In Fits and Starts, Oregon Emerged From Lockdown Last Weekend. Here’s What the Reopening Looked Like.

From the Mill Casino to a freeway Denny's, your fellow Oregonians ventured back out.

Mary Carlile left her senior living facility in Roseburg, Ore., for the first time in three months on May 18. She headed straight for the slot machines.

"It's really a different feeling, seeing so many people out," said Carlile. She was wearing face mask, which covered only her nose so that she could still smoke a cigarette. "I haven't even been to the grocery store."

Carlile was one of hundreds who visited the Mill Casino in North Bend on a Monday morning for what was dubbed its "Grand Reopening." The casino, operated by the Coquille Indian Tribe along the central Oregon Coast, was the first in the state to resume business since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March.

The casino floor had changed: Blackjack tables were shut down, plastic glass barriers were installed between the slot machines, and a masked employee took gamblers' temperatures at the door, using an infrared thermometer mounted on a tripod. "Have you experienced flu-like symptoms in the last 24 hours?" he asked each patron.

The Mill Casino is an economic engine in Coos County, where the towns of North Bend and Coos Bay never fully recovered from the demise of the timber industry. These days, seagulls gather on the boardwalk along the namesake bay. Locals in the coffee shop, Kaffe 101, greet each other by name in the mornings.

The regulars at Mill Casino felt relief at being allowed back into a familiar world. "I always love the sounds and the lights and how it feels like everyone's just able to relax and let go when they're here," said Danielle Martinez, who lives nearby. "It's refreshing to see people just happy again."

Yet Martinez was grateful for new precautions to protect her from the virus. She liked having bottles of hand sanitizer mounted every 20 feet, and preferred the slot machines spaced farther apart.

"I wouldn't mind it staying like this," she said. "I truly love this [plastic] separator because, even if it's just a cold, you don't know if someone's going to cough on you, and then I go home and get my kids sick."

This weekend, Oregon was a divided state. It had one foot out the door from the stay-home orders that kept people housebound for nearly seven weeks. On May 14, Gov. Kate Brown gave 31 of the state's 36 counties permission to reopen most businesses. (But not Portland, which still lacks some of the required safeguards. See page 10.)

And so, over a rainy weekend, some of your fellow citizens experimented with something thrilling and taboo: They walked into a local pub and ordered a cheeseburger and a beer.

But others didn't.

Across Oregon, from the coast to Bend, people emerged from lockdown cautiously, in fits and starts. The lifting of the stay-home order did not spark a mass rush back into public life. In many towns, most businesses remained closed. A lone bar could become an attraction—because it was the only one that dared to turn on the "Open" sign.

Nor did Portlanders flood into tourist spots, as the governor openly worried they might. Oregon Department of Transportation data shows that last weekend's traffic numbers remained flat along U.S. Highway 26—the main route from the Willamette Valley to Bend, the state's top outdoor destination.

Last weekend, WW partnered with reporters from two other alternative newsweeklies: Eugene Weekly and The Source Weekly in Bend. Our reporters spoke to employees, tourists and locals across the state.

The scenes we observed across Oregon were a preview of what Portland can expect as soon as next month. But two days before election day, they also served as an experiment in democracy. Each citizen had to weigh personal freedom against civic responsibility. They had to decide how much risk they were willing to accept for themselves and their neighbors in order to enjoy food and company.

Carlile, finishing her cigarette in the casino, said she ventured out because her husband was stir crazy. She found the result unsatisfying.

"It's kind of depressing, I think," Carlile said. "I congratulate them for joining in and trying this, you know. We'll see what happens, I guess."

University of Oregon
9 pm Saturday, May 16

East 13th Avenue next to the UO campus is normally a drunken circus on Saturday nights. EDM music, frat boys, street guitarists. But on this night, nobody was on the sidewalk, and not a single business was open.

Around the corner, however, were signs of life. The lights were on at the bar Rennie's Landing, and customers drank beer around the fireplaces outside.
Inside, a server showed a group of guests to their table and explained the system: Place your orders at the table instead of the bar, and walk through the building counterclockwise to maintain distance.

People stuck to their little groups for the most part, although there were occasional fist bumps and hugs of reunion. And in some places, keeping distance was difficult. All the urinals were occupied in the men's room.
For other campus businesses, there was less demand.

At Uniquely Chengdu, a Sichuan Chinese restaurant on 13th Avenue, only one group was seated the following afternoon. "The first day, 10 people came in. The second day, nobody came in," owner Xiaoti Sun said. "Today, it's just this." He waved his arm at the nearly empty dining room.

Across campus at Agate Alley Bistro, a popular bar and brunch spot on East 19th Avenue, manager Kerstin Bern prepared to open for dine-in customers on May 20. "We're excited to see people again." Bern said. "It's been weird being in a little bubble."

She said Agate Alley has been losing money almost every day while only selling takeout, and it has to reopen. But she's not sure if business will be good, with much of the student body back in their hometowns. —Jade Yamazaki Stewart, Eugene Weekly

10 am Sunday, May 17

Cheryl Mclaughlin's last shift in the Denny's dining room had been March 17. In late April, Mclaughlin found out she could return to work for takeout and deliveries.

"Well, that just happened to coincide with the day my husband died," Mclaughlin said. "I was not thrilled to come back to work. I have an 8-year-old grandson that lives with me, and he's already reeling with the death of his grandpa. The first thing he told me was, 'Grandma, I'm afraid you're going to go to work and get the virus and you're going to die.'"

This Denny's—plunked alongside a series of gas stations and a Motel 6—is only really visible from Interstate 5. The location was made famous in 1970 after the diner was used to film a scene for the Oscar-nominated Five Easy Pieces, where a young Jack Nicholson attempts to order a plain omelet and a side of toast.

Fifty years later, the diner looks much the same. Except today, every other vinyl booth is marked unavailable. The tables in use are sprayed down almost immediately after a guest leaves and promptly adorned with little red signs that say "Disinfected for Your Safety." It's the new "No Smoking."

According to Mclaughlin, Denny's was slow virtually all weekend, even considering the loss of space due to social distancing guidelines. Mclaughlin said that management originally told servers to turn away guests not wearing face masks or offer one to wear.

"We're supposed to have masks to hand out to guests if they want to use them," Mclaughlin said. "But we don't have those masks. So people just come in and if they don't wear them, they don't wear them. There's nothing we can do." —Donny Morrison, Eugene Weekly

Lincoln City
Noon Sunday, May 17

The Pig 'N Pancake was still closed. So was nearly every other brunch spot in Lincoln City. One of the few dining rooms open for business: Old Oregon Tavern, which was serving cheeseburgers and pitchers of PBR.

A group of seven people gathered at one table, and a tattooed man slapped the sides of the Elvira-themed pinball machine placed near the entrance. Aside from one customer dangling a surgical mask around his neck, the only person wearing a face covering was the bartender, who said the place reopened May 15 as soon as the governor gave the signal.

One couple, Danny and Ken Dickerson, ordered onion rings. Danny dug in while Ken played pinball. They hadn't picked Old Oregon Tavern as a destination. It was open, she said, and they were tired of staying home all day.

"We're still cautious," Danny Dickerson added. "We don't just want to go out gallivanting everywhere, but at the same time we still want to have our normal rights that we should have."

Inside the bar, a few rays of sunlight streamed through the front windows, which are mostly covered with paint and neon signs. No music played, and the majority of conversations were about the reopening itself. The seven people gathered at a table together grew rowdier as their pitchers emptied. —Tess Riski

2:45 pm Sunday, May 17

The problem with reopening a gift shop is that people want to pick up the gifts. That's a big reason why Sean Murray didn't want to return to work at Old Bayfront Bazaar.

"If I had my way, I would let it be closed for another couple weeks," Murray said. "I don't understand how people don't have respect when it comes to certain things, especially when it comes to our merchandise. They want to touch it 20 times, and then we have to go back and we have to go through with gloves and sanitize. So it's kind of difficult."

The shelves in the cramped gift shop were adorned with tourist tchotchkes—shot glasses, T-shirts, and custom magnets with kids' names. Arrows formed from tape snaked a complicated maze around the glass shelves, causing confusion among customers. "It's more of a guideline," an employee named Levi said.

Business at the store had been steady for the past two days, but on this Sunday afternoon the Bazaar had only sold $40 worth of merchandise. "Last year we made twice that," Murray said. "We can tell the difference. There's not as many people. It's not as fluid."

Murray says he finds it disrespectful when customers don't wear masks in the store, and that's usually the giveaway between who's local and who's from out of town. Locals follow the rules, Murray says. Tourists do not. —Tess Riski

9 am Monday, May 18

It might have been any other May weekend in downtown Bend. People spilled out of a neighborhood bar near Mirror Pond. The local breweries had waitlists. California and Washington license plates added to the traffic. People hiked the Deschutes River Trail.

Reopening weekend came in like a lion in this tourist town, even if it's not yet officially inviting tourists back.

"The amount of people downtown…it was pretty shocking," said Dylan Malenfant, a Bendite who went out Friday night.

The brewery his group visited practiced social distancing at its tables, he said, but earlier in the night, they passed up going to another bar where people were packed both inside and on the patio.

"People have definitely missed going out, and I think a lot of people are already jumping at the opportunity."

On May 20, the Bend City Council was scheduled to discuss the possibility of closing some downtown streets to cars, allowing businesses—namely, bars and restaurants—to spread out customers for social distancing.

May 20 is also when local tourism agencies expect to get a first look at numbers from reopening weekend. Wherever people land on the idea of reopening, seeing an uptick in hotel and Airbnb rentals is a bellwether: Are we being invaded by tourists who could bring more of the disease? Is my business going to be saved when tourists come to town?

Still, some of Bend's bars and restaurants are taking their time opening back up. At the Dogwood Cocktail Cabin, a moody bar in downtown Bend, its owners have opted to wait to reopen, giving them more time to retrain staff.

"We love tourists, we all look forward to the summer," said William Frankle, a bartender. "Of course, with everything that's been going on, the summer season poses a new set of concerns." —Nicole Vulcan and Cayla Clark, The Source Weekly

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