Though the statewide mask mandate was lifted on March 12, Portlanders have displayed differing attitudes toward continued mask-wearing, with some folks going maskless and some choosing to mask up in mask-optional grocery stores, bars, and gyms. The same goes for Portland restaurants, where restaurant owners are once again faced with deciding whether to require masks for guests—and they're not all taking the same tack.
At Han Oak, which recently began offering a hot pot tasting menu, co-owner Sun Park has decided to allow guests to walk into the restaurant unmasked. Guests are already unmasked for long periods of time due to the nature of indoor dining, she says, and she doesn’t expect that wearing masks while moving through the restaurant will make a big difference in terms of risk. Staff are also allowed to decide whether to wear a mask, though Park noted they’re all staying masked for now.
“I think that there is a certain amount of risk that we're mitigating by having people mask when they come in, but for that hour and a half to three and a half hours that they're dining, they're unmasked—so the amount of risk that we are preventing is probably minimal,” says Park.
As for the other layer of protection—vaccination—Park doesn’t see that requirement going away yet. Full vaccination is currently required for indoor dining, and unvaccinated guests can dine in Han Oak’s enclosed, heated courtyard. She’s considering changing the requirements to allow guests to present a negative test within the past 72 hours to dine indoors, but cases would have to drop further to remove the vaccination requirement entirely. In the meantime, the restaurant is also limiting guest capacity.
“We haven't added any tables," she says. “The potential for business is there, but it still doesn't feel quite safe enough to throw the doors open, nor do we have the staff to do it,” she says.
PaaDee also stopped requiring guests to wear masks inside the restaurant, though proof of vaccination is still required to dine inside—a decision that manager Adriana Alvarez says staff agreed upon at weekly meetings, then was approved by owner Earl Ninsom. Staff are still asked to mask up.
“It makes me feel like we’re closer to the normal life that we had before the pandemic,” says Mai Attasumpunna, another manager at PaaDee. “But on the other hand, I’m worried because we actually had the mandate lifted last summer, and two weeks later, cases spiked, so I’m getting worried that that’s going to repeat again,” says Attasumpunna.
Gado Gado, however, has decided to stay the course, keeping both its mask requirements for guests and employees, and continuing to require full vaccination for indoor dining. “The constant readjusting of expectations has just been exhausting, and we're frankly tired still,” says co-owner Thomas Pisha-Duffly. He’s received some pushback online in response to his continued mask requirement, though he notes the overwhelming majority of his customers have been supportive and positive about the restaurant’s precautions.
“This is more important than you and your personal freedoms. This is about all of us,” he says.“I mean, my grandmother died a year and a half ago—COVID. My father died six weeks ago from COVID. So everyone wants to pretend like this isn’t still a problem. And to all of them, I would very politely say, ‘Go fuck yourself.’”
In fact, in the wake of omicron, Gado Gado has actually doubled down on its pandemic-related safety nets for employees, realizing that many employees had exhausted their sick leave. The restaurant recently implemented a 2 percent service charge with the funds raised going toward paying workers who have to miss work for any COVID-related reason, like an exposure or quarantine or confirmed case. Those funds also go toward worker PPE, including KN95 or better-quality masks and rapid test kits.
That said, Pisha-Duffly is sympathetic to other restaurant owners who are faced with the same tough decisions. “I don't hold it against any business that decides that now is the time for them to stop wearing masks. That is their personal choice to make and I support them in that, especially my peers in this industry. We're just making the best decision for us and our employees.”