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Dining rooms reopen in Portland after week-long closure; long-term challenges remain

After multiple shutdowns, many in the service industry left the business for different career opportunities, leaving management struggling to restaff.

PORTLAND, Oregon — On Friday, many local restaurants welcomed back customers for indoor dining. The change comes after a week of 'Extreme Risk' COVID-19 restrictions for several Oregon counties.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said her expectation is counties will not return to the Extreme Risk level for the duration of this pandemic. That's great news for restaurants.

However many service industry workers said they’ll continue facing problems tied to the closures they’ve already endured.

“It's so nice. Everyone wants to be outside!” said Ian Emrick, kitchen manager at Stormbreaker Brewing in St. Johns, of their Friday night crowd.

Emrick said he's glad the county is once again out of Extreme Risk, but he’s still thinking about the impact each of the three shutdowns had on him and and his staff, especially the first one.

“I had to lay off almost all of my staff,” said Emrick. “Then I worked four months straight almost by myself. It was rough.”

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Emrick said fortunately, some of his original staff returned; but many others got out of the service industry, hoping for something more stable.

“I understand it. There's a lot of other opportunities out there,” said Emrick. “It's been really hard hiring new people.”

The problem is industry-wide as restaurants look to staff-up again. Kurt Huffman owns Portland restaurant investment company, ChefStable and said they're doing everything they can to attract help.

“I know that we're having to offer signing bonuses for dishwashers to even get people in,” said Huffman. “And we start people at $15 an hour.”

Huffman said they’re even trying to get them an extra $5 an hour from tips. For a lot of former restaurant employees, that's still not enough.

RELATED: Restaurants, sports fans rejoice as governor moves Oregon counties out of 'extreme risk' level

“I see a lot of people on Facebook in the restaurant industry saying they're trying to find a new avenue. It's a little scary out there,” said Valerie Stayton, a server at The Fishwife on North Lombard Street. 

Because The Fishwife is a small restaurant, Stayton said fortunately no one she works with lost their job. Even so, management decided not to jump right back in to offering indoor seating Friday.

“You know, we're just waiting to see what happens,” said Stayton. “Eventually in a week or two, we'll probably have indoor dining. We just want to make sure we're prepared.”

Until then, Stayton said she and her colleagues are grateful for their regulars who keep lining up for the food they love.

Back at Stormbreaker Brewing, despite not knowing what the future holds, Ian Emrick is also grateful and hopeful.

“I'm expecting a banner summer,” said Emrick. “I have to shout out to all our regular customers who’ve helped keep us afloat because we would have been gone without them.”