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Rural Oregon opens to an uncertain future

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Rural Oregon opens to an uncertain future

A few miles southeast of Crater Lake National Park, the store at Jo’s Motel & Campground is open again — limited to two adult customers from a single household at one time, with face masks mandatory. But co-owner Robin Hurt has been in no hurry to reopen lodging for travelers passing through Fort Klamath.

“It’s a tradeoff for us, because we are a true mom and pop. We are the only people who work here and we’re both in our 60s, so we want to see how things are going out there,” Hurt said of the potential spread of the coronavirus. “Getting back to business as usual is a terrible idea for the whole world anyway.”

Up in Umatilla County, organizers of the Pendleton Round-Up & Happy Canyon hope this year’s event can go on in September with additional health safeguards. General Manager Erika Patton said organizers are in a fact-finding mode as they work with local and state officials.

The event brings a $50 million economic boost to the region, more than tripling Pendleton’s population. Civic leaders say cancellation could devastate already struggling local businesses.

These are the paradoxes of rural Oregon in the time of COVID-19.

“While people are thoughtful and care about personal safety, they also prefer to enjoy a significant measure of freedom to come and go at their choice,” Umatilla County Commissioner George Murdock said. “And it is very clear that while the adherence to health guidelines has dramatically flattened the curve, people are getting cabin fever.”

As much of rural and frontier Oregon has reopened under Phase 2 of the state guidelines, some communities are eager for tourists, others are wary of outsiders bringing in the coronavirus, and no one knows what lies ahead. The unifying theme is worry about the local economies: Which businesses will survive?

“The mood in the community is very cautious, tense, concerned. Isn’t it everywhere?” said Barbara Sidway, owner of the Geiser Grand Hotel in Baker City.

Gov. Kate Brown’s stay-home orders and business restrictions decimated the hospitality industry, but the Geiser Grand Hotel stayed open. Intensive hygiene protocols were instituted. Room service replaced the hotel’s dine-in restaurants. Virtual cocktail-making classes and ranch experiences replaced the in-person events.

As people become comfortable with traveling again, Sidway believes the hospitality industry will rebound. She expects travelers to prefer in-state and regional trips over cross-country or overseas flights.

On a recent weekend, the hotel already was full. “We feel very fortunate, and we feel very optimistic about the near-term and the long-term, honestly,” Sidway said.

Several hours by car to the west, Oregon’s least-populated county is cautious. A notice on the Wheeler County website stated: “Please consider postponing your trip to Wheeler County. We appreciate your desire to visit our beautiful county, and we look forward to hosting you as soon as the current public health emergency has passed.”

The county of 1,330 residents — fewer than one person per square mile — survives largely on cattle ranching and tourism recreation. COVID-19 restrictions already have canceled such longstanding events as the county fair, Spray Rodeo, a bluegrass festival and the 43rd Annual Fossil Campout.

“We would kind of encourage the folks who are from out of town to wait until this whole thing settles down,” County Judge Lynn Morley said. “The downside is these small businesses, they depend on tourism to keep their businesses going. But local people, hopefully, can help them keep their heads above water until we can move on.

“People are all coming together in this little county and working together really well,” he said. They have been sewing face masks, which are put out in stores for free for anyone to take.

Physical distancing requirements have a profound impact on people living in isolated areas. In the Cave Junction region of southwest Oregon, known for its stunning beauty, Lindsey B. Jones sees a yearning for human connection.

“All these events that have been happening historically for years and years and years have been canceled or put off until later. So there’s a lot less of that community interaction and engagement,” said Jones, who works with the Illinois Valley Community Development Organization. “I think that’s going to be hard. These are traditions that people haven’t missed festivals in years and years and years. There’s also the economic aspects of that as well.”

To keep people engaged, Jones has created such online connections as a community forum with candidates for Josephine County commissioner.

“It seems so uncertain about what life looks like past the fall. And really, until we get a vaccine, life is going to be really different for all of us,” Jones said.

Like their urban counterparts, rural Oregonians have shelved such customs as shaking hands.

“For that to subside, I think it was a hard habit for people to break. Because around here, your handshake is your word. I think that’s been a challenge for some people to be retrained to not do that instinctively,” said Kimberly Nevil, president and CEO of the Hermiston Chamber of Commerce.

As both an agricultural community and an expanding economic center with considerable construction underway, Hermiston has weathered the business restrictions better than some locales. Sports tourism fell off, weekend lodging suffered, but business visitors and construction workers kept hotels occupied during the week and helped sales at take-out restaurants.

“For the most part, people are feeling relieved that things are starting to open,” Nevil said.

People flocked to restaurants once they could resume dine-in service. “You had to get a reservation, and in Hermiston that’s a new concept, because people can kind of just show up whenever and life’s good,” Nevil said.

Still, normal life is not yet normal.

“A little bit of our hospitality feels lost in the separation of plexiglass and masks at restaurants and at services, and those kinds of things. But I do think it’s important to follow the rules and maintain the guidelines in order to keep progressing forward,” she said.

On Oregon’s eastern border, the city of Ontario deals with an added challenge: It already was under economic siege because its employers compete with Idaho, which is just a couple of miles away and has a lower minimum wage, lower taxes, less-expensive power and looser land-use regulations. Malheur County businesses continue to move across the Snake River into Idaho, although Ontario is striving to reverse that trend.

“We’re unique because of where we’re located. We keep struggling and we keep trying,” Mayor Riley Hill said.

One industry has prospered during the economic shutdown: Ontario’s five marijuana dispensaries, presumably because of their Idaho clientele. Hardware stores also have done well, because people stayed home, barbecuing and doing fix-it projects, according to Hill.

Ontario’s hospital now has resumed elective surgeries, and other signs of normalcy are emerging. But life remains tough in the entertainment, restaurant/bar and lodging industries. People got used to staying home.

To help, the Ontario City Council prepared a resolution to forgive three months of water and sewer bills for businesses forced to close or that lost more than 50% of their normal revenue.

Hill said some businesses are unlikely to reopen, noting, “Mom-and-pop businesses are a tough deal.”

And that is one of the great challenges. Some rural communities still are recovering from the Great Recession.

“So many of the businesses in rural Oregon are really small businesses,” said Anne Kubisch, president of The Ford Family Foundation. “They’re mom-and-pop businesses that have barely been hanging on it as it was. Their margins are pretty small. Something like this could be a death knell for some of them.”

The Roseburg-based foundation has collaborated with other foundations to provide financial assistance and to help businesses access federal programs.

Child care, already scarce in rural areas, “has basically collapsed in this whole process,” Kubisch said. “Wherever anything was financially precarious, in anything like in child care, it’s even more precarious in rural areas because of distance, scale, income level of rural residents, et cetera.”

She added, “These things are demonstrating the inequities that we know are there.”

Lack of broadband access has made K-12 education even more challenging than in cities, despite the best efforts of rural school districts that have set up internet hotspots and provided computers for students to take home.

Kubisch told of one mother whose home lacked internet. Every school day she drove her children to a parking lot, where they parked for four hours by a school bus that served as a hotspot. Her three children shared two Chromebooks.

“She’s just at her wits’ end, and this is a parent who’s trying really hard,” Kubisch said.

Kubisch worries about the continued viability of some rural not-for-profits. Many had to cancel major fundraising events because of the state’s restrictions on crowds. Some have lost income from fee-based services.

The pandemic could cause “serious rethinking of some of the basic business models that kids and families and communities in rural areas have been depending on,” she said.

Rural hospitals and clinics have suffered from the state ban on non-urgent surgeries, and people have stayed away from health-care providers for fear of being exposed to someone with coronavirus.

At Sky Lakes Medical Center in Klamath Falls, the state’s temporary ban on elective procedures created a 30% drop in revenue, sending the hospital and its clinics into the red for several months.

Paul Stewart, Sky Lakes’ CEO and president, said elective procedures are back to about 40% of normal, but emergency room volume remains low.

By drawing on its reserves and encouraging some employees to take leave, Sky Lakes has avoided formal layoffs. Recruiting highly skilled professionals to rural Oregon is difficult, and the hospital doesn’t want to lose any.

“Operating margins for rural facilities, in general, are about half what they are for urban facilities,” Stewart said. “The finer point on that is rural communities have a higher rate of poverty and lower average incomes, and that translates — compared with an urban community — to a worse payer mix.”

The hospital is the town’s largest employer, as is often the case in rural communities. Although Sky Lakes remains financially viable, employment will have to shrink if patient volumes do not return to normal levels.

“The sort of over-arching issue for all of us,” Stewart said, “is what does the new normal look like, and how do you make fact-based decisions in the middle of a kind of a chaotic, ambiguous pandemic?

“And how is that going to continue to ripple through the community?”

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