Coronavirus

In an Unprecedented Heat Wave, Portland's Lingering COVID Restrictions Hurt Bars and Restaurants Again

The state, one of the last to fully reopen, lifted some capacity limits early. But the service sector was hamstrung during a heat crisis in which it could have helped.

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Staying cool in Portland, Oregon, for the past few days would have been challenging even in normal circumstances. Gloriously temperate summers are supposed to be the payoff here for slogging through the rainy gray winters, but on Monday, a record-shattering heatwave culminated with temperatures rising all the way up to 116 degrees Fahrenheit.

That's hotter than has ever been recorded in Atlanta or Houston, cities where buildings are designed for that kind of heat. The handful of Portland bars and restaurants with air conditioning up to the task would have been rewarded with booming business on these days if not for one thing: the state's COVID restrictions, due to expire today, were still limiting their indoor spaces to half capacity. Few industries have been as hard hit by rigid and often-nonsensical pandemic policies over the last year as the service sector. This week's failure to adjust at a time when it might have helped both businesses and patrons is just one more blow to the state's struggling bar and restaurant scene.

The heat drove many hospitality businesses, particularly food carts, to shut down preemptively. Others made a go of it but threw in the towel when refrigerators failed, doughs over-proofed, or kitchens got too damn hot. "Eighty percent of places we're associated with had to close either because it was so hot that it was unsafe to have people inside or because the equipment got so overwhelmed that we couldn't keep food at temperature," says Kurt Huffman, owner of ChefStable, a group that partners on operations with some of the city's most well-known restaurants.

Businesses in newer buildings with efficient air conditioners, such as ChefStable's beer bar Loyal Legion, were able to stay open. "We had employees that were asking us to stay open during the heatwave because it was so much cooler than their homes," Huffman says. Loyal Legion could have provided a beery oasis for more than 200 Portlanders, but state restrictions cut its capacity in half. (Exceptions are available for restaurants that screen guests by vaccination status, a step many have been reluctant to take.)

The intense heat reversed pandemic business trends, rendering outdoor dining setups worthless and putting cool indoor spaces at a premium. "This weekend was bonkers," says Israel Morales of Russian restaurant Kachka, a success he credits to having really good air conditioning and a slushie machine. "We were at max capacity from open to close." The catch? Maximum capacity was just 30 people. With half of his dining area in a suddenly intolerably hot outdoor space, he lost half his potential business. He could have welcomed those guests inside if not for Oregon's lingering COVID rules.

Oregon is one of the last four states in the country to fully re-open. Governor Kate Brown announced on Friday, June 25, that the state would reopen no later than June 30. While that was a welcome development for Oregon businesses, it also raised the question of what purpose was served by not opening a few days earlier when it was obvious the state was about to get scorched.

Some policies were changed, most notably Oregon's oft-ridiculed ban on self-service gasoline; this regulation was sensibly waived so that station attendants wouldn't have to suffer in the heat. (What this implies about the necessity of the ban in the first place is a topic for another day.) The state also lifted capacity limits in shopping malls, movie theaters, and swimming pools. That was better than nothing, but why not go all the way?

There wasn't a hard scientific justification for waiting. Oregon had planned to reopen when 70 percent of adults had received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine, a goal the state expected to meet by June 21. That date came and went as the pace of vaccinations slowed to a crawl. With the rate at 69 percent, Governor Brown committed to opening when the initial goal was reached or on June 30, whichever came first. Explaining her reasoning, she said, "Obviously businesses and venues need certainty in terms of reopening."

Brown was right to recognize that the pragmatic benefits of reopening outweighed the desire to precisely meet a semi-arbitrary vaccination benchmark. Yet she also failed to be pragmatic enough to see a historically unprecedented weather event as a compelling reason to accelerate the schedule further. With cases low and vaccinations on the cusp of 70 percent, it would have been hubristic to assume that an extra four days of compliance with social distancing mandates would have any meaningful effect on the course of the pandemic. At the same time, the costs imposed on businesses and consumers were obvious and predictable. Having already waved the white flag on opening regardless of the vaccination metrics, the sensible thing would have been to liberate businesses to adapt to the extraordinary temperatures.

The case for reopening was particularly strong in Multnomah County, where Portland is located. The county was at a 71.4% vaccination rate as of the 26th, comfortably exceeding Brown's statewide goal, with a seven-day average of only 29 new cases. Yet businesses in the state's largest population center were forced to delay fully reopening due to low rates in other areas. As Morales noted in frustration, "I'm getting penalized for some of the counties on the borders of the state."

Needlessly waiting a few extra days wasn't following the science, it was losing sight of tradeoffs. The Cato Institute's Ryan Bourne, author of the recent book Economics in One Virus, notes that this has been a persistent error throughout the pandemic. "This general problem of tardiness in adjusting policy has meant certain mandates or business capacity restrictions being left in place even when the additional risks of COVID-19 transmission from relaxing them would be vastly exceeded by the benefits," he says. "There's been far too rigid a focus on arbitrary COVID-19 case targets or expiry dates even as new information, variants, events, or conditions have fundamentally altered the balance of costs and benefits of the restrictions."

Policy decisions should obviously be guided by data, but good governance also depends on knowing when to let go. One lesson authorities should take from the pandemic is humility, a recognition that uncertainty abounds and that their power to control such a complex event is limited. When rigidly technocratic adherence to metrics leads to absurd policy outcomes, leaders should step back and reconsider.

That failure to think economically has become a point of frustration for Huffman. Though he was among the first local restaurateurs to close in the early days of the pandemic, he bristled at a third (brief but disruptive) shutdown in April. "The state has been incapable of taking a stand," he says now of government officials' obstinate reliance on metrics and deadlines that forced air-conditioned bars and restaurants to turn customers away in 116-degree heat just two days before Oregon fully reopens. "Nobody's ever had the courage to come out and say this is silly."

NEXT: Virginia Says You Can Gamble On This, But Not That

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  1. “When rigidly technocratic adherence to metrics leads to absurd policy outcomes, leaders should step back and reconsider”

    That’s the whole grift and why trillion dollar companies are doing the work of government. Anyway when have our dear leaders in the democrat party ever stopped to reconsider? Defunding the cops is bad and results in poor policy, so blame shift and hide until it blows over.

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  2. was nice and cool here in the South. Hopefully God’s Wrath extends to more than temporary discomfort

    1. Haha! You live in the asshole of the country!

      1. Bigoted fags like you always say that. The south is much better than a commie shithole like Seattle, or Portland for that matter. Given that communist militias run unchecked in the streets.

        1. The south is a dull shithole that is mostly backwards rubes.

          It’s rich you calling me a bigot.

          I really hope the Biden administration weeds anti-American extremists like you out of our military.

          Traitor!

          How can you put your hard on for Trump above your oath to the constitution? Do you have no shame?

  3. O/T – Whoa!!! Fox is reporting that Bill Cosby’s verdict has been vacated, charges dropped, and he’ll be released from prison.

      1. Due process violations are a bitch. Judge is right to bar further prosecution.

    1. Funniest part is that the original prosecutor was one of the Trump’s lawyers.

  4. The fruits voted for it. Fuck em.

    1. Yeah, my level of sympathy for anything that happens in Portland is literally zero.

      1. We appreciate your lack of sympathy. Multnomah county and the city of Portland have become one-party rule. There were virtually no alternatives on the most recent ballot. We can’t get out of here fast enough.

        1. For people who don’t support what’s going on in that city, they should leave. Portland is a picked flower. It’s done.

        2. Instead, we need a real president who will put cities like Portland under martial law when all this BLM/Fa insurrection starts up. A lot of them should have been dead a long time ago.

          1. Cram it traitor!

            Do even celebrate the fourth? Or do you burn flags or copies of the constitution?

          2. Seattle is better than shithole Spokane

  5. If Antifa can’t get an iced coffee between mostly peaceful demonstrations, what’s Portland coming to?

    1. Yup, laughed out loud on that one. Cheers!

  6. Masks today, Masks tomorrow, Masks forever.

    PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — As states around the country lift COVID-19 restrictions, Oregon is poised to go the opposite direction — and many residents are fuming about it.

    A top health official is considering indefinitely extending rules requiring masks and social distancing in all businesses in the state.

    The proposal would keep the rules in place until they are “no longer necessary to address the effects of the pandemic in the workplace.”

    Michael Wood, administrator of the state’s department of Occupational Safety and Health, said the move is necessary to address a technicality in state law that requires a “permanent” rule to keep current restrictions from expiring.

    Conservative BACKLASH!

    1. Not sure that would help. From one of the links in the article, it’s pretty clear that stupid already spread much faster than covid to the entire population of Oregon. It looks ungovernable. Oregon looks like one of many states that should just split into two or more pieces.

      Don’t know why voters themselves aren’t petitioning that – though I certainly understand why the DeRp establishments ain’t interested in that.

    2. And since those rules are ALREADY no longer necessary, they will be dropping them all, right?

  7. 116F is an apocalyptic scenario? That’s cute. *Laughs in Texan.

    1. It was 111 degrees in Spokane yesterday. Dangerously hot primarily because we only see those temperatures about once every ten to fifteen years. So our cooling systems aren’t really specced for it.

      On the other hand, Texas doesn’t do so well when they see super co,d t expert urges in winter, for the same reason.

      1. Haha you live In Spokane!

        HAHAHA!

        Coure d lane is nice, but Spokane is mostly backwards rubes!

        No wonder you’re so fucking backwards!

  8. As a rezident of the Republic of Oregon, one whose votes have all the effectiveness of pissing up a rope, all I can say is the State reaps what it sows.

    The State’s population would sooner vote for a convicted felon than a person with conservative beliefs.

    1. The State’s population would sooner vote for a convicted felon than a person with conservative beliefs.

      It’s not so much the state as it is Multnomah County, and Portland specifically. That area goes at least 70% Democrat in every election, which overwhelms the rest of the state. Even if places like Eugene actually went red, it still wouldn’t matter. Oregon has the same problem that Illinois does.

    2. Maybe if the state GOP nominated non kooks. Other than Dudley the GOP candidates are usually nuts.

      Let me guess you don’t live in Portland???

      1. You’re an idiot. And a kook. So your perception of normal is worthless. Now get back to work. I’m sure your Mormon boss wants to get something approaching a full day’s work out of you.

        1. At least I don’t live in Spokane!!!!

          Hahaha!

          Now shut the fuck up traitor!

  9. Hopefully this means they canned the lying cunt Rommelmen!

  10. Great timing on the article. Just in time for the state to fully open jun 30.

  11. Is it true that Portland’s mayor ordered air conditioners to be distributed to the mostly peaceful protesters so they would not be subjected to heat exhaustion while they riot, burn and loot public and private property?

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