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Restaurant owners warn indoor dining still not safe, urge peers to offer outdoor dining

While Phase 1 of reopening allows indoor dining with restrictions, some restaurant owners say it's still not safe.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Since COVID-19 hit, restaurant owners have struggled to level the playing field between the virus and their livelihood. At Twenty First Ave Kitchen & Bar in Northwest Portland, a playing field is exactly what diners can eat on, now.

“We think it’s Roseburg High School's soccer field, recycled,” said restaurant co-owner Mike Reed, pointing to the large swath of green astroturf covering the empty lot next to his business. On top of the turf sit picnic tables covered in vinyl tablecloths on temporary loan from Oaks Amusement Park. It’s Reed’s outdoor dining space which he says is saving the business.

“It is make or break,” said Reed. “I think our customers know to 'eat out' safely, you gotta eat outside.”

Many scientists agree. One of them is Portland State University researcher Dr. Richard Corsi. He’s one of more than 200 scientists challenging how the coronavirus spreads. Recently, they signed an open letter to the World Health Organization urging the agency to acknowledge that the coronavirus can infect people by becoming airborne.

“If you're not standing three or six feet from a person and you happen to be in the same crowded restaurant or the same crowded bar or a classroom and you're not near the infector, you can inhale aerosols from the nuclei that contain infectious viruses,” Corsi told KGW.

That brings us back to the indoor dining quagmire. Even if you can, is bringing customers back indoors a good idea? If you're Nate Snell, the answer is “no.” Snell owns Pip's Original Doughnuts & Chai on Northeast Fremont. He wrote an open letter to fellow restaurant owners asking those planning to reopen or currently offering indoor dining, to reconsider. In a statement to KGW, Snell explained his reasons behind the letter.

"Allowing customers into dining rooms without masks on demonstrates a stunning disregard for science and a lack of compassion for the health and safety of customers and employees," Snell wrote.

For his customer base, Reed said the majority feels more comfortable dining outdoors.

“I feel like 99% of our customers want to eat outside,” said Reed. “They don't want to go in to order, most of the time.”

Reed is fortunate. The owner of the lot he’s using for outdoor dining space isn’t charging him rent. But the city is helping all businesses expand outdoor service, by issuing Healthy Business Permits. The free permits allow restaurants to seat diners in parking spots along the curb, or on side streets closed to accommodate them. So far, the Portland Bureau of Transportation has issued more than 300 permits with dozens more under review.

“That's been huge for all of us up and down the street,” said Reed, whose business plan never included an astroturf dining field. But after everything that's happened, he's grateful for the chance to serve his customers, safely.

“If you can go out and eat, please do. Support your local businesses, this is the hardest time I could have ever imagined,” Reed said. “We just want to welcome people back.”

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