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Restaurants defy strict lockdown orders as industry struggles to stay alive

Owners at the end of their ropes are reopening against state orders.

Updated: January 14, 2021 - 9:18am

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As the country approaches the one-year mark of the coronavirus pandemic, the restaurant and hospitality industry continues to fight to stay alive, especially in small towns where family owned diners and local restaurants have begun to defy state and local lockdown restrictions to survive and serve their communities. 

In Oregon, where indoor dining has been banned throughout most of the state for the better part of two months, Bryan and Liz Mitchell made the decision to reopen their family-owned restaurant and sports bar on Jan. 1. Despite the risk of heavy fines, the Mitchells knew they could no longer afford to remain closed. 

"We’re not going to back down because our employees still need to eat, they still need that income. The statement that we’re making is, 'Every life is essential. You have the right to survive. Nobody should tell you what you can and cannot do to provide for your family,'" said Bryan Mitchell, whose establishment is open for indoor dining with tables spaced six feet apart and all employees donning masks.

Stan Pulliam, the mayor of Sandy, Oregon, told the AP that he has seen the "Open Oregon" movement take flight across his state. "These are individuals that are to the end of their rope. Their decision is not to thumb their nose at the governor. It’s really a decision to open up or lose everything they’ve worked for their entire lives," said Pulliam.

Oregon's Democratic Gov. Kate Brown, however, is unwavering in her response to indoor dining. 

"We can’t waver in our response to the virus now, when the end is finally in sight and resources are on the way. We are better than this," said Brown, who, in addition to fines, has threatened to revoke the liquor licenses of establishments that won't close. 

Similar practices by restaurant owners have been taking place across the nation, in states including Michigan, Pennsylvania, California, and Washington. 

Some businesses that have reopened in defiance of their state governments have accumulated thousands of dollars in fines from health and safety inspectors. Others have begun to organize to sue their governments over the ongoing bans on indoor dining. 

In Pennsylvania, the owner of a small diner in Kutztown said the state is suing her for remaining open for indoor dining prior to Jan. 4 when the state's official ban on eating indoors was lifted.

"I don’t like breaking rules," she said. "That’s not normally what I want to do. I don't want people to die. But at some point people also have to live their life."

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