By Gabe Frayne
For many Portlanders, the closing or near-closing of the city’s numerous coffeehouses stands out as the most visible impact on the city’s community life brought about by the waning, but still dangerous Coronavirus pandemic.
These alternate living rooms not only serve first-rate coffee but also provide a calm space for working, reading, people watching and catching up with friends and neighbors.
Since Gov. Kate Brown announced the lifting of masking and distancing mandates for most indoor spaces on June 30, Portland’s cafés are stirring back to life in various degrees of openness.
A survey of 10 SE area cafés conducted by The Southeast Examiner during the week of July 12 found a wide variety of COVID-19 protocols ranging from strict masking and distance requirements to nearly pre-pandemic normal.
Of those surveyed, the locations that have retained the most restrictive protocols are Never on SE Belmont St., which offers take-out service only and requires masks for ordering, and Albina Press on SE Hawthorne Blvd., which also requires masks at its take-out window, but has outdoor seating.
The most nearly back-to-normal cafés are the Clinton Street Coffee House and Common Grounds on SE Hawthorne Blvd., both of which offer indoor seating and maintain a “masks suggested” policy.
TaborSpace on SE Belmont St., part of the Mt. Tabor Presbyterian Church, has announced it is “closed for the foreseeable future.”
Café owners are, of course, dealing with a fluid situation as a result of the surge in infections caused by the Delta variant (mainly posing a threat to unvaccinated individuals).
CDC data indicates that as of July 20, 65.8 percent of all Oregon residents over the age of 18 have been fully vaccinated. In Multnomah County, that figure is 75 percent, the second highest in the state.
Nonetheless, these numbers still pose a dilemma for the owners and their employees. As Zach Woodbury, the bookkeeper/assistant Common Grounds on SE Hawthorne Blvd. put it, “We may be experts in coffee, but we don’t pretend to be health experts that know more than the Oregon Health Authority (OHA). We default to the OHA’s recommendations under the assumption that they have the best information.”
One problem is that these recommendations are not always crystal clear and may be subject to change. For instance, a memo of “interim guidance” published by Oregon OSHA “eliminate(s) the general requirement” to enforce physical distancing and require masks in most indoor spaces, but also gives employers wide latitude to voluntarily adopt such measures.
“We’re just trying to keep abreast of the latest news and developments,” said an employee of the Favela Brazilian Café on SE Foster Rd. She added the café has a masks optional policy for vaccinated customers, but it is based solely on an honor system.
“I believe in changing and evolving to meet demands, while continuing to provide a welcoming and warm experience for our guests,” said Melissa Cunningham, operations manager for the Clinton Street Coffeehouse, which no longer requires customers to wear masks or maintain distancing.
“I wouldn’t say we are at a ‘new normal,’ nor do I attempt to lock in a particular set of ways.”
Indeed, in response to the survey question about whether the current COVID-19 protocols are the “new normal,” (i.e., the status quo for the foreseeable future), a tone of uncertainty seemed universal.
“There are some things that may be here to stay. I don’t think we will have the tables as tightly packed as they were in the past, there will be distance between them,” said Woodbury of the Common Grounds Café, previously famous for its nightclub-style seating.
At Crema on SE Ankeny St., owner Colin Jones said, “We’re not going to stick with [current protocols] forever,” but he will wait until the winter to decide if it is safe to suspend masking requirements and reopen the café for indoor seating.
“I can’t really speak to where we will be next week or beyond,” lamented Zachary Davis of Never on SE Belmont St. “Wish I could provide a bit more clear roadmap, but as of now, we are going to keep discussing and post any updates on our Instagram.”
Perhaps Matt Henne, the owner of Tiny’s Coffee on SE 12th Ave., summed it up best: “We’ve had so many false starts with this stuff, so what if we have to go back?”
Photo of Tiny’s Coffee by Kris McDowell