After 88 days in lockdown-induced limbo, many businesses across Multnomah County that had been affected by state executive orders—nail salons and tattoo parlors, barbershops and gyms, and restaurants and bars with sit-down service—soft-opened for business last Friday, even as the numbers of coronavirus cases countywide continued to climb.
The county is the last in Oregon to enter phase one, as defined by Gov. Kate Brown, which allows for reopening with strings attached, from customer limits to spaced-out restaurant tables to masks requirements.
In interviews, business owners along a stretch of SE Hawthorne Boulevard tell Portland Monthly they are grateful to be open again but hesitant about what’s ahead, with many saying they fully expect to be shut down again in the coming months. Each microindustry has its own challenges—coffee shop owners need to figure out what to do about customers who want to use their bathrooms, tattoo artists are trying to refill their depleted PPE stocks, and nail salons have to cope with a ban on walk-ins, which once drove much of their traffic.
“We’re doing our best,” says Chaz Vitale, a tattoo artist at Skeleton Key. “Staggering shifts (to allow for social distancing) means that we have cut everyone’s ability to work by 50 percent.”
Most tattoo shops are set up to accommodate a lot of people working in a small, tight space, he says—but not anymore. Like most tattoo shops, the staff at Skeleton Key also donated their entire supply of personal protective equipment for medical use in mid-March—still-scarce gear which all needs to be replaced now at market rates, an out-of-pocket expense for N-95 masks, face shields, goggles, and aprons.
The tattoo artists with spaces at Skeleton Key—all of whom, as self-employed/gig workers, are still waiting for unemployment checks to come from the state—have taken on second jobs to make ends meet during the last few months. Loyal customers have been prepaying for future appointments, Vitale says, which helps, but the loss of walk-in traffic is a blow.
That’s true too just down the street at Hawthorne Nail Care, says owner Mary Nguyen, where business has been noticeably slow since the reopen. On Monday, just two customers sat in the salon getting midday pedicures. Nguyen says she felt “disoriented” to be back at work but excited to have customers again.
At nearby Brick & Mortar Grooming and Supply, the pent-up demand for haircuts was on full display, says employee Matthew Cejka. Every barber is fully booked for the next 10 days, he says—though if you want a professional beard trim, you’re out of luck, since that’s just too close for comfort for the shop’s staff. Customers and staff alike are fully masked, Cejka says, and he’s not encountered any pushback, even before Brown’s requirement that masks be worn inside businesses in seven counties, including Multnomah, takes effect this Wednesday.
“There are quite a few people coming where we say, ‘Wow, you really haven’t had a haircut since lockdown,’” he says.
Shawna McKeown, who owns Hawthorne coffee shop Oui Presse, where sales went up this weekend and customers now perch at sidewalk tables, says she’s instructed her staff to tell customers who want to debate the efficacy of masks that they have conversations about such matters only with medical professionals.
“We just have to work hard to be politic about it,” McKeown says. “Everyone has their beliefs for various reasons.”
At Oui Presse, the bathroom remains off-limits to customers, and food is served in to-go containers, not on dishes.
Come Wednesday, McKeown says she’ll have masks on hand in case anyone comes in needing one, but she doesn’t expect pushback from her regular customer base. So far, no one has tried to sit inside her shop, she adds: “We’re not a bar. People aren’t getting increasingly comfortable as the night goes on.”