Defiance of virus dining bans grows as restaurants flounder

BORING, Ore. — A line formed out the door during the lunch rush at the Carver Hangar, a family-owned restaurant and sports bar, and waitresses zipped in and out of the kitchen trying to keep up with orders as customers backed up in the lobby.

Indoor dining has been banned in much of Oregon for nearly two months, but the eatery 20 miles southeast of Portland was doing a booming business — and an illegal one. The restaurant’s owners, Bryan and Liz Mitchell, fully reopened Jan. 1 in defiance of Democratic Gov. Kate Brown’s COVID-19 indoor dining ban in their county despite the risk of heavy fines and surging coronavirus cases.

“We’re not going to back down because our employees still need to eat, they still need that income,” said Bryan Mitchell, as customers ate at tables spaced 6 feet apart. “The statement that we’re making is, ‘Every life is essential. You have the right to survive. Nobody should tell you what you can and cannot do to provide for your family.’”

Health officials in Oregon and other states with bans say they are necessary because people can’t wear masks when they eat, are in close proximity in smaller and often poorly ventilated spaces, and are prone to talk more loudly in a crowded dining room — all known contributors to viral spread. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists indoor dining as a “particularly high-risk” activity.

But even as coronavirus deaths soar, a growing number of restaurants in states across the country are reopening in defiance of strict COVID-19 rules that have shut them down for indoor dining for weeks, or even months. Restaurants can serve people outside or offer carry-out, but winter weather has crippled revenues from patio dining.

In Oregon, an organized effort to get businesses to reopen for indoor service starting Jan. 1 has been championed by several mayors, who formed a group to raise legal defense funds in anticipation of a court fight. Similar revolts in Michigan, Pennsylvania, California and Washington state have also gained traction, with the rule-breakers saying their industry has been unfairly singled out while other businesses, like big box stores and airlines, continue operating.

The states with the strictest dining rules are led by Democratic governors and the protests have consequently attracted the support of right-wing groups that, in some cases, have stationed armed individuals at business entrances and organized protests on behalf of owners.

In Oregon, protesters targeted the house of an inspector and the department’s top administrator after the state fined á local gym chain, Capitol Racquet Sports Inc., $90,000. On Tuesday, it added another $126,749 in fines because four locations were still open.

Brown, who currently prohibits indoor dining in 26 of Oregon’s 36 counties, called the move to reopen irresponsible and said it could lead to a spike in infections and deaths. She accused local leaders backing the movement of willfully misleading their communities for political reasons.

“We can’t waver in our response to the virus now, when the end is finally in sight and resources are on the way. We are better than this,” said Brown, who banned indoor dining last spring and then reinstated it with limits over the summer before the latest shutdown.

In addition to fines, Brown has threatened to pull liquor licenses and ban slot machines at restaurants that won’t stay closed. State inspectors have assembled a priority list of establishments to visit with the goal of stopping the “vocal minority” of owners before the defiance broadens, said Aaron Corvin, spokesman for the Oregon Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

It’s impossible to know how many Oregon restaurants have heeded the call to reopen because many are keeping quiet about it. Stan Pulliam, the mayor of Sandy, Ore., said he attended meetings all over the state where establishments were encouraged to reopen and said the so-called Open Oregon coalition includes at least 300 small businesses, not all of them restaurants.

Even before the organized effort, restaurants were reopening because they couldn’t survive and Pulliam said his goal was to provide a uniform framework to make it safer. He has urged businesses in his town and county to reopen at 25% capacity with a face mask requirement for staff and social distancing.

“These are individuals that are to the end of their rope. Their decision is not to thumb their nose at the governor. It’s really a decision to open up or lose everything they’ve worked for their entire lives,” he said. “We’re saying, ‘Hey, if you’re going to open, let’s do this right.’”

Restaurant owners who are complying with state closures have watched the movement to reopen with frustration.

“I have a bunch of businesses and bunch of staff who all want to work and I want them to work, but they want to be safe and I want them to be safe — and I want my customers to be safe,” said Ezra Caraeff, who owns four bars with food service in Portland and has laid off dozens of employees.

“I have bills to pay, but there’s a morality aspect to this.”

Some non-compliant businesses have already racked up thousands of dollars in fines from health and safety inspectors. In Washington state, one restaurant has been fined nearly $145,000 and is challenging a restraining order in court. In Michigan — where a ban on indoor dining expires Friday but could be extended — a restaurant industry group sued over the ban and a major Detroit-area restauranteur rallied hundreds of colleagues to reopen last month in violation of state rules before backing down.

In Pennsylvania, the state closed 36 restaurants over violations during a ban on indoor dining that expired Jan. 4 and sued 21 establishments.

Quality Shoppe, a breakfast-and-lunch spot in Kutztown, Pa., that’s been around for over 50 years, was among the restaurants sued. The state is pursuing legal action even though it lifted its ban on indoor dining last week.

“I don’t like breaking rules. That’s not normally what I want to do,” said owner Crystal Nolt, adding she couldn’t afford to close again after an initial three-month shutdown last spring. “I don’t want people to die. But at some point people also have to live their life.”

At the Mitchells’ Oregon restaurant, employees are required to wear masks and the ventilation has been updated with high-quality HEPA filters. Those precautions are enough for customers who’ve flocked to the small town of Boring — population 7,762 — since the Carver Hangar reopened.

So far, the restaurant has not been fined. A handwritten sign taped to the restaurant’s door tells inspectors to return with a warrant.