Restaurants in Benton County are preparing to open their doors to in-person dining this Friday for the first time since last fall.
Benton County was one of only a few counties in the state still in the “Extreme Risk” level of Gov. Kate Brown’s coronavirus framework. The Oregon Health Authority now says the county will move into the “High Risk” category this week due to falling COVID-19 case counts. It means restaurants can offer indoor dining, and it means higher capacity limits for other types of businesses.
It’s welcome news for restaurant owners like Lynda McHenry of “Eats and Treats Cafe” in Philomath. She said while the eatery quickly pivoted to serving take-out, she knows many of her regulars prefer the sense of community that comes with dining at the restaurant itself.
“Going to a restaurant seldom is about eating," she said. "It’s usually an experience. That’s what it is. And you don’t get that with ‘to go.’”
Benton County leaders had been lobbying the state to change its metrics to allow the county to fall into a less restrictive risk level. But dropping case counts meant the county qualified without any intervention.
"We are so grateful that Benton County is moving down into the 'High Risk' level," said Kate Porsche, the economic development manager for Corvallis and Benton County. "We are very hopeful that we're going to see these numbers continue to trend down so that our businesses can stay open."
County leaders had expressed concern that the high rate of coronavirus testing conducted by Oregon State University was contributing to the county's 'Extreme Risk" status. While officials said they supported OSU's efforts to aggresively test students, faculty and staff, they said it meant the county was being penalized for having higher case counts despite having a relatively low positivity rate.
OSU has also conducted prevalance testing for coronavirus in Corvallis neighborhoods. The school announced another round of testing in its so-called "TRACE" program will be held this weekend.
Field workers with the TRACE program will canvass several neighborhoods and offer free, self-administered tests to residents. This is the sixth time OSU has conducted prevalence tests in Corvallis since the start of the pandemic. Researchers hope to test at least 700 people.
Regardless of any potential increase in case counts, businesses in Benton County can be assured of going the next four weeks without moving back into the "Extreme Risk" category. Gov. Brown said this month that counties having a potential move back to the strictest risk level would get a two-week extension at their current risk level. With Benton moving to "High Risk" on Friday, that means it's guaranteed to stay out of "Extreme Risk" until at least April 9.
That certainty, however brief, is good news for Lynda McHenry of Eats and Treats Cafe.
"We never know what's coming up next in rules and regulations and what we need to do to adapt," she said. "It's been a rollercoaster."
For McHenry, the timing of the return to indoor dining is especially meaningful, since it was almost exactly one year since the restaurant had to dramatically adjust its business model.
"We had a huge promotion planned, because it was St. Patrick's Day," she said. "We had a boatload of corned beef ready to come off the smoker and then they shut us down for in-house dining."