A sign at Mackey's Steakhouse & Pub in Ontario instructs customers to keep face coverings on when moving around the restaurant, adding, "Feel free to remove them once you are seated." (Kezia Setyawan/The Enterprise)

VALE – State and the county agencies tasked with conducting local inspections related to Covid are focused on education and resolving conflicts instead of handing out citations.

Neither the Oregon Occupation Safety and Health Administration or the Malheur County Environment Health Department are regularly inspecting local businesses to see if they are complying with state orders regarding social distancing, cleaning and masks.

Because of the high volume of Covid complaints, OSHA is contacting businesses by phone or email and “engaging them about a complaint allegations,” said Aaron Corvin, a spokesman for OSHA.

“A complaint is like a tip,” said Corvin. “It’s alleging a hazard. And if we can get things straightened out by initially engaging the business, then we will do that. This is true for businesses in other counties, not just Malheur.”

Greg Geddes, Malheur County Environmental Health director, said his goal when he receives complaints about failure to follow state Covid guidelines is to educate business owners.

“I am not doing regular inspections right now. We have had some complaints with restaurants, not a high number, but some,” said Geddes.

Geddes said the county has “had good luck” with compliance overall.

“Most places want to do it right,” he said. “We haven’t done any citations. We don’t want to do that unless we absolutely have to.”

Geddes said restaurants are not “necessarily where our issue is” with the soaring number of Covid cases in the community, now approaching 600.

“A lot of cases are coming from social-type gatherings,” he said.

Corvin said since March, OSHA has received about 7,000 complaints statewide related to Covid. Normally, he, said the agency receives just over 2,000 complaints in a typical year.

OSHA has “received just over a dozen complaints” involving Covid issues in Malheur County, said Corvin, and most remain under investigation.

OSHA doesn’t prioritize enforcement activities by county, said Corvin.

“We assess the substance and specificity of a complaint’s allegations and the responsiveness of the business. And we take appropriate action in line with the best use of our resources.”

If OSHA receives a Covid complaint, it contacts employers to ask how they are addressing the reported hazards.

“Our expectation is the employers respond to our inquiries honestly and thoughtfully,” said Corvin. “Failure to do so increases the likelihood of an inspection.”

Corvin said OSHA determines honesty and thoughtfulness in part by using “our professional judgment in evaluating the credibility of employer responses,” as well as the back-and-forth communication OSHA has with the employer and complainant. 

“For example,” said Corvin, “a complainant (to whom we can grant the legal protection of confidentiality, if requested) could potentially provide information that shows the business is attempting to sell us a bill of goods.”

 “By and large, complaints are the main driver of our enforcement and education efforts with respect to COVID-19,” said Corvin. “That makes sense, especially given the unique public health crisis we face with the public – not just employees – raising concerns with us. And Oregon OSHA has long been set up to accept complaints about workplace hazards.”

 OSHA also accepts referrals from other agencies and monitors credible media reports, he said.

 Corvin said OSHA conducts Covid inspections “in cases where a business refuses to engage or we think the business may have misled us,” he said. 

 If OSHA finds violations through an inspection, it issues citations, which include penalties if they are serious, “as they would be with COVID-19,” he said.

 OSHA encourages “people to address their concerns with the business at first,” he said, but they can file complaints through OSHA’s website – “the preferred method” – or by calling enforcement lines at its field offices.

 OSHA has 75 field enforcement personnel out of a staff of 120, which include enforcement managers, technical staff, consultants and administrative staff, he said.

 The Oregon Liquor Control Commission has visited eight alcohol licensees in Malheur County since July 1, according to OLCC Spokesperson Mark Pettinger.

 One establishment was referred to OSHA due to either a social distancing or facial covering violation. OLCC listed the location as “Owyhee” in its report but could not provide details about the establishment or allegation.

 OLCC recognizes 111 alcohol licensees in Malheur County but has not confirmed how many are still operating amid the pandemic. They include retailers licensed for off-premises sales of beer, wine and hard cider, as well as bars and restaurants, said Pettinger.

 Amid a recent surge in Malheur County Covid cases, local businesses have adjusted their safety measures to comply with Gov. Kate Brown’s current Covid mandates.

 Mackey’s Steakhouse & Pub in Ontario is currently operating with about half its normal seats available to customers to maintain social distancing, said co-owner Angie Grove.

Mackey’s closed on March 19 and remained closed for eight weeks before reopening on May 15, said Grove.

 The state mandate requires that every surface customers touch – including pens, chairs, tables and doorknobs – be sanitized and wiped down, said Kelsey Peterson, server and bartender. 

 “We just clean, clean, clean, clean, clean,” said Grove. “Nothing can be left on a table from customer to customer.”

Grove said staff has to either throw away items if possible or sanitize others, such as menus, after they are used to prevent cross-contamination.

 Grove said her staff is “constantly” walking around with a towel in hand and wiping down touch points. 

 “You kind of have a muscle memory when you do the same thing over and over again,” she said, “so we had to kind of retrain our muscle memory.”

 For customers with health conditions that don’t allow them to wear face coverings, Mackey’s offers curbside delivery orders, which can be placed and paid for over the phone, she said.

 Peterson said Mackey’s saw “a little bit of a drop” in foot traffic following the recent surge of Covid cases in Malheur County.

“We still have our customers running steady for the time being,” she said. “Just not as strong as it was before Covid.”

 Every now and again, a customer “doesn’t want to follow” the restaurant’s rules, but they have largely complied with the mandate the governor issued July 1 requiring people to wear masks when going into businesses and indoor public places.

Geddes said most restaurant owners he talked with ask people to don a mask when they arrive.

Geddes said non-compliance by customers puts business operators in a tough spot.

“Our businesses are not used to enforcing things and it puts them in a very awkward situation when they have a customer who won’t comply. My message to the community is, to help our businesses comply so our businesses can remain open,” said Geddes.

Staff at the Goodrich Hotel in Vale have been “sanitizing the handrails and all that other kind of stuff,” but owner Lana Andrews said keeping the place sanitized is nothing new. 

“It’s something that you would normally do with a hotel anyway,” said Andrews.

With the county fair, rodeo and other staple events in Malheur County scrapped, the Goodrich Hotel has had about half of its typical bookings for overnight stays since March, though the hotel has seen a recent increase in people wanting to live in the hotel as an apartment.

Pete Pena, store manager for M & W Markets in Nyssa, said, “At first, it was kind of a rough start” ensuring the store and customers were properly following state Covid mandates. “But I think now that people are educated, we get a lot more compliance as far as the masks and stuff,” he said.

The store offers face shields for employees who can’t wear masks due to health conditions, he said.

Employees sanitize carts before bringing them in the store to keep clean and used carts separate, he said. They clean surfaces in the store every night and regularly spray countertops, as well as buy extra cleaning supplies from different vendors to ensure they have enough.

“Our top priority is that we keep our employees safe and that we keep our customers in a safe environment,” said Pena.

Only employees were required to wear masks until early July when the mandate was extended to customers, he said.

The change in protocol “added a little extra work for us,” he said, “but we’ve come around and made sure that we enforce that.”

The store has masks available for customers who don’t have them, he said.

There are also markings on the store’s floor to keep customers 6 feet apart in the cash register line “and they do follow that protocol,” said Pena.

“It has been a challenge when you’re dealing with the public, not everybody agrees with the policies that have been set,” he said, but “they have come around with the policies as far as wearing a mask and that stuff.”

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected] or reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian at [email protected], or call 541-473-3377.

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