Malheur county businesses struggle as virus rules take hold

Jesus Perez, a cashier at Ontario Mini Market, uses the “sanitation station” set up at the store’s entrance. The store also is asking customers to wash up as they enter the market. Businesses, workers and residents are adjusting to new rules to ward off COVID-19. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)

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COVID-19 is touching nearly every facet of economic life in Malheur County during the second week under Gov. Kate Brown’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” directive to halt spread of the virus.

In most places, roads were nearly empty and area stores closed to the public because of a microscopic virus no one had heard off two months ago. Last weekend, it hit home, with the first confirmed case in Malheur County.

With the spring weather warming up, this usually is patio season at some local eateries.

At Second and Vine Bistro in Ontario, customers normally would be lounging at an outdoor table, sipping wine and maybe listening to live music.

The eatery, owned by Suzi Ireland and Terri Dols, was named Business of the Year by the Ontario Area Chamber of Commerce in January. At the time, Ireland was visibly moved as she accepted the honor.

 “This was a dream of mine that I never thought I’d see happen,” she said.

Today, she’s facing a nightmare of shrinking sales after the restaurant was limited to take-out and curbside pick-up under state COVID-19 orders.

“It’s tough,” said Diane Gilbert, a cook at Second and Vine. “I don’t know how many places are going to survive. It’s going to be hard for small businesses.”

Gilbert said sales from their Friday night dinner specials are down by about 25%. Wednesdays and Thursdays were dead. The restaurant’s also cut its hours and is now operating until 7 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

She said she is trying to keep food costs low by encouraging customers to call ahead so she won’t cook more than is sold.

“It was a very happening place,” Gilbert said, describing the plants that leaf out in spring and create a cocoon of comfort for guests, and the many social gatherings there. “Hopefully that will come back.”

Outside Ontario Mini Market, signs ask customers to please wash their hands as soon as they enter the supermarket. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)

Bert’s Growler Garage, an Ontario craft beer and wine bar also popular for its outside seating, closed March 20 for at least three weeks. On its Facebook page, a statement cited concern for employees and the public. The message was hopeful and teased an upcoming sixth anniversary celebration when the shutdown is lifted.

Some businesses are creative in their efforts to enforce health recommendations.

At Ontario Mini Market, a sign in Spanish at the front entrance asks customers to please wash their hands when they step inside.

A bucket of chlorinated water meets everyone at the entryway, along with bottles of soap and hand sanitizer.

Signs posted outside and inside also ask customers to avoid crowding the store. The signs ask that only 10 clients go inside at a time.

The Ontario dispensary Weedology created a new position to enforce the social distancing requirements.

New jobs seem to be the exception, however.

Jobless claims in the U.S. jumped the third week in March to an all-time high as more than three million Americans sought unemployment benefits. In Oregon, the state Employment Department saw more than 76,500 new unemployment claims filed during that week.

Chris Rich, a regional economist for the Oregon Employment Department, said Malheur County experienced a twofold increase in jobless claims that same week. The county recorded 40 unemployment claims, up from 18 the week before.

However, Rich said that number was not a “significant increase, given the amount of employers in the area.”

He said there is still a degree of “uncertainty” regarding the impact on jobs from the virus, and he expects to see claims continue to increase.

A sign posted at the entrance to the Project DOVE boutique in Ontario points to the reason for the thrift shop’s closure. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)

“We will see claims filed for people who are just starting to see their companies lay them off. Then it really depends on where things go. If things calm down, we could see that die off. If there are more businesses added, we can see an increase,” said Rich.

Employers and employees alike have been watching to see how a $2 trillion relief package passed by Congress last week would trickle down to the local level. The stimulus measure, signed by the president, will send checks to millions of Americans, expand unemployment benefits and provide loans to small businesses.

Last week, John Breidenbach, president and chief executive officer of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, was among those who tuned into the news coverage as Congress passed the historic stimulus bill.

His focus now is on when some of the funds will reach Malheur County.

Just weeks into virus crisis, local businesses already are suffering, said Breidenbach, calling the appetite for relief funds “great.”

“We have businesses that have had to shutter their doors and are getting no money in. Until they get customers, they are stuck,” he said.

The relief funds are very important for the local economy, he said.

“Our best hope we have right now is people talking to their legislators at both the state and federal level that when the money becomes available, we make sure we get some of that,” said Breidenbach.

Among the sectors seeing a slowdown is the local real estate market.

Larry Wilson, who owns Malheur Realty in Ontario and is a Malheur County commissioner, said real estate is a “lot quieter.”

He said last week the local housing market also seems to be “slowing down.”

“I think people are thinking about a lot of things other than buying houses,” he said.

Wilson said he, too, is paying close attention to the federal bailout package. As a commissioner he wants to find out how much and how fast funds can reach the county.

 “Here we are one of the poorest counties anyway, so I think the next three or four months we are in for a rough patch,” he said.

Wilson said the county doesn’t need “any more adversity.”

The Malheur County Economic Development office is in close contact with the local Small Business Development Center and Small Business Administration officials across the region, said director Greg Smith.

Smith said the $2 trillion stimulus package and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan – a subsidy program that furnishes low-interest loans to businesses and homeowners for declared disasters – will help eastern Oregon.

“We are in close communication with other partners, including Chambers of Commerce, the Business Oregon Regional Development Officer, the Governor’s Solutions Office, etc. Regarding the latest package, we expect to have all pertinent information – where, how to apply and specific program parameters – in the immediate future,” said Smith.

Smith said his office will be “close contact with small business owners to answer any questions to provide one-on-one counseling.”

“While the COVID virus has been devastating to individuals and our economy, these two stimulus packages – and especially the current one – will help ensure as many businesses as possible will make it through and preserve jobs,” said Smith.

Meantime, firearm and ammunition sales are one part of the economy doing well, said Julie Clark, the owner of The Outdoorsman sporting goods store in Ontario.

Her sales jump is consistent with national trends that point to increasing firearm and ammunition sales.

Gun sales at the Outdoorsman have created long queues of customers from both sides of the border waiting to clear their background checks, Clark said.

Because of the influx in sales, Clark said, the store was behind on those background checks but is getting caught up.

She said she’s mainly selling ammunition, primarily 9mm, .380, and .45. As for firearms, people are buying all kinds – from hunting rifles to shotguns and pistols.

“Gun sales were very slow previously,” Clark said. While she wouldn’t call the current increase in sales a “stroke of luck,” it has been a welcome boost.

Clark believes customers are preparing for the worst, given the severity of the current crisis.

“Some people are buying for home defense because they don’t know what is going to happen to the country,” she said.

Some customers worry about not being able to buy more ammunition if the stores have to close, while others worry about potential looting.

“Self-protection” is the main motivation, she said, adding “Now you are in a society where you don’t know what is going on and people are fighting for toilet paper.”

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