In Portland, Protests Aren’t a Problem. But Covid-19 Has Made the City a No-Go Zone

The images from Portland, Oregon are startling. Chaotic nighttime footage of Black Lives Matters protestors–among them a “Wall of Moms,” a woman dubbed “Naked Athena,” and the city’s own mayor–tear-gassed and set upon by unidentified military forces has played on cable news and in people’s newsfeeds for weeks.

Dispatches from area businesses also showcase a city in turmoil or, in some cases, an eerie calm–but that status has as much do to with the pandemic as the protests. 

“The protests and Covid are kind of merging together,” says Jamaal Lane, owner of Champions Barbershop and Champions Barbering Institute. In March, Lane’s three shops and his school were forced to close down as “non-essential” businesses, with 14 independent stylists being put out of work and 25 students’ training put on hold. “Everything came to a halt,” Lane recalls.

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While Lane and his wife, Christina Lane, Champions’s COO and co-founder of the Barbering Institute, had hoped to reopen by July, the protests brought complications. One of their locations shares a building with the Portland Police Department’s North Precinct and was forced to board up. Lane describes another Champions location downtown as “really in the midst of everything,” but it has so far gone undamaged.

“We’re not the target,” Jamaal Lane says. “Our whole business model is about community. It does them no good to tear down what we’ve built.”

The real problem isn’t looting, says Lisa Schroeder, chef-owner of Mother’s Bistro & Bar, which has operated in downtown Portland since 2000. It’s the absence of people; it’s the lack of interest in the city’s downtown, which she describes as looking “bombed out,” with graffiti and boarded-up shop windows. “Businesses are not looking inviting. But this isn’t the time to be patronizing businesses,” she says. “Nobody should be going to downtown Portland.”

Her restaurant, which is about three minutes from the federal courthouse where the protests and police presence has been focused, has been boarded up since early June, after employees struggled getting to and from work. Bridges, also a scene of some protests, were often impassable. “After three days of my staff saying, ‘You know, we don’t feel comfortable coming in.’ I just shuttered my doors because there was absolutely no reason to be open.” 

Schroeder tried to keep Mother’s, which at its height employed over 100 people, open for the first three months of pandemic, offering to-go and delivery items. “I make a mean chicken soup–‘Jewish penicillin’–and I thought maybe there’ll be so many sick people it’s needed,” she says. But even that operation started to falter, she says. “We struggled along and then in early June when the protests began, and my staff could not get to work.”

The protests tend to highlight more abstract issues–namely, they’ve exacerbated the overall lack of certainty around operating amid a pandemic. That’s the case for Greg Higgins, the owner of Higgins, a downtown restaurant that’s operated in Portland for 26 years.

Just last week, Higgins opened up Piggins, an outside pop-up restaurant, which is designed to be a safe, socially-distanced way for diners to enjoy meals and drinks downtown. Higgins noted that the restaurant closes before 10 p.m., as part of a nightly city curfew, so most of his customers and staff are gone before any clashes, which usually begin late at night. “The truth is, right now it’s a nuisance and it’s frustrating. I don’t think I can say that it’s actually impacting my business at all.” 

Higgins does acknowledge, though, that “it’s a very surreal period” for his city and an unsteady time for the restaurant scene in particular. Looking at the challenges posed by Covid-19 and the clashes with police and federal forces, Higgins could almost be speaking for other small and midsize business owners when he says, “We realized early on that if we didn’t get ourselves motivated and motivate our crew that we’d be nowhere. We have a lot of real long term front- and back-of-the-house staff and we feel very strongly that we’re in this together.”

As for the image of his city as a war zone, Lane calls it “absolutely false.” “I feel like there’s an alternative agenda to the story that’s being told,” he says. “By no means is Portland under siege due to protesting.”

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