Kathy Saldana, owner of Quins bar in Ontario and A Street Tavern in Vale explained why the Covid restrictions have hurt her business during the past year. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell).

VALE – For Kathy Saldana, the past year has been rough.

The owner of A Street Tavern in Vale and Quins Bar in Ontario, Saldana watched her two thriving businesses buckle under the weight of Covid restrictions.

Last week Saldana wasn’t sure how to react when Gov. Kate Brown announced that Malheur County dropped into the moderate risk Covid category.

“I don’t know if I believe it,” she said at the time.

Across the county, restaurants and other venues – such as theaters and museums – could open up Friday for the first time since last autumn.

For Saldana, the county’s drop from extreme risk to moderate risk means at least one of her businesses won’t close.

“If it had kept going the way it was, A Street wouldn’t be open,” said Saldana.

The new designation means restaurants and bars can provide indoor service up to 50% of their usual capacity. Theaters, museums and other indoor entertainment venues can open to 50% capacity or 100 people, whichever is smaller.

Inside visits at long-term care facilities will be allowed.

Churches and funeral homes can now provide indoor gatherings at 50% capacity or no more than 100 people.

For Four Rivers Cultural Center in Ontario, the new Covid designation means staff can begin preparations to open its museum and Japanese garden, said Matt Stringer, director of the center.

The center won’t open for a while yet, though, said Stringer.

“We are desperate to be socially responsible. So, we need to think it through. We have to calculate space more than we normally would,” said Stringer.

Stringer said he hopes for the center to be open sometime in March but a lot of planning still needs to be finished.

Angie Grove, co-owner of Mackey’s Steakhouse and Pub in Ontario, said she was happy to fully reopen but remained cautious about the future.

“You can’t get too excited too fast,” said Grove.

Grove said she lost four employees during the shut-down – including several who worked part-time shifts – but is already training two new employees.

Mackey’s Steakhouse, like some other local restaurants, offered not only a take-out service during the shutdown but outdoor dining in a patio setting. The ability to offer the outdoor dining proved crucial for her business, said Grove.

“We are so fortunate we have that patio. With the patio open I’ve pretty much had everyone back by the end of January,” said Grove.

In Vale, Starlite Café owner Sharon Bannon said she will bring back three employees to beef up the “skeleton crew” currently behind the counter at the restaurant.

“Plus, I will bring the hours back up,” said Bannon.

Bannon said she employs nine people and she plans to also expand her restaurant’s hours soon. Now the restaurant is open from 10 a.m. until 7 p.m.

“Eventually I hope to get to eight to eight,” said Bannon.

Bannon said she is optimistic about the future.

“I expect from this point on, as more people get vaccinated and feel safe about going out to dine, things will improve quite a bit. Things are looking up,” said Bannon.

Saldana said it will be a long road back to the profit margin she enjoyed at her two businesses before the pandemic hit.

She said the financial grant provided by the county earlier this year helped, but it wasn’t enough.

“Bills are bills. They still need to be paid,” said Saldana.

The shift to the moderate Covid category doesn’t mean the county is out of the pandemic woods.

At least not yet.

“Until we consistently have low rates of COVID-19 cases and people who are at risk to exposure are vaccinated, it will be important to continue wearing masks, keeping distance, washing hands, isolating with symptoms and avoid large gatherings,” said Erika Harmon, spokeswoman for the Malheur County Health Department.

The Covid restriction modification also means local city halls are open. Nyssa, Ontario and Vale city halls are open for business but the Malheur County Courthouse is still locked down and by appointment only.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]

Previous coverage:

You did it, Malheur County - data shows drop in Covid, eased restrictions coudl come next week

New limits take hold in Malheur County as Covid case counts head back up

Malheur County among counties at 'extreme risk' of virus spread as governor extends restrictions

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