Liz White’s restaurant was better positioned than some to endure COVID-19 restrictions, but she’s still excited that those limits will ease in Baker County starting on Friday, Feb. 12.
White is co-owner of Paizano’s Pizza on 10th Street in Baker City.
“Thankfully, pizza is commonly found in a box,” White said with a laugh. “We already do about 50% of our business to go.”
That was beneficial when the state started the four-level restriction system in December. Since then Baker County has been in either the extreme-risk category, which includes a ban on indoor dining, or at high risk, which allows indoor dining up to 25% of capacity or 50 people, including staff, whichever is fewer.
Starting Friday, when the county drops to the lower-risk category, restaurants can have indoor dining up to 50% of their capacity.
White said that since the state announced on Tuesday, Feb. 9, that Baker County would drop to lower risk, she has talked with several frequent customers who are eager to eat their pizza inside Paizano’s rather than carry it out in a warm box.
That group includes some people who live outside town and like to include dinner at Paizano’s after a shopping trip to Baker City.
“A lot of people have been wanting to dine in,” White said. “It is a change for the better.”
White said Paizano’s will also be able to increase the hours for some employees when indoor dining resumes Friday.
Although Baker County restaurants and bars will be able to have indoor dining up to 50% of capacity starting Friday and continuing through at least Feb. 25, White said the limit of eight people per table will affect Paizano’s, which sometimes has larger dining parties, including families.
“It’s still not quite the same” as before the pandemic, she said.
Although the less-stringent limits on indoor dining are welcome, White said she’s disappointed that neither the district nor the state high school basketball tournaments will be happening this year.
The district tournament usually happens in mid-February, with the state tournament, which draws the top teams from Oregon’s smaller high schools to Baker High School, normally scheduled the first week of March.
Paizano’s is just a couple of blocks from the high school, and White said the tournaments are a major boon to the pizza place’s bottom line in late winter.
White said Paizano’s also draws customers from other sporting events at BHS.
Volleyball, cross-country, soccer and football practices will start later this month, and games, matches and meets could begin March 1, although all schedules are tentative.
White said that in addition to waiting for high school sports to return, she also worries that even as restaurant restrictions ease, it will take time for people who have become accustomed to avoiding social gatherings to return to their pre-pandemic lifestyles.
Ramona Webb, manager at the Golden Crown restaurant in Baker City, said she saw an almost immediate response from customers when Baker County dropped from the extreme-risk category to high risk on Feb. 5.
“Quite a few customers have requested the indoor dining,” Webb said.
She expects the restaurant’s indoor clientele will increase this Friday when the county drops to the lower-risk category and restaurants can boost their capacity from 25% to 50%.
Webb said the Golden Crown has done “pretty good” during the extended ban on indoor dining, through takeout and delivery service.
Tyler Brown, who owns Barley Brown’s Brew Pub on Main Street, as well as a Tap House just across Church Street from the pub, said he’s glad that restrictions are easing.
But Brown said the change, though welcome, hardly calls for a celebration.
“When I say it out loud, we’re still only at 50% of capacity, we’re still operating with one hand tied behind our back,” he said. “I don’t want to sound like I’m excited or happy about having to operate at 50% of capacity. We prefer to run at 100% capacity.”
Brown said that before Nov. 18, when Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (no relation) imposed a statewide “freeze” that banned indoor restaurant dining, Barley Brown’s had to cut its seating capacity by 35% to 40% to comply with other state guidelines for spacing between dining groups and a six-person limit per group.
Brown said that although he is eager to have diners return to the brew pub, he can hardly plan for the future with confidence, since the state reassesses risk levels for counties every two weeks.
“One outbreak could put us into the extreme risk again by late in the month,” he said.
Baker County will be at lower risk through Feb. 25. Unless state officials change the current system, the county’s risk level for the period Feb. 26 through March 11 will be based on its number of new cases and its test positivity rate from Feb. 7-20.
To remain in the lower-risk category, the county would have to have fewer than 30 new cases during that two-week period, and a test positivity rate below 5%.
Over the past month or so, with indoor dining either prohibited or, since Feb. 5, limited to 25% of capacity, Brown has been encouraging outdoor dining, despite Baker City’s typically chilly winter evenings, by setting up several propane-fueled fireplaces.
Brown said he put out one fireplace “as a test.”
“Everybody was fighting over it, so we added three more,” he said.
Once he noticed that people were either loitering on the sidewalk or sitting in their cars, waiting for one of the flame-warmed tables to become available, Brown ended up buying 10 fireplaces.
“They’re not cheap to buy or to run,” he said.
But he also believes the fireplaces will continue to be useful in the long term. Barley Brown’s typically has outdoor dining during the summer, and the fireplaces will extend the outdoor dining season.
Brown’s situation is somewhat different from many restaurant owners because he also operates a brewery, and most of the beer he and his crew brew, at least before the pandemic, is sold to bars and restaurants elsewhere in Oregon.
With indoor dining allowed in the Portland metro area and in Deschutes County starting Friday, for the first time since early December, Brown said he’s already seen a beneficial effect.
He said his distributors in Bend and Portland immediately bought all the kegs of Pallet Jack beer that he had available.
Although movie theaters are allowed to open up to 50% of capacity in lower-risk counties including Baker, Terry McQuisten, who owns the county’s only theater, the Eltrym in Baker City, doesn’t plan to open for a few more weeks.
The reason is that theaters, despite being allowed to show films, are prohibited from selling concessions for on-site consumption.
“It would be easy to open if there wasn’t a prohibition on concession sales,” McQuisten said.
At the Eltrym, a portion of the movie ticket goes directly to the studio (50% now, but that number is higher when studios have lots of new releases). The rest of the ticket price goes to pay the film buyer and shipping on the film.
“All of those things add up,” McQuisten said.
The inability to sell concessions would affect other costs associated with running the theater. She explained it this way in her Facebook post:
“Without concession sales, we won’t be able to break even and cover our added payroll and utility costs that would be incurred by being open.”
She tentatively plans to open on March 5, which is the 13th anniversary of the day she and her husband, Dan, bought the theater.
In the past year, they have installed air scrubbers in each theater to purify the air. Face coverings will be required when the Eltrym reopens, and ticket sales will be limited to ensure distance between patrons.
For updates, check the theater’s Facebook page or website, www.eltrym.com
Baker County YMCA
In a post on the Y’s Facebook page on Tuesday, Feb. 9, CEO Rob Wilkinson wrote that starting Feb. 12, the maximum capacity at the Y’s Fitness Center on Pocahontas Road will be 100, including staff. Face masks or shields will be required.
Sam-O Swim Center will have an updated pool schedule starting Feb. 15, and all fitness classes will resume at the Fitness Center that day. Schedules will be available on the Y’s Facebook page and at www.bakerymca.org/
The Club 24 fitness center in Baker City will also reopen on a 24-hour schedule, owner O.J. Fiander wrote in an email to the Herald.
“We are excited about the health level, as related to COVID, in Baker County and what it means to all of the small businesses like ours,” Fiander wrote. “While members of the Club 24 family will be required to continue to practice social distancing, as well as wearing masks while working out, we feel well prepared to welcome members back on a 24 hour basis so they can get back to working out on their schedule.”
Lisa Britton contributed to this story.