With caution and care, Malheur County edges into a new phase, balancing health and the economy

Fiesta Guadalajara was among area restaurants that had been open only for to-go meals and delivery for now. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)

Malheur County residents take a step towards normalcy Friday as the state eases restrictions that have darkened some businesses and left people at home for two months.

Gov. Kate Brown on Thursday announced that Malheur County could move to reopen, and businesses across the county prepared to do just that.

For the first time in weeks, restaurants plan to allow people in to sit down for meals instead of grabbing them to go. The dining experience will be unlike anything diners have experienced as guests will be kept apart, workers will be wearing masks and the likely smell of disinfectant mingles with the scents of bacon and burgers.

Barbers and hairdressers are turning to work too, but life there will be different as well. Appointments will be needed. The number of customers will be limited. And that person working your hair will do so from behind a mask.

The door also opened for larger gatherings, up to 25 people. But that will come with restrictions too – people will have to be kept six feet apart, the measure of social distancing.

County officials were optimistic that the community is ready to get back to life. But caution remains, and county and state officials will keep a sharp eye on reported cases of COVID-19.

Brown in a news conference urged Oregonians to keep up protective measures she said has kept Oregon’s case rate down.

“Everyone across the state should continue to practice physical distancing and wear face coverings,” Brown said.

She cautioned what would happen if new standards are ignored.

 “If we can’t continue to beat back the virus, then we’re going to have to implement restrictive measures again,” the governor said. “I don’t think any Oregonian wants to go backwards.”

Sarah Poe, director of the Malheur County Health Department, echoed the governor’s counsel. She said how people in Malheur County react to the opening phase over the next three weeks will determine next steps to provide even more flexibility, such as larger gatherings.

“Phase two is entirely dependent on the public,” Poe said.

At the Plaza Inn in Ontario, owner Jason Jungling planned to open Friday but he wasn’t sure what will happen once the doors are unlocked.

“How many staff do I bring on? How much do I prep? How much product do I bring in?” he said.

Jungling said he already set up tables inside his restaurant to abide by the six-foot spacing rule. That means, though, that he will be able to seat fewer diners.

Under normal circumstances, Jungling said his dining room and two banquet rooms could hold about 150 people.

“With the 11 tables, out in the dining room I am set for 48,” he said.

Jungling said that means he will be “definitely less than 60 percent” of capacity, “but something is better than nothing.”

Angie Grove, co-owner with her husband, Shawn, of Mackey’s Steakhouse & Pub in Ontario, said her crew is ready to begin serving. Grove, though, faces the same capacity limitations as Jungling.

“We are opening up for seating. We have dining rooms set for the six-foot allowance so there will definitely be a limit,” said Grove.

Grove said Mackey’s “saving grace” will be outside seating, she said.

“We will probably be able to get our seating capacity. I can get more tables set up outside because there is more space,” said Grove. 

Grove said she is also setting up a reservation system.

Grove said Mackey’s will open for lunch on Friday with a limited menu.

“My staff and I are ready to go and masked up and sanitized up,” said Grove.

In Vale, Chabelitas Taqueria will wait until Monday to open, said owner Edgar Esquivel.

“We are not ready yet,” he said.

Esquivel said he is waiting on a delivery of sanitizing products and still working out the details of serving customers.

One problem facing both Mackey’s and the Plaza Inn face is timely delivery of products.

“It is becoming an issue,” said Jungling.

Grove said her restaurant will open up with a limited menu because she is still waiting on a delivery truck for some materials.

Grove said she acquires her products from Sysco Corporation and the company is “trying to restock like everyone else.”

“They’ve ramped down so much and now they are trying to ramp back up. So, there will be some things we will be out of,” said Grove.

Jungling said prices for many products are also climbing.

“Eggs have gone up 17 percent in the last few weeks. Ham, turkey, beef have all gone up. So, we’ve seen prices go up across the board as far as product coming in our back door and the only way to offset that is to raise prices, which we have not done yet,” he said.

Hairdressers face modifications as well.

In Nyssa, Heidy Muñoz is already booked out for the rest of this month and the beginning of June.

“Once I started seeing we were going to be able to open, I started reaching out to clients,” said Muñoz, who owns Gloria’s Hidden Beauty Salon. 

Her first appointment was scheduled for 8 a.m. Friday. 

She and her clients will don face masks at each appointment. Clients may bring their own or Muñoz can provide one for a small fee. Muñoz will also wear gloves from now on. 

The new rules aren’t a major hardship for Muñoz.

“I have a little studio so I’ve always done one client at a time,” she said. “Pretty much what we have to do, I’ve always done that anyway.” 

She said she’s excited to get back to work after two months of being closed. March and April were supposed to be her busiest months. 

If you call Salon Salon in Ontario and don’t catch Stephen Crow on the phone, you’ll hear the sound of relief in his voicemail message.

“We are so grateful that you’ve called and we are going to open,” Crowe’s answering machine said Thursday. “The salon and spa will open this Friday.”

Nails by Jenn, Hair by Them in Vale announced on Facebook the salon also will open Friday. Clients must call ahead to book an appointment, bring a mask and come to the appointment alone.

After nearly two months of Zoom gatherings and Facebook Lives, some churches in Malheur County expect to resume in-person services, though they will have to involve no more than 25 people.

St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Vale reopened its doors for mass on Wednesday, Father Cami Fernando said. In order to comply with the 25-person limit, the church has assigned “attendance times” to parishioners in an alphabetical system. For example, last names that begin with A-D come to morning mass, E-J come to evening mass, etc.

Moving forward, the church plans on using a sign-up sheet for parishioners to choose which times they can come in.

Church officials advise everyone to wear masks to services. Mass will be kept short, social distancing will be required, and public spaces such as the restroom, choir loft, and cry rooms will be closed, according to the church’s Facebook page.

While some churches proceed to reopen, others are waiting to resume in-person services.

Origins Faith Community in Ontario has hosted virtual services through sites like Zoom and Facebook for the past two months. Pastor Tammy Vogt says that their church has a congregation well over 25 people, so the church is not yet cleared to reopen under the governor’s mandates. However, it does have tentative plans for a reopening in June.

Vogt says that although she looks forward to the day that everyone can meet in person, safety is the priority.

“Our concern remains for those who are the most vulnerable among us,” Vogt said. “As much as we deeply desire to gather together, we are committed to only doing so in accordance with the guidelines set before us by the state of Oregon and Governor Brown.”

In Ontario, the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has no plans to resume its in-person meetings soon, the church’s communications director, Evelyn Dame, said.

“We always try to be good citizens and follow the local and national directives given in regards to the COVID-19 pandemic and group assemblies,” she said. “We encourage individuals and families to continue their gospel study at home and utilize the many online resources.”

But key restrictions remain in place, including the bar on large gatherings.

That led to the decisions to cancel the Malheur County Fair and the Big Loop Rodeo in Jordan Valley, which was scheduled for this weekend.

And offices are expected to limit their operations.

“People who usually work in an office and have been working from home must continue to work from home,” Brown said. “This is incredibly important.”

She acknowledged that there is a split among Oregonians, with some urging a faster move to dropping restrictions while others want them left in place.

“My job is to make hard decisions even when they are unpopular,” she said.

In Malheur County, health officials intend to closely monitor developments around new reports of infected individuals. As of Thursday, the county had 16 confirmed or presumed cases. Eleven people have recovered and none required hospital care.

Poe said her staff is focused on working with those that provide congregate care, such as long-term care facilities, and with industry where social distancing is hard, such food processing and packing plants.

She said the goal is to help guard against the spread of the virus and react quickly should a cluster of cases develop so the entire county doesn’t have to shut down again.

She said her agency wouldn’t be checking businesses for compliance with state rules, but will take and process complaints.

Brown said she too isn’t expecting police to arrest those violating her orders, including the still-required limits on leisure travel. No one should would worry that state troopers will be after violators, Brown said.

“I’m not going to have them stopping cars going to the coast,” Brown said, again urging Oregonians to comply on their own with the eased restrictions.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]. Reporter Yadira Lopez ([email protected]) and Jennifer Adams, a University of Southern California journalism student, contributed to this report.


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