CANNON BEACH, Ore. - Crowds lined the beach on blankets and chairs, explored the tide pools around Haystack Rock, sat at patio tables of beachside restaurants and bought freshly-made taffy by the bunches.
The scene at Cannon Beach on Thursday looked downright normal at first glance, but as the Oregon coast town begins to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic, the face masks, social distancing and closed signs indicated otherwise.
Throngs of people took to the beach Thursday as temperatures reached the high 80s in Portland. The warm day coincided with the end of Cannon Beach’s ban on tourists and short-term lodging, as well as the reopening of restaurants in town. All are the tenuous first steps toward what local business owners hope will be a successful season despite the ongoing threat of COVID-19.
“The business people are more than happy to have a few folks coming back to town,” said Susan Truax, owner of Bruce’s Candy Kitchen. “We are tourist businesses.”
On Thursday, people poked in and out of the pink-and-white-striped shop on Cannon Beach’s main drag, buying bags of candy and watching colorful ribbons of taffy being made. Employees all wore plastic face shields and gloves. Some customers wore face masks, but many did not.
Bruce’s has been around since 1963 and has weathered a few storms, Truax said. They should be able to make it through this one, provided they get some business this spring and summer. Throughout town, that business is returning, as beachgoers pop in and out of small shops, and eat at restaurants that offer ample outdoor seating.
Pelican Brewing benefits from plenty of indoor and outdoor space to spread people out. The brewpub, which is one of the largest restaurants in town, reopened to the public Tuesday with new public health rules in place.
Aside from socially distanced tables, Pelican requires face masks and wellness checks for all employees, has designated a separate entrance and exit, and requires customers to wear face masks in all common areas of the restaurant. General manager Carly Dye said the restaurant will provide a free face mask to anyone who shows up without one.
Dye said the crowds in town Thursday were the highest she had seen since the first weekend of spring, when tourists flocked to Cannon Beach ahead of Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s stay-home order issued March 23.
That stay-home order is still in effect, discouraging nonessential travel including day trips or vacations to the coast. Additionally, Multnomah and Washington counties have yet to enter Phase 1 of the state’s reopening plan, meaning people from the Portland area are still encouraged to stay close to home. (Washington County is scheduled to reopen Monday, and Multnomah County is targeting June 12.)
Cannon Beach city manager Bruce St. Denis said the town would prefer people from those areas not to come, though he admitted there’s been some mixed messaging both locally and statewide.
“On one hand you’re not supposed to travel … but hotels are open and hotels are busy,” St. Denis said. “On one hand, you’re inviting people to come, but on the other you have the governor’s order that leisure travel is not essential travel.”
Local businesses in Cannon Beach seem to greet that contradiction with a shrug. Several businesses owners said they’re just focused on reopening safely, not controlling who comes in from what part of the region.
But many locals are fearful of tourists flocking in as the coronavirus pandemic continues, St. Denis said. The local population in Cannon Beach skews older, and is therefore at a higher risk for COVID-19, he said. The city’s reopening plan hinged on everybody taking proper public health precautions - tourists included - but that has yet to pan out.
Like most beaches on the Oregon coast, the beach at Cannon Beach affords plenty of room to find 60 feet of social distance, let alone six. But that kind of distance becomes more difficult as people funnel through beach access points, crowd sidewalks or peruse local shops.
On Thursday afternoon, the vast majority of people in town walked around without face masks, though employees inside most shops and restaurants wore them. Public restrooms remained open, where signs encouraged people to maintain social distance while inside.
As tourists return, most shops and restaurants in town have reopened to take advantage, but already there are hushed condolences for those few that will not.
Across the street from Bruce’s Candy Kitchen, down a wooden walkway through a shaded alley, a small yellow “closed” sign hung outside Sweet Basil, a beloved Cajun and Creole restaurant that was set to celebrate its 14th anniversary at the end of June. Outside, owner John Sowa prepared to pack up furniture, fixtures and glassware, closing up shop for good.
“It’s been a good run here, 13 years, 14 years is a good run for any restaurant,” Sowa said. “It comes to the point where a decision has to be made, and if I want to keep on doing what I love doing, then something has to be changed, because it just wasn’t going to function here anymore.”
To survive in a town like Cannon Beach, restaurants must completely change their business model, he said. Some are more prepared to do that than others. Outdoor dining is a crucial part of the equation, Sowa said, though it’s a solution that works only as long as the sun is shining - far from a guarantee on the Oregon coast.
As other restaurants and businesses carve out their paths in Cannon Beach, Sowa will take his talents up the coast to Astoria, where he’ll join fellow chef Jeff Martin at the Silver Salmon Grille. It’s a solution that allows him to keep doing what he loves.
Other business owners in town look on. Many said they’re fully aware that they now sit one bad season, one more shutdown away from packing up their shops, too. But as long as public health officials allow them to stay open, and as long as people come, their doors will be open throughout the pandemic.
“We can’t control this thing, but we also can’t hide under the covers the rest of the year,” Swedenborg said. “This is serious to us, it’s not only our business it’s our community.”