Step onto the streets of Portland these days, and the first thing you notice is the stillness.
Since March 23, when Gov. Kate Brown ordered Oregonians to stay home to stem the spread of the COVID-19 virus, this city has looked as if it were under a spell. The highways are empty at rush hour. The bars are dark. Most shops have signs in the windows promising a return—someday.
Most Portlanders are following the rules: staying home, making a life within the confines of their houses and apartments. (Read how they're faring here.) They are hunkering down for the sake of people who don't have that luxury.
In a few crucial rooms of this city, workers are spending long hours and risking their lives to aid the sick and vulnerable. Others are providing services that Portlanders are demanding more than ever before, as options disappear.
This week, via interviews and visits at a responsible distance, WW examined a few of these places: hospitals, shelters and both ends of the beverage business. In a city that seems frozen, these places bustle and hum with activity.
These spots once seemed mundane. Not anymore. In a city keeping to itself, there are places where life goes on—and sometimes lives are saved.
Oregon Health & Science University, Marquam Hill Campus
When Casey Parr gets off the elevator on the floor at Oregon Health & Science University, which for a couple weeks has been dedicated to COVID-19 patients, it's quiet. No nonessential staff, no visitors, and almost no sound, except for the occasional beep of a patient's alarm or monitor.
"It's eerie," says Parr, 35, a respiratory therapist.
Amid the muted light and skeleton crew, even daytime seems like the night shift. As of March 30, 25 OHSU patients have been diagnosed with the novel coronavirus (16 have spent time in the hospital). Before he enters a COVID-19 patient's room, Parr pulls on an N95 mask. Inside the room is one sound: the soft rush of air in and out of a patient's lungs.
Many of the patients on the floor are on ventilators, the now-famous mechanical breathing devices that push air into their weakened lungs, which Parr describes as "stiff" from the ravages of the virus. He checks to make sure the ventilator fits properly and is providing the right mixture of oxygen and carbon dioxide.
The patients do not greet him or make a sound. "They can't talk because the breathing tube [runs] between their vocal cords," Parr says. "Often when somebody is on a ventilation, they require high levels of sedation."
Parr, 35, has worked with very ill patients since coming to OHSU nearly 10 years ago. And he has experience with taking precautions to prevent the spread of infections and viruses. One thing that's different now: Parr must reuse the same N95 mask his entire shift. He takes it off and puts it in a bag when he leaves a patient's room. "You don't know where the particles that are on that mask are going to end up," Parr says. "It's scary as hell."
He and the nurses he works with are exposed to COVID-19 patients all day. "I'm not handling the stress very well," Parr says. "It's pretty much all I think about every day, even when I'm not at work."
Parr says he's not alone. "A lot of us have been talking about getting our affairs in order—getting life directives and wills in place," he says. "We don't know if we're going to survive this."
He takes those fears home with him to Oregon City. Although he leaves his work clothes at OHSU, Parr's wife, a nurse practitioner, leaves a robe for him in the garage. He strips and throws everything into the washing machine. Inside the house: his first child, Jack, just 9 weeks old, and his mother-in-law, 70, who flew up from Kansas to help take care of the baby. NIGEL JAQUISS.
Charles Jordan Community Center, North Foss Avenue
The regulation-sized basketball court is lined with duct tape. The tape separates the gym into socially distanced quarters for the homeless who will live there for the remainder of the COVID-19 lockdown.
Each taped-off area contains a cot. Between the basketball court and a smaller gymnasium, 110 people (plus a half-dozen dogs and one cat) are living 6 feet apart from each other.
Brady, 52, who asked not to use her last name, moved here a week and a half ago from a winter shelter where she could only stay at night. At Charles Jordan, Brady found round-the-clock shelter, three meals a day, a laundry and showers.
"It's hard having so many people," she says, but adds, "We are all very lucky."
Across the Portland metro area, there's a sizable effort underway to provide those 6 feet of space to the people who need them. The Joint Office of Homeless Services, which administers shelters, isn't increasing the number of beds it provides during the public health crisis—but it has to keep the same number of people farther apart. That's involved moving people who are particularly vulnerable to the disease—or who are showing symptoms of COVID-19—to hotels, including the Jupiter Hotel, and opening new shelter space in places like the Oregon Convention Center and the East Portland and Charles Jordan community centers.
The cost of spreading people out: $3.5 million a month, mostly for hotel room vouchers and 1,400 shelter beds, but also for beds that will be used for homeless people who have suffered symptoms of COVID-19 and are recovering.
Most of these new locations are now open. People started arriving at Charles Jordan on March 20. It once held exercise classes and after-school programs. (Portland Parks & Recreation closed community centers from mid-March through April 28, at a cost to the bureau of an estimated $900,000. It also laid off 950 seasonal and temporary workers.)
It's not just social distancing that's keeping the new residents healthy. A cleaning service comes in at 9 am each day.
Every hour on the hour, for 15 minutes, staff use Lysol wipes and sanitizer to wipe down all the door handles, surfaces like door jambs and restroom sinks—all the flat surfaces, anything that anyone might touch.
"We've gotten pretty efficient at it," says Nicole Jackson, 34, who was laid off from her job at a pet insurance company and began cleaning work eight days ago at Charles Jordan, on 12-hour shifts. "I got lucky in being able to find employment right now. I really enjoy what I'm doing." RACHEL MONAHAN.
Providence Portland Medical Center parking lot, Northeast Glisan Street
The emergency department workers checking patients into a tent are dressed like the cast of Outbreak. They're clothed in floor-length yellow and white hospital gowns, hands wrapped in blue gloves and heads enclosed in snow globe-shaped plastic helmets—called CAPRs—which look better suited to outer space than a hospital parking lot.
"I can't hear you," says one of the workers, a nurse technician, pointing to her CAPR. "You need to speak up!"
Providence's emergency triage center, typically located inside the building, has expanded to the covered portico outside the ER. Before the pandemic hit, this was the drop-off area, where ambulances arrived with car accident victims and women going into labor. Now, it holds three tents—two small white ones, and a third beige tent about the size you might expect at a large wedding reception.
"Maintain 6 Foot Distance," commands one shiny metal sign in front of the first tent. "Have ID ready."
This is how Providence, the state's largest hospital system, is anticipating the surge of patients seeking treatment for the novel coronavirus: triaging them in the parking lot. Providence is also setting up drive-thru testing behind the building, although all testing here is done by appointment only with a doctor's order. Data from the Oregon Health Authority shows COVID-like symptoms currently make up 4 percent of all emergency department visits statewide. At press deadline, 154 Oregonians had been hospitalized for the disease.
During certain hours of a day, patients start in tent number one, which is now guarded with orange and white plastic barriers after an intoxicated driver accidentally backed into one of the tents this weekend, according to a Providence worker who spoke to WW.
Underneath the red "EMERGENCY CHECK-IN" sign, next to a bottle stand of Purell, the patient gives her name, date of birth and symptoms. The staff then assign her a severity level, 1 through 5. If the patient seems as though she could have COVID-19, the staff will graduate her to tents two and three.
The words "WAITING ROOM" are posted in black on the second, longer tent. Only workers and suspected COVID patients are allowed through the clear glass double doors. This beige, windowless tent is filled with metal folding chairs all facing the same direction—like at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting—except these chairs are spaced several feet apart. Here, nurses check for vital signs: take temperatures, draw blood and measure heart rate with an EKG machine.
The third tent has the doctors. It is white and smaller than the second; only a handful of patients can fit. You can tell the tent hasn't been used much by its vinyl, new-car smell. The doctors can order X-rays here, and administer coronavirus tests via nose swab. If the patient seems ill enough, she may be admitted to the hospital. Otherwise, she will be turned away and told to quarantine at home.
As the rain falls in fat drops Monday afternoon, a nurse tech moves closer to the space heater in front of the first tent. "It's so cold!" she yells through her helmet, her voice muffled. TESS RISKI.
Hollywood Beverage, Northeast Sandy Boulevard
Dan Miner is finally catching his breath.
Miner, 49, has owned Hollywood Beverage, located at 3028 NE Sandy Blvd., for 12 years. Unlike most Portland businesses, which are devastated by COVID-19, his liquor store is getting a boost.
Sales in March are twice what they were this time last year, Miner says. Early in the month, especially, shoppers stockpiled cases of bourbon and gin, and cleared the shelves of vodka and other clear spirits—some of which he says were purchased for homemade hand sanitizer. Due to staff cuts—he had to send home two older employees, and furlough another whose roommate had been exposed to the coronavirus—Miner has had to jump behind the register himself, sometimes spending six hours straight ringing up customers.
A liquor store isn't a hospital or grocery store, but in the eyes of the state of Oregon, alcohol retail is an "essential business." Miner's work schedule the past two weeks isn't far from that of a registered nurse—15-hour shifts for 12 days straight.
He's taking the weekend off. But Miner insists the workload isn't entirely new to him. As a veteran of the Oregon Army National Guard, he's trained in disaster preparedness—which maps pretty neatly onto running a small business during a health crisis.
"From that perspective, it's not stressful for me," he says, "but I see how stressed my staff is."
While the rush of panic buying has slowed, counter sales are still above average, requiring Miner to put certain mitigations in place. At the Sandy Boulevard location, strips of blue tape, spaced about 4 feet apart, run down the center aisle, from the counter to the back of the store, to encourage social distancing while queued up. "If you're at the end of the line, you'll still be fine," reads a message written in black marker on the final strip.
A week ago, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission approved curbside liquor sales, a temporary rule change aimed at limiting close interactions. But Miner is wary of the policy—he's understaffed as it is, and orders to go take up to 10 extra minutes to fill.
He's not complaining, though.
"With concerts and sports and bars and restaurants shut down, we are one of the last remaining social pressure relief valves out there," he says. "Right or wrong, that's where we're at." MATTHEW SINGER.
BottleDrop Redemption Center, North Hayden Meadows Drive
The line to return empty cans and bottles curls back on itself like the queue for airport security or the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland—along the sidewalk, around the side of the building, through a grassy lot and back out into the parking lot. Above the Delta Park shopping plaza, a V-formation of geese honks and a jet roars skyward. Below: the smell of stale beer and the rattle of aluminum cans inside trash bags.
The line is so long because the 50 people waiting to enter the BottleDrop are giving each other 6 feet of space. The crowd gathers at 7 am, and the lines remain steady until the redemption center closes. It's been like this for days, says the security guard at the Lowe's next door—ever since the state told grocery stores they could close their bottle return stations during the COVID-19 pandemic. That edict left just two full-service BottleDrops in Portland, both owned by an industry co-op and both on the fringes of the city, in far North Portland and outer Northeast.
For many people on the margins, "canning"—collecting the 10-cent deposit for each recycled container—is a precious source of income. They are accustomed to catastrophe but not immune to it.
"If BottleDrop closes, thousands of people living on the edge will fall off it," says Jules Bailey, chief stewardship officer for the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative. Bailey says the co-op is letting no more than 25 people inside the center at a time, and has closed every other machine to keep people 6 feet apart.
No one comes here with a single bag; most people brought at least three. One man in plaid pajama pants has linked together two shopping carts, both piled with translucent bags of cans. Atop the stack stands a small white terrier. The man complains he's waited as long as three hours this week to return cans. A security guard apologizes, but says the expected wait is at least 90 minutes: "Before I can let the next person in, I have to scrub down the whole machine," he says.
The lines have troubled the BottleDrop's landlord, the real estate company TMT Development. On March 27, the company sent a legal notice threatening to evict the BottleDrop, saying OBRC was allowing crowds so large and tightly packed they could spread COVID-19.
"We must recognize and prevent the catastrophic and potentially deadly impact that COVID-19 would have on our houseless community," says TMT president and CEO Vanessa Sturgeon. In an email to Bailey, she asked him to hire more guards—armed guards—saying the clientele was creating a danger for other plaza tenants: "It is only a matter of time before someone is hurt or killed here."
Among the people waiting in line Monday afternoon is Jenine Monahan. "Getting money for my kids' diapers," she says. "Two babies, single mom."
Monahan, 40, is wearing her magenta-dyed hair up in a bun; her car keys hang around her neck on a rose-print lanyard. She has two sizable bags of cans, given to her by friends who know she's out of work. Her mom is watching her 2- and 4-year-old daughters while Monahan deposits the cans. "I don't know if I can wait two hours," she says, "but I appreciate the heck out of this place."
The clouds open: first rain, then hail. No one leaves the line. AARON MESH.