When the Old Gold resumed serving shots of W. L. Weller bourbon along North Killingsworth Street last weekend, no one stood in line at the bar.

Instead, patrons ordered pints and beer-battered cheese fries from their phones, using the Old Gold's mobile website. Servers then ferried meals and drinks to tables—four of them indoors, another dozen on the patio, and a beer garden rigged in a vacant gravel lot.

So it went, until last call at 9:30 pm: all part of Old Gold owner Ezra Ace Caraeff's plan to reopen his bar while keeping most patrons from entering the building for very long.

"We make sure people have to wear masks when they go inside, unless they're eating," Caraeff says, sitting beneath a canvas photo print of Dolly Parton. "But if they use the bathroom, they still have to wear a mask. And everyone did it."

Caraeff's elaborate system took weeks of planning. It's an implicit acknowledgment that drinking in a barroom is risky during a pandemic.

He knows his success may be fleeting. "We can do everything right," he says, "and another bar across town can do everything wrong, and that bar's impact is going to be far greater than ours."

But a continued spike in new COVID-19 cases could force Gov. Kate Brown to follow the lead of other states and close businesses like the Old Gold.

Portland bars and restaurants were among the last businesses in the state allowed to reopen. They could also be the first to close if COVID-19 cases continue to surge in Multnomah County.

On June 29, Gov. Brown warned she would issue last call if people didn't obey her statewide directive to wear masks.

"I do not want to have to close down businesses again like other states are now doing," Brown said, in one of her most pointed remarks since the pandemic began. "If you want your local shops and restaurants to stay open, then wear a face covering when out in public."

Her threat highlights just how tenuous Oregon's return from lockdown is. For months, the reopening of bars and restaurants was held out as the key signal that the state was rebooting its economy and social customs after months of hunkering down. But the same elements that make bars so attractive also make them dangerous: People sit close to each other, remove their masks to drink, and feel the glow of intoxication.

Some experts now warn Brown that social drinking must remain an outdoor pastime—if it can resume at all.

Heading to Landmark Saloon’s patio, with a beer and a mask. (Brian Burk)
Heading to Landmark Saloon’s patio, with a beer and a mask. (Brian Burk)

The Oregon State Public Interest Research Group issued a report June 29 noting the state was failing to meet two of four key federal prerequisites for reopening: a steady decline in new cases and adequate testing for the virus. Oregon's average daily count of new cases has spiked in the past two weeks, from 159 to 200.

The group suggested Brown consider closing indoor dining rooms and bars, allowing only patio seating and takeout service.

"What we're seeing is a growing consensus that indoor dining rooms are not going to be a realistic possibility in the near future," says Numi Lee Griffith, a health policy analyst with OSPIRG.

Across the nation, COVID-19 cases are surging, as states realize too late that they reopened too soon. And in most of those states, governors moved to shutter or limit indoor dining and drinking.

New Jersey indefinitely postponed opening indoor dining June 29, and California shut down bars that had been allowed to reopen. Texas and Florida had already shut off the taps as the state experienced an outbreak of cases.

"Bars: really not good, really not good," Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said at a U.S Senate hearing June 30. "Congregation at a bar, inside, is bad news. We really have got to stop that."

Gov. Brown has declined to specify exact metrics that might prompt her to shut down Oregon again, but her office said she's monitoring "hospitalizations and Oregon's hospital capacity, increases in case counts and positivity rates, and the percentage of COVID-19 cases that can't be traced back to a known case."

"If we do not see an improvement in these metrics in the next couple of weeks, we will take further action," says Brown's spokesman Charles Boyle. "We are seeing COVID-19 spread at an alarming rate in Oregon in both urban and rural counties. We don't want to see Oregon go the way of Florida or Texas, where businesses are being shut back down again. But all options are on the table."

In Portland, the prospects are grim. After Multnomah County reopened June 19, its daily new case count rose 21% in the week ending June 21. Those numbers don't yet reflect any virus spread from reopened bars—it takes 14 days for symptoms and test results to show up significantly in the data.

So far, Multnomah County and the Oregon Health Authority say they are not aware of a single outbreak among patrons of bars or restaurants in the state.
But Brown is hardly scapegoating these businesses. Spending in restaurants was the "strongest indication" of where outbreaks would occur three weeks later, according to an analysis by the financial firm J.P. Morgan, Bloomberg News reported June 25.

Some experts look at the rising case numbers across Oregon, and the possibility of infected people dropping in at their local, and say the answer is simple: Shut it down.

"I think we opened too soon," says Carlos J. Crespo, a vice provost at Portland State University and a professor of public health. "It's sad to see how we were flattening the curve and everything went out the door."

Crespo advocates closing bars entirely. The risks at bars include loud music that makes everyone talk louder—releasing droplets of saliva—but it's not just that.

"There's a difference between dining and bars," says Crespo. "Bars sell alcohol. I like beer and a glass of wine, but alcohol reduces inhibition. When you see humans making stupid mistakes, usually alcohol is involved. It's really a bad combination to tell people not to do something while you're liquoring them up."

Landmark Saloon reopened with masks required. (Brian Burk)
Landmark Saloon reopened with masks required. (Brian Burk)

Not all experts say it's necessary to shut down bars or restaurants, including Chunhuei Chi, director of Oregon State University's Center for Global Health.

"It's not feasible to shut down all the businesses," he says. "We are risking collapsing our economy. It's not whether they should be open, it's how we reopen."

Chi suggests bars and restaurants need to take many safety and hygiene precautions. These include: seating patrons outside to the greatest extent possible, opening windows instead of using air conditioning, seating everyone 6 feet apart or setting up plastic partitions between patrons, and disinfecting everything, including menus between patrons, with an alcohol-based spray. He also recommends that bars go against standard practice and not encourage patrons to stay as long as they might normally.

That matches much of what Caraeff is doing. He hopes he'll be allowed to remain open through the summer. But if Oregon can't get the virus under control by autumn, he doesn't see how he can sustain his outdoor business model.

"Trying not to think about what happens when it rains," he says. "If we're still in Phase 1? We can't pay rent on four tables."

Taqueria Nueve, 727 SE Washington St.Brian Burk
Taqueria Nueve, 727 SE Washington St.Brian Burk