Full economic toll of the virus in Malheur County still a big question mark

Perk Beverage Company in Vale remained open this week for to-go and drive-through orders during the statewide coronavirus restaurant closure. Businesses throughout the area face tough decisions to survive the restrictions. (The Enterprise/Joe Siess)

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ONTARIO – The final economic fallout of the COVID-19 virus locally won’t be known for months but already the crisis is creating ripples across government agencies and the hospitality industry.

Vale and Ontario city government have not laid off any employees because of the COVID-19 virus. In Ontario, City Manager Adam Brown said the city has cut some hours for temporary employees but the rest of the city staff remains on the job.

Brown said the city has also instituted a number of other steps in response to the virus. He said the city activated its emergency operations center – though it is not staffed full time for now – and moved all meetings to a telephone conference format. The city also discontinued water shut offs indefinitely. Brown said the city created take-out parking only for restaurants on South Oregon Street. The city, he said, has not shut down access to its parks.

“We are not restricting use but we are not condoning it either,” said Brown.

Brown also said the city’s water system will continue to operate.

“People should not worry about water, they will continue to access safe drinking water,” said Brown.

About 28% of the local economy is driven by government employment, said Chris Rich a regional economist for the Oregon Employment Department.

How much an impact the COVID-19 virus outbreak will have on the state – and eastern Oregon – will not be known until May, said Rich.

“We don’t have any hard data,” said Rich.

The latest unemployment number for the county – released in January – showed a jobless rate of 3.8%.

The total number of employed in Malheur County in Janaury was 11,408. The total number of unemployed was 555.


Oregon’s unemployment rate was 3.3% in January and February, the state’s lowest since 1976.

However, the number of unemployment insurance claims spiked from 800 on Sunday, March 15, to 18,500 on Tuesday, March 17.

The American Hotel & Lodging Association said last week four million jobs were slashed or will be cut during the next few weeks but check-ins were steady at two local motels.

“So far we haven’t been impacted. We have actually been a little bit busier,” said Monica Duvall, the front desk supervisor at the Best Western in Ontario.

Cindy Suarez, front desk supervisor at the Sleep Inn in Ontario, said people were “still coming in.”

“We had a few people call and cancel but that’s because whatever they were coming to in town was canceled. We have 65 rooms and we had 30 rooms (occupied) or more,” said Suarez.

Crystal Woods, the manager of the Holiday Inn Express in Ontario, said business has not been “any more than usual.”

“We are hanging in there day by day,” said Woods.

Jason Ball, the regional manager, for TNB Hotels, the firm that owns the Holiday Inn in Ontario, said the worst may be yet to come.

“We anticipate hitting the teens in occupancy, which this hotel has not seen,” he said. “We are still seeing a lot of traveling of moms and dads but as far as corporate travel, that is all off the books and gone.”

Ball said the speed of the impact of COVID-19 was a surprise.

“We woke up Monday morning we were 94 percent occupied. We won’t see that again until next year. The next few months, up to six months, will not be good for hotels,” Ball said.

Rachael Henderson, the manager of the Vale Farmers Supply Co-op, said that business is going fine, and other than a slight increase in sales, things were pretty normal.

“A little bit more sales than we are used to, but not by a ton,” Henderson said.

Henderson said the Farmers Supply is still selling food out of its cafeteria, with more take-out and delivery orders due to the coronavirus outbreak.

“Those sales have gone up,” Henderson said.

Henderson said the store has received several emails from the state outlining recommended precautions against the virus.

The drive-through lane was busy at US Bank in Vale on Friday, as customers do business without face-to-face contact. Banks are among businesses deemed essential services in Gov. Kate Brown’s latest coronavirus order, which went into effect Tuesday. While the bank lobby is temporarily closed except by appointment, customers are urged to use the drive-up. (The Enterprise/Joe Siess)

Dale Gonzalez, the owner of Grocery Outlet in Ontario, said that the store has not hired any new employees to help with an increase in coronavirus shoppers.

“I have a great crew that can handle everything,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said that the store is still on a normal delivery schedule, and has placed a limit on the amount of water and toilet paper individuals can buy. 

Denise Palmer, manager at Logan’s Market, said that the store was getting a bump in coronavirus sales that is putting strain on their distribution channels for certain products, such as toilet paper.

“I see a little frustration in people who can’t get everything they want,” Palmer said.

“There are more people trying to get products like stuff we don’t carry because we are out of stock,” she said.

Palmer said that the store decided to limit flour and toilet paper sales in order to lessen the pressure on the supply chain.

Palmer said that supply trucks have been running about 12 hours behind schedule on their distribution routes.

This then puts pressure on warehouses, tasked with distributing products to numerous stores, which in turn puts pressure on the manufacturers, Palmer said.

Palmer said that the store has had shoppers come in from places like Caldwell, and as far away as Mountain Home looking for certain products.

Chavelita’s Taqueria in Vale decided to close indefinitely. Owner Edgar Esquivel said he wanted to take all precautions to ensure the health and safety of his customers and crew.

“It’s hard because we’re not going to make any money,” Esquivel said. “But it’s really hard to stay open, too.”

He said he’s going to use this time to do some remodeling on the restaurant.

Not all local businesses are faring poorly.

At Vale Liquor Store, owner Teri Doran said business is going well.

“A little better than usual. That’d be a good way to put it,” Doran said.

Her customers have been teasing her, making jokes about having to buy up her products before she gets shut down.

But Doran said the Oregon Liquor Control Commission has given no signs that will happen.

“We might be limited in inventory after a while, but so far we’re good,” Doran said. “The warehouses in Portland are full so we’re in good shape.”

She’s staying open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Doran said customers have been “really good and faithful for stopping in.”

“We need our locals to keep going,” she added.

The Malheur County Courthouse is still open but is restricting face-to-face contact. County officials said they prefer residents with questions to call in before coming to the courthouse so that staff can seek to help over the phone or by using online resources.

The county departments are heeding recommendations by the Oregon Health Authority such as increased cleaning, social distancing and teleconferencing when possible.

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