Shortly after Oregon Gov. Kate Brown ordered restaurants to halt dine-in service on March 16, Multnomah County Environmental Health suspended in-person inspections of restaurants, food carts and pods.
Three days later, the team of 28 health inspectors had launched a new service — one that’s part public health and part social connection.
The inspectors set about calling every licensed food service facility in the County to talk about COVID-19, learn how each place is operating, answer questions and, in many cases, just listen to concerns.
They also sent an email to the 6,000 people who are registered to receive the Chef’s Connection food safety blog, just to make sure people know how to get in touch.
As of Wednesday, April 8, the inspectors had made 2,350 calls, had 1,553 conversations and left 333 voice messages.
“I’ve only had one person annoyed,” said supervisor Jeff Martin. Inspectors spend anywhere from five to 45 minutes discussing the temporary rules and COVID-specific sanitation recommendations.
“A lot of operators are really just happy to hear from us. And for us, We just want them to know, ‘We’re here for you. I’m your health inspector, I’ve seen you for many years. If there’s anything I can do, you know how to reach me.’”
Of the two-thirds of establishments inspectors have reached, about a third are offering takeout, and another third have closed their doors temporarily.
“There's a lot of uncertainty,” Martin said. “But only a couple have said, ‘I’m just done, I’m just going to close for good.’”
Amid the uncertainty, vendors are finding ways to continue their work. Commissary kitchens are asking for advice on delivering food to unhoused people and are partnering with shelters.
Elan Sandberg said one restaurant has laid off 124 of its128 employees. But the four remaining employees — two managers and two cooks — are now preparing individual containers of rice, beans and vegetables for those now-unemployed staff members, who can come by each day for a pickup.
Inspector Shannon Fost works with some large organizations that serve free meals. She has worked with those groups to pivot from family-style service, in large open rooms, to preparing take-away containers and dissuading people from sitting down together to enjoy their food.
“They are doing 200 meals to 300 meals a day, and they have gone from no takeout to only takeout and no more dining area, where people could come together,” she said.
Inspector Kerry Rupp-Etling said when restaurants first closed, many invited their staff to fill up on perishables that might otherwise go to waste. “In the beginning they were emptying walk-in coolers and food stocks,” she said. “There was a lot of that.”
Those stories are common. But so are the more difficult ones. One vendor told Rupp-Etling that he could hold out for three months, maybe four, before going under. She worries because he’s the primary income earner for his large and extended family.
A lot of small operators are like that, making ends meet month-to-month.
Inspector Rand Wallace said one vendor asked about a push for a moratorium for commercial evictions. A few days later, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler announced one. But even most shops that avoid closing their doors can’t keep their full staff. At Portland International Airport, where departing travel has dropped 95 percent, Wallace said food vendors tell stories of laying off most of their staff.
Sombra Forrest, who has inspected temporary food venues for more than a decade, spoke to the manager of an outdoor market who worries about his out-of-work vendors.
“The market, for a lot of people, this is their primary source of income,” Forrest said. “He has talked to vendors who have had to close. He doesn’t know how they are surviving.”
Inspector Michael McLuckie said most vendors are simply afraid. They don’t know what will happen and how to plan for the future.
“I do see a lot of operators who are just really scared. They don’t know what to do,” he said. “Their customers have dropped off. They have let their employees go. They’re hanging on by a thread.”
Health officials are hopeful that the state’s drastic physical distancing measures are slowing the spread of COVID-19, but it’s still unclear when restaurants will be allowed to resume normal operations, said Environmental Health Director Jae Douglas, Ph.D.
“So until that happens, this team of inspectors will make every effort to stay connected to those businesses and provide what support they can,” she said.