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'It is like losing a family member': Cold, rainy weather could mean loss of business for many Portland restaurants

If restaurants can’t, or choose not to, seat people outside once the weather worsens and tables inside are spaced out or empty, it'll mean even less money coming in.

PORTLAND, Ore — During the pandemic outdoor seating has been a game-changer for many Portland restaurants. But now, with the weather changing, owners worry about losing the option.

We could hardly enjoy the last weeks of summer because of the thick smoke blanketing the state for several days. Most businesses, already struggling to survive, felt it was the right thing to do to close down outdoor seating during that time; for many that meant closing their only option to make money.

Changing leaves signify damp, chilly weather to come.

“It’s going to impact everybody and all our numbers,” Yakuza Ghost Kitchen Co-chef Caitlin Heringer said.

Since restaurants re-started sit-down service earlier this summer many have relied on patios or street and sidewalk permits.

"When I dine out I don't even want to sit inside so having a patio is crucial in these times,” Heringer added.

Hundreds of bars and restaurants across town secured Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) permits to seat people in the street or sidewalks. But those expire on November 1. A PBOT spokesman says the agency is currently looking into whether it'll extend those permits.

Restaurants and bars have been operating well under capacity for several months now, meaning they’re making a fraction of the revenue they made pre-pandemic. 

If places can’t, or choose not to, seat people outside once the weather worsens and tables inside are spaced out or empty it’ll mean even less money coming in.

"The weather is changing and patios are closing and that really is going to limit the ability to have the number of people we need to have for business to make sense,” Renata Chef/Owner Sandra Arnerich said.

RELATED: New Portland city program helps restaurants add business during pandemic

So she and her husband made the difficult decision to close their dining room - likely for good. That is unless they receive more help from the government to pay staff, rent and other operating costs. 

Renata shifted to take-out only a few days a week and will continue making their popular pizzas sold in New Seasons Markets. They hope to expand that endeavor now that the dining room is closed.

“Being in an enclosed space with a heater going and people mask-less at tables when we are still in the middle of a pandemic is not the responsible thing to do for us and for our staff,” Arnerich said. “Not only are we not comfortable with that but also people are not going out the same way; people are still nervous, people are being cautious.”

Arnerich feels she's mourning her dream; they put every ounce of energy into Renata. She raised her kids in the restaurant. 

“This is, for us, a huge part of our life and our family. So it is like losing a family member. It is devastating,” Arnerich said. “My heart breaks for us and our restaurant but it also breaks for the other restauranteurs that will be facing the same reality that we're facing.”

Others will try to make it work, like renowned chef Vitaly Paley and his wife Kimberly. They own Paley’s Place, Imperial and The Crown, Rosa Rosa and Headwaters.

“It’s going to be interesting to see how it’s all going to pan out. But I do have to say people are not afraid to be indoors as well,” Vitaly said.

At Paley’s Place and Imperial, the two restaurants they own that are currently open, the Paleys said tables are spread out, ceilings are tall and there is plenty of ventilation. They say they trained staff extensively on safety and sanitation protocols.

“It’s as safe as it can possibly be at this point,” Vitaly added.

Restaurant group Department of Food and Shelter, owned by Dayna McErlean, closed and sold most of its spots. Chefs are embarking on a new culinary adventure in the old Nonna space; it’s called Yakuza Ghost Kitchen for now but will transition to the name Ghost in October.

The space has a back patio as well as a street permit with other restaurants on the block. Heringer plans to put a canopy or tent and heaters up in the back once the rain starts. But they’re encouraging people to sit inside as well.

“It’s really difficult to say what is actually going to happen and we are just going to try to adapt as well as we can. And hopefully, all of us survive,” Heringer said. “I just don’t know what the next step is, it’s just kind of day-by-day.”

That seems to be the theme of COVID; Kimberly Paley said the same words.

“I think we are going to take everything day by day. Will we put a cover over [Imperial's sidewalk seating]? I don't know, I don't think so. People sat on the sidewalks with our permits on the sidewalk even in the cold."

Paley's Place on NW 21st has a covered deck and outdoor heaters. That may very well be what helps restaurants and bars that can afford to invest in those items stay afloat through fall.

The Paleys feel hopeful about the future of their restaurants, although Rosa Rosa and Headwaters, which are inside hotels in downtown Portland, remain shuttered.

As long as staff and customers keep their guards up, they’re also hopeful Portland's restaurants will rebound.

“Portland has been - and I hope continues to be - a dining destination across the nation,” Kimberly said.

Others fear the worst.

“It's definitely scary. And I have no idea if my future is guaranteed in this industry or not,” Heringer said.

“It’s the small restaurants that really create our city,” Arnerich added. “This has such a big impact on so many levels.”

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