SANDY, Ore. — Sandy Mayor Stan Pulliam has kept busy this winter, playing pied piper to Oregon businesses who want to defy the state’s restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic – but it doesn’t appear he has succeeded in sparking broad resistance.
While a handful of vocal objectors have made headlines refusing the state’s directives, the vast majority of businesses appear to be complying with Oregon’s restrictions and closure orders. And regulators appear to be taking a light touch with most of those who are not.
Spurred by a small number of businesses in Sandy, Pulliam said he has traveled around the Willamette Valley this season, speaking at local political rallies and to groups of concerned business owners. The end result is a loose coalition of what he describes as close to 300 local businesses who disagree with Gov. Kate Brown’s latest mandates, he said, many arguing for more breathing room to open and operate safely.
In an opinion piece posted to The Oregonian/OregonLive on Dec. 30, he called on restaurants, bars and gyms operating in counties labeled “extreme risk” for COVID-19 transmission to reopen against the governor’s orders on Jan. 1 in a mass act of defiance. Indoor operations at those types of businesses are banned in extreme risk counties under Brown’s orders.
“These businesses are not opening up to thumb their noses at the governor, they’re opening up because they don’t have a choice,” Pulliam said Monday. “Their decision is to open up against this mandate, or to lose their businesses and their livelihood and everything they’ve worked for.”
It’s not clear, however, that many disgruntled business owners actually followed through.
Pulliam offered examples of three restaurants that are defying the governor’s orders in Sandy, giving their names off the record for fear of state retaliation. However, none of the three advertise any indoor dining that’s not allowed, and one has been closed since late December.
Denise Overton, owner of Paola’s Pizza in Sandy said the business is “doing some serious thinking about some different things,” but did not clarify or respond to further calls for details.
Only one restaurant in Clackamas County appears to be vocal about defying the governor’s mandate. Bryan Mitchell, owner of a trio of restaurants in Boring, Eagle Creek and Oregon City, told KPTV that he will keep all three of his restaurants open, in order to support his employees.
“There’s so many families we employ that are struggling,” he told the TV station. “It’s my responsibility to give them a job.”
The majority of businesses in Sandy, population 11,000, and the surrounding Cascade Foothills seem to be complying with the state’s latest restrictions on indoor dining at restaurants and bars, as well as limitations on places like gyms, bowling alleys and movie theaters – though not everyone is happy about it.
Paul Reed, owner of the Mt. Hood Athletic Club in Sandy, said he has invested about $80,000 in equipment like air filtration systems and sanitizers to keep people safe, but is losing about that much money every month. The gym already requires face masks and social distancing, he said, with workout machines spaced out across the 50,000-square-foot building.
Under the latest mandate, gyms and other indoor recreation establishments must remain closed, though outdoor gym activities are allowed with a maximum of 50 people allowed.
Reed and other local gym owners argue that gyms are of little concern when it comes to the spread of COVID-19. They cite the relatively small number of infections that have been traced back to gyms, and point to studies that back their claims.
Contact tracing has been far from comprehensive, though, and some of the most widely cited studies find gyms to be among the riskiest places for viral transmission. Reed and others, though, say the state’s rules are devastating to their livelihoods.
“You’re destroying peoples’ lives, destroying businesses,” he said. “Let’s give them some room to breathe, the state’s choking the life out of these businesses.”
Reed declined to say whether he’s part of the mayor’s coalition of dissenting businesses, but said he agrees with Pulliam’s approach. And while the Mt. Hood Athletic Club isn’t openly defying any state regulations, it is finding creative ways to remain open while in compliance.
The gym’s indoor pool has a garage door on one side that can open, effectively making it an outdoor pool, in Reed’s view. And people are still able to stop by to use massage chairs and tanning beds, and can get smoothies and snacks to go.
“We’re kind of in survival mode, so we’re looking at what we can do legally under the mandate,” Reed said. “If we’re still encumbering tens of thousands of dollars in losses every month … our only hope is the court system.”
In September, three Oregon businesses threatened a class action lawsuit against the state over restrictions implemented by Brown. Meanwhile, Courthouse Club Fitness in Salem continues to operate despite facing a $90,000 fine for violating state restrictions, according to the Salem Reporter, and plans to appeal all four of its citations.
However, Aaron Corvin, a spokesman for the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health administration, which is tasked with ensuring that businesses are complying with safety regulations, said businesses willingly defying the governor’s orders constitute only a “vocal minority.”
While Corvin said the agency had seen a modest increase in reports of businesses not complying with public health orders since Brown announced new restrictions on businesses during a two-week freeze in November, the number of complaints about COVID safety risks and potential violations of Brown’s public health orders hasn’t substantially increased.
The agency has received just over 518 complaints related to COVID-19 in the nine days since Dec. 28. On average, the agency has received nearly 419 complaints related to COVID-19 violations per week since the start of the pandemic.
The state has received over 18,000 complaints related to COVID-19 safety risks since the start of the pandemic. But it has rarely issued fines and citations, focusing instead on education. Only a small percentage of businesses that have been fined have been cited for willfully disobeying the public health orders.
Since the start of the pandemic, Oregon OSHA has issued 11 citations to employers for deliberately disregarding COVID-19 health restrictions. In seven of those cases, the employers continued to disregard those restrictions even after receiving Red Warning Notices, orders which requires businesses to cease all actions that violate public safety rules. Other citations remain pending, according to Corvin.
During what was supposed to be an act of mass defiance against Brown’s mandates this weekend, Oregon OSHA did not issue any Red Warning Notices. But Corvin said the agency was aware of the planned protest and citations could still be forthcoming and inspections are ongoing.
“We don’t discuss enforcement plans in advance, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say this is certainly on our radar,” Corvin said.
Gov. Brown responded to Pulliam’s call for defiance by telling resisters that their actions would undercut Oregon’s progress against the virus and could result in penalties.
“If businesses reopen too early and instead create new spikes in COVID-19 cases, the actions of a few business owners could set entire communities back and keep them in the extreme risk category for even longer,” Brown said in a Dec. 31 statement.
Pulliam said he spoke with the governor before his call to defy her orders, stressing the burden her orders place on local businesses that are just trying to survive. He said he hasn’t heard from state officials since Jan. 1.
Regardless of how many businesses actually open in defiance, the Sandy mayor said he considers his efforts a success and plans to continue rallying business owners to action – even if it requires legal action.
“I’m proud, I’m very proud and moved by everything that’s happened,” Pulliam said. “We continue to fight for these small business owners and their employees who are truly in a fight for their life right now.”