise legal defense funds in anticipation of a court fight.

Similar revolts in Michigan, Pennsylvania, California and Washington state have also gained traction, with restaurateurs saying their industry has been unfairly singled out while other businesses, like big box stores and airlines, continue operating.

Brown, who currently prohibits indoor dining in 26 of Oregon’s 36 counties, called the move to reopen irresponsible and said it could lead to a spike in infections and deaths.

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“We can’t waver in our response to the virus now, when the end is finally in sight and resources are on the way. We are better than this,” said Brown, who banned indoor dining last spring.

In addition to fines, Brown has threatened to pull liquor licenses and ban slot machines at restaurants that won’t stay closed. State inspectors have assembled a list of establishments to visit, according to Aaron Corvin, spokesman for the Oregon Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

It’s impossible to know how many Oregon restaurants have heeded the call to reopen because many are keeping quiet about it.

Stan Pulliam, the mayor of Sandy, Oregon, said he attended meetings all over the state where establishments were encouraged to reopen and that the so-called Open Oregon coalition includes at least 300 small businesses, not all of them restaurants.

Even before the organized effort, restaurants were reopening because they couldn’t survive the lockdown, and Pulliam said his goal was to provide a uniform framework to make reopening safer.

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He has urged businesses in his town and county to reopen at 25 percent capacity with a face mask requirement for staff and social distancing.

“These are individuals that are to the end of their rope. Their decision is not to thumb their nose at the governor. It’s really a decision to open up or lose everything they’ve worked for their entire lives,” he said. “We’re saying, ‘Hey, if you’re going to open, let’s do this right.’”

Some non-compliant businesses have already racked up thousands of dollars in fines from health and safety inspectors.

In Washington state, one restaurant has been fined nearly $145,000 and is challenging a restraining order in court.

In Michigan — where a ban on indoor dining was extended Wednesday until at least Feb. 1 — a restaurant industry group sued over the ban.

In Pennsylvania, the government closed 109 restaurants over violations during a ban on indoor dining that expired Jan. 4 and sued 50 establishments.

Quality Shoppe, a restaurant in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, that’s been around for over 50 years, was among the restaurants sued. The state is pursuing legal action even though it lifted its ban on indoor dining last week.

“I don’t like breaking rules. That’s not normally what I want to do,” said owner Crystal Nolt, adding that she couldn’t afford to close again after an initial three-month shutdown last spring. “I don’t want people to die. But at some point people also have to live their life.”

At the Mitchells’ Oregon restaurant, employees are required to wear masks and the ventilation has been updated with high-quality filters.

So far, the restaurant has not been fined. A handwritten sign taped to the restaurant’s door tells inspectors to return with a warrant.


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