Rogue Valley News, Monday 3/15 – Homeless Advocacy Groups Criticize Medford’s Proposed Camping Restrictions; Grants Pass Man Charged in Kidnapping Man to Exchange for Ransom

The latest news stories and stories of interest in the Rogue Valley from the digital home of Southern Oregon, from Wynne Broadcasting’s RogueValleyMagazine.com

Monday, March 15, 2021

Rogue Valley Weather

Today- Scattered snow showers before 11am. Cloudy, then gradually becoming mostly sunny, with a high near 46. Northwest wind around 11 mph. Chance of precipitation is 30%. Little or no snow accumulation expected.

Tuesday- Areas of frost before 8am. Otherwise, mostly sunny, with a high near 54. Light northwest wind.

Wednesday- Partly sunny, with a high near 62. South southeast wind 3 to 5 mph.

Thursday- Rain likely, mainly after 11am. Snow level 4000 feet rising to 5200 feet in the afternoon. Mostly cloudy, with a high near 57. Chance of precipitation is 70%. New precipitation amounts of less than a tenth of an inch possible.

Friday- Rain likely. Snow level 3000 feet rising to 3700 feet in the afternoon. Mostly cloudy, with a high near 53.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Coronavirus-update-1-4.jpg

There are no new COVID-19 related deaths in Oregon. The state’s death toll remains at 2,322. The Oregon Health Authority reported. 234 new confirmed and presumptivecases of COVID-19 as of 12:01 a.m. today bringing the state total to 159,617.

Marking the anniversary of Oregon’s first COVID death

Today marks one year since we lost our first Oregonian to COVID-19. We would like to remember the 2,322 Oregonians who lost their lives and acknowledge the immense grief felt by their families, friends, coworkers and neighbors. Our thoughts go out to everyone who has experienced a loss to COVID-19.

If you or a loved one is grieving, it’s OK. Mental and emotional health resources are available on the Safe + Strong website.

We remembered the lives lost to COVID in Oregon and shared resources on grief and loss in a special edition of the Coronavirus Update published on Feb. 28, the anniversary of the first case in Oregon. To subscribe, visit this page.

Vaccinations in Oregon

Today, OHA reported that 20,045 new doses of COVID-19 vaccinations were added to the state immunization registry. Of this total, 15,530 doses were administered on March 13 and 4,515 were administered on previous days but were entered into the vaccine registry on March 13. 

Cumulative daily totals can take several days to finalize because providers have 72 hours to report doses administered and technical challenges have caused many providers to lag in their reporting. OHA has been providing technical support to vaccination sites to improve the timeliness of their data entry into the state’s ALERT Immunization Information System (IIS).

Oregon has now administered a cumulative total of 1,322,013 first and second doses of COVID-19 vaccines. To date, 1,575,705 doses of vaccine have been delivered to sites across Oregon.

These data are preliminary and subject to change. OHA’s dashboards provide regularly updated vaccination data, and Oregon’s dashboard has been updated today.

 COVID-19 Cases Surge 38.2% in Oregon

New coronavirus cases leaped in Oregon in the week ending Sunday, rising 38.2% as 2,332 cases were reported. The previous week had 1,688 new cases of the virus that causes COVID-19.

Oregon ranked 49th among the states where coronavirus was spreading the fastest on a per-person basis, a USA TODAY Network analysis of Johns Hopkins University data shows. In the latest week the United States added 375,140 reported cases of coronavirus, a decrease of 10% from the week before. Across the country, 18 states had more cases in the latest week than they did in the week before.

Within Oregon, the worst weekly outbreaks on a per-person basis were in Grant, Coos and Curry counties. Adding the most new cases overall were Multnomah County, with 369 cases; Washington County, with 309 cases; and Marion County, with 235. Weekly case counts rose in 20 counties from the previous week. The worst increases from the prior week’s pace were in Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties.

Oregon ranked 32nd among states in share of people receiving at least one shot, with 20.6% of its residents at least partially vaccinated. The national rate is 21%, a USA TODAY analysis of CDC data shows.

In the week ending Sunday, Oregon reported administering another 193,631 vaccine doses, compared to 178,437 the week before that. In all, Oregon reported it has administered 1,366,471 doses.

Across Oregon, cases fell in 13 counties, with the best declines in Lane, Douglas and Jefferson counties.

In Oregon, 26 people were reported dead of COVID-19 in the week ending Sunday. In the week before that, 88 people were reported dead.

A total of 159,617 people in Oregon have tested positive for the coronavirus since the pandemic began, and 2,322 people have died from the disease, Johns Hopkins University data shows. In the United States 29,438,222 people have tested positive and 534,880 people have died.

Oregon officials announced Friday that, while President Joe Biden’s pledge to make all adults eligible for vaccines by May 1 is welcome news, the eligibility timeline in the state will not change until weekly shipment allocations increase.

Ever since the vaccine became available in December, officials in Oregon have been methodical about who receives the shots and when. Currently in Oregon, those who can receive the vaccine include health care workers, first responders, teachers and residents over age 65.

People who are 45 or older with a pre-existing condition, seasonal and migrant farmworkers, food processors, the homeless and those affected by last summer’s wildfires are scheduled to become eligible on March 29.

In addition essential workers and people with underlying conditions between 16 and 45 are scheduled to become eligible May 1. All Oregonians over 16 who wish to receive a vaccine will be eligible no later than July 1, based on the state’s current timeline.

Some Oregon Centers Can Vaccinate Anyone Under a New Program

Oregon made national headlines when it placed teachers ahead of its oldest residents in the line for a scarce supply of COVID-19 vaccine and then again when a committee advising the governor on vaccine equity flirted with making race a determinant for when a person could get inoculated.

Now, three months into the vaccine rollout, the state has begun a pilot program that allows some federally qualified health centers to offer shots to anyone they serve, even if that patient does not fall into any currently eligible categories. These centers must still prioritize patients who are currently eligible under Oregon rules, but the pilot program gives health care providers for the most at-risk populations more latitude and resolves a conflict between federal and state priorities on vaccine equity.

The Biden administration last month began distributing vaccine to federally qualified health centers under a program designed to get shots into the arms of the most economically and socially disadvantaged Americans — seasonal and migrant farmworkers and those Americans living in poverty, for example.

But those centers in Oregon and Washington found their hands tied because state rules on vaccine eligibility hadn’t yet expanded to migrant farmworkers, those with pre-existing conditions or other vulnerable groups and so they couldn’t give them shots.

The disconnect was “incredibly frustrating,” but the pilot program in Oregon will resolve those issues, said Lori Kelley, senior director of quality at the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic, which treats 180,000 patients a year in eastern Washington and western Oregon. About one-third of those patients are seasonal farmworkers, she said, and the clinics offer treatment regardless of ability to pay.

“They are living in a congregate setting, four to six to a room, head-to-toe and they work, live, eat and sleep in cohorts. If one person in their cohort gets sick, then they all miss work time,” she said.

Kelley’s organization is petitioning Washington state to create a similar pilot program there. Washington currently allows residents over 65, health care workers, first responders and people over 50 living in multi-generational households — children, parents and grandparents — to get the vaccine.

In Oregon, those who can get a shot now include health care workers and first responders, teachers and early childhood educators and residents over age 65. Those over age 45 with a pre-existing condition, seasonal and migrant farmworkers, food processors, the homeless and those affected by last summer’s wildfires will become eligible on March 29.

President Joe Biden’s announcement Thursday that all Americans should be eligible for a vaccine by May 1 only underscores the importance of the pilot program when it comes to meeting that goal in Oregon.

“We do have so many people from that next phase who are waiting as patiently as possible to get this vaccine and not to have to make that choice every day between feeding their family and getting sick is just amazing,” Kelley said of the Oregon pilot.

Rudy Owens, a spokesperson for the Oregon Health Authority, said the seven health centers are scheduled to receive a combined total of 3,700 doses per week from the state’s vaccine allocation.

Owens said that the health centers have been given the “flexibility” to vaccinate any individual they serve — this includes anyone 16 and older — but the health authority is asking that the centers try to use the eligibility phases as guidelines when choosing who to vaccinate.

The health authority and the governor’s office will review the outcomes from pilot project over the next several weeks.

Based on data from the health authority, white people represent 75% of Oregonians. While they only comprise about 49% of coronavirus cases, they account for 71% of vaccinations.

People who are Hispanic represent 13% of Oregonians but make up 26% of COVID-19 cases and account for 4% of the vaccinations administered to date. Black people are 2% of the state’s population and account for 1% of administered vaccine.

Officials are hopeful that the new pilot program will help diminish these disparities.

The health centers that are part of the program include La Clinica del Valle, Multnomah County Health Centers and Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic, which have a focus on serving Oregon’s diverse communities.

ROGUE VALLEY HEADLINES:

Homeless Advocacy Groups Criticize Medford’s Proposed Camping Restrictions

The City of Medford has proposed an ordinance that would tighten the city’s camping restrictions. Homeless advocates are advising the city to reject the proposal.

The National Homelessness Law Center and the Civil Liberties Defense Center both wrote to the city of Medford last week, advising them to not pass a proposed ordinance to change camping laws. The groups say the new regulations would further criminalize homelessness and penalize people left without homes from wildfires.

Commissioners vote to close portions of the Greenway home to a number of  homeless camps | KTVL

Eric Mitton is the City Attorney for Medford. He says his office is working to balance the needs of houseless people and keeping public space usable.

“What we’re trying to do is walk a line of balancing multiple competing important interests,” said Mitton. “We are trying to find a path where we do respect all of those competing issues and come up with a solution that we feel is both practical and lawfully defensible.”

If the ordinance passed, it would ban people from setting up tents in Medford, including along the Bear Creek Greenway where hundreds of people live. It would also prohibit people from sleeping or lying in public space for more than 24 hours. Violating these ordinances would result in criminal misdemeanor.

The city responded to the letters of criticism, maintaining that it’s lawful to regulate the time, location, and manner of sleeping or resting in a public space.

Grants Pass Man Charged for Kidnapping a Man to Exchange for Ransom

Grants Pass Daily Courier

A Grants Pass man is facing a federal kidnapping charge after allegedly kidnapping a man in Oregon and driving him to California to exchange for ransom.

David Brian Scott was charged with kidnapping in the U.S. District Court in Medford, according to court documents filed Monday. 

According to a press release from the Red Bluff Police Department and an affidavit submitted by a Portland Field Division FBI special agent, Scott was initially arrested on Sept. 5, 2020. Investigators say he kidnapped a man in Medford and drove him across the state line to Red Bluff, Calif. where he received money in a ransom exchange to settle a debt. 

The affidavit says the kidnapping happened the morning of Sept. 5 when Scott arrived at a warehouse and claimed his vehicle was having problems. He said he needed water for it and asked to speak to the victim. 

While the two were speaking, the victim told investigators Scott poured water on him, slapped him twice, and tased him. 

The victim said Scott told him he was there to collect money the victim owed to another person and that he would not let him go until he had the money. The victim reportedly told Scott he could get the money, but they would need to go to Yuba City, California to get it from his friends. 

According to court documents, the victim said Scott forced him into the victim’s own pickup truck and Scott drove the truck to a business in Central Point, where he parked the truck and then got into a Chevrolet Avalanche driven by a woman. 

The victim said he was put in the back seat and was told to start making arrangements for the $25,000 ransom exchange money. 

During the drive, the victim said he called his friends and they agreed to bring the money to a location in Red Bluff where they would meet Scott. The victim said Scott threatened him several times during the drive. He said Scott threatened to harm his parents and girlfriend if the victim did not get him the money or if he involved the police. 

While Scott, the driver, and the victim were traveling to Red Bluff, one of the victim’s friends gathered the $25,000 for ransom and another called the Red Bluff Police Department.

When Scott, the driver, and the victim arrived at the meeting place, they made the exchange. The friends handed over $25,000 and Scott gave the victim to his friends, according to the affidavit. 

After that, a police sergeant initiated a traffic stop on the vehicle Scott was in. The officer tried to speak to Scott at the driver’s side door, but Scott pulled away and the officer grabbed the door pillar and stepped onto the truck’s running board to avoid being run over. The officer held onto the truck as investigators say Scott drove about 300 feet and swerved to try to make the officer fall off. 

Before getting onto Interstate 5, investigators say Scott stopped the vehicle and police used physical force to take him into custody. 

According to a press release the Red Bluff Police Department issued on Sept. 6, 2020, the officer pointed his “service weapon” at Scott while hanging on to the pickup truck, which caused the suspect to stop the truck and try to run away. 

When police interviewed the victim, he said he did not owe the money Scott claimed he did. He said he and the man whom Scott claimed he owed money to had done several business deals together involving marijuana and hemp products. The victim said he lost money in the deals and did not know why that person thought he owed them money. 

When Scott spoke to police, he said he owed the person money and was told to get the victim to pay the $25,000 that the victim owed. Scott said the person claimed if Scott was successful, he would take $5,000 off the debt Scott owed. Scott also claimed that the victim was in on the kidnapping and was part of a ruse. Scott told investigators that the victim was not being held against his will and that he had several opportunities to leave voluntarily. 

Scott claimed he never used a taser on the victim and that he even allowed the victim to drive part of the way to California. 

The woman who was driving the pickup truck to California said she did not know what was going to happen with Scott and the victim. She said at one point Scott was going to let the victim drive but then changed his mind. She said she did not hear Scott make any specific threats to the victim other than he needed to pay the money. 

On Dec. 9, 2020, the FBI interviewed the person who was allegedly owed the money. He said the victim did owe him a debt and that he asked Scott to “pop up” on the victim. However, he said on the day of the kidnapping, he called Scott and told him to let the victim go. He said he never heard back from Scott. 

If found guilty of the federal kidnapping crime, Scott could serve up to a life sentence in prison. It’s unclear if Scott has an attorney.

AROUND the STATE of OREGON

Oregon’s U.S. Senator Ron Wyden Reintroduced Legislation That Would Make Daylight Saving Time Permanent Across The Country.

The bipartisan legislation, if enacted, would apply to states that currently participate in DST, which Oregon and most states observe for eight months out of the year. Standard Time, from November to March, is only observed for four months out of the year.

The bill would simply negate the need for Americans to change their clocks twice a year, and could have benefits for nation’s health and economy. Officials say there are dozens of potential national effects of making Daylight Saving Time permanent that would make a positive impact.

Oregon Schools Will Be On Spring Break From March 22 To 26

Spring break is almost here, and with it scores of cooped-up Oregonians who are itching to get out on vacation. Oregon schools will be on spring break from March 22 to 26, and while many families may have dreams of sunnier locales, the Oregon Health Authority still recommends that Oregonians stay in their regions and not travel to other states or countries, to prevent further spread of COVID-19.

Those recommendations might result in an influx of travelers in local tourist towns and popular outdoor recreation areas. What those travelers are actually able to do,
however, will be dictated by state officials, who assign each Oregon county a risk level based on the current spread of COVID-19.

Those risk levels determine things like indoor dining and capacity in museums and other attractions. That’s a big
change from last year, when the coronavirus pandemic effectively canceled spring break. While vacations are back on for 2021, the invisible threat remains.

Homeless Advocacy Groups Criticize Medford’s Proposed Camping Restrictions

The City of Medford has proposed an ordinance that would tighten the city’s camping restrictions. Homeless advocates are advising the city to reject the proposal.

The National Homelessness Law Center and the Civil Liberties Defense Center both wrote to the city of Medford last week, advising them to not pass a proposed ordinance to change camping laws. The groups say the new regulations would further criminalize homelessness and penalize people left without homes from wildfires.

Commissioners vote to close portions of the Greenway home to a number of  homeless camps | KTVL

Eric Mitton is the City Attorney for Medford. He says his office is working to balance the needs of houseless people and keeping public space usable.

“What we’re trying to do is walk a line of balancing multiple competing important interests,” said Mitton. “We are trying to find a path where we do respect all of those competing issues and come up with a solution that we feel is both practical and lawfully defensible.”

If the ordinance passed, it would ban people from setting up tents in Medford, including along the Bear Creek Greenway where hundreds of people live. It would also prohibit people from sleeping or lying in public space for more than 24 hours. Violating these ordinances would result in criminal misdemeanor.

The city responded to the letters of criticism, maintaining that it’s lawful to regulate the time, location, and manner of sleeping or resting in a public space.

Grants Pass Man Charged for Kidnapping a Man to Exchange for Ransom

A Grants Pass man is facing a federal kidnapping charge after allegedly kidnapping a man in Oregon and driving him to California to exchange for ransom.

David Brian Scott was charged with kidnapping in the U.S. District Court in Medford, according to court documents filed Monday. 

According to a press release from the Red Bluff Police Department and an affidavit submitted by a Portland Field Division FBI special agent, Scott was initially arrested on Sept. 5, 2020. Investigators say he kidnapped a man in Medford and drove him across the state line to Red Bluff, Calif. where he received money in a ransom exchange to settle a debt. 

The affidavit says the kidnapping happened the morning of Sept. 5 when Scott arrived at a warehouse and claimed his vehicle was having problems. He said he needed water for it and asked to speak to the victim. 

While the two were speaking, the victim told investigators Scott poured water on him, slapped him twice, and tased him. 

The victim said Scott told him he was there to collect money the victim owed to another person and that he would not let him go until he had the money. The victim reportedly told Scott he could get the money, but they would need to go to Yuba City, California to get it from his friends. 

According to court documents, the victim said Scott forced him into the victim’s own pickup truck and Scott drove the truck to a business in Central Point, where he parked the truck and then got into a Chevrolet Avalanche driven by a woman. 

The victim said he was put in the back seat and was told to start making arrangements for the $25,000 ransom exchange money. 

During the drive, the victim said he called his friends and they agreed to bring the money to a location in Red Bluff where they would meet Scott. The victim said Scott threatened him several times during the drive. He said Scott threatened to harm his parents and girlfriend if the victim did not get him the money or if he involved the police. 

While Scott, the driver, and the victim were traveling to Red Bluff, one of the victim’s friends gathered the $25,000 for ransom and another called the Red Bluff Police Department.

When Scott, the driver, and the victim arrived at the meeting place, they made the exchange. The friends handed over $25,000 and Scott gave the victim to his friends, according to the affidavit. 

After that, a police sergeant initiated a traffic stop on the vehicle Scott was in. The officer tried to speak to Scott at the driver’s side door, but Scott pulled away and the officer grabbed the door pillar and stepped onto the truck’s running board to avoid being run over. The officer held onto the truck as investigators say Scott drove about 300 feet and swerved to try to make the officer fall off. 

Before getting onto Interstate 5, investigators say Scott stopped the vehicle and police used physical force to take him into custody. 

According to a press release the Red Bluff Police Department issued on Sept. 6, 2020, the officer pointed his “service weapon” at Scott while hanging on to the pickup truck, which caused the suspect to stop the truck and try to run away. 

When police interviewed the victim, he said he did not owe the money Scott claimed he did. He said he and the man whom Scott claimed he owed money to had done several business deals together involving marijuana and hemp products. The victim said he lost money in the deals and did not know why that person thought he owed them money. 

When Scott spoke to police, he said he owed the person money and was told to get the victim to pay the $25,000 that the victim owed. Scott said the person claimed if Scott was successful, he would take $5,000 off the debt Scott owed. Scott also claimed that the victim was in on the kidnapping and was part of a ruse. Scott told investigators that the victim was not being held against his will and that he had several opportunities to leave voluntarily. 

Scott claimed he never used a taser on the victim and that he even allowed the victim to drive part of the way to California. 

The woman who was driving the pickup truck to California said she did not know what was going to happen with Scott and the victim. She said at one point Scott was going to let the victim drive but then changed his mind. She said she did not hear Scott make any specific threats to the victim other than he needed to pay the money. 

On Dec. 9, 2020, the FBI interviewed the person who was allegedly owed the money. He said the victim did owe him a debt and that he asked Scott to “pop up” on the victim. However, he said on the day of the kidnapping, he called Scott and told him to let the victim go. He said he never heard back from Scott. 

If found guilty of the federal kidnapping crime, Scott could serve up to a life sentence in prison. It’s unclear if Scott has an attorney.

Some Prisoners Who Helped Fight the Destructive Oregon Wildfires Last Year Could Be Released Early

Gov. Kate Brown commended adults in custody who “bravely fought these wildfires and helped prevent further destruction and loss of life across the state,” according to the March 5 letter provided to the news outlet.

The governor in the letter said these adults in custody should be rewarded and acknowledged for their contribution to this historic firefighting response.

Marion and Polk county district attorneys say they’re opposed to the early release of violent offenders who helped fight the fires.

Redistricting Could Have Oregon Getting a 6th Congressional District

One message that came across during Wednesday’s hearing on redistricting, it is that there needs to be an independent special commission to redraw Oregon’s Congressional and legislative district lines.

This process is required after the Census every 10 years to balance the populations between districts, with the goal of creating a more balanced representation in Congress and in the Legislature between political parties.

Currently, in Oregon’s five U.S. Congressional districts, four of the representatives are Democrats and there is only one Republican, Rep. Cliff Bentz, who took over from Greg Walden, when he retired. In the state Legislature, there are super majority of Democrats in both chambers. In addition participants wanted to see less partisanship.

Both the Senate and House have special committees that are on redistricting and they are holding virtual public hearings for each Congressional District, two for each one for a total of 10, with the first Second District hearing held Wednesday, and a second one scheduled for March 20, starting at 2 p.m.

State lawmakers had the first opportunity to speak, with Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, leading off. “Keep communities whole,” he said. “Give people more of a voice.” Recognizing that his House District 60 has been losing population, and its boundaries will be expanded to approximate the right number of people, Owens added, “It’s going have to get larger.”

He was followed by Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, who said he wants to see a fair and non-partisan process and was the first to bring up the need for an independent commission to decide the new boundaries. Several people followed him. “We need to be sure every citizen is counted fairly,” said Findley.

Peter Hall, from Baker County, said he would like to see his county connected with Wallowa and Union counties in a district, having common interests. In the last two redistricting cycles, Baker County has been included with Malheur, Harney, Grant, and part of Lake County this last cycle.

Nathan Seltz, said the Second Congressional District could change drastically with the possible addition of a sixth district.

Barbara Klein suggested the formation of an independent citizens advisory committee, commenting there is not a lot of representation for a diverse population. The Second District is one of the largest in the country, larger than some states.

Todd Nash, Wallowa County Commissioner, said the committees should consult with county commissioners who represent local communities. Paul Anders suggested that redistricting be held off until the census figures are available, which is not expected until sometime in September.

Oregon Has a Lot To Do With the New Stimulus Package Allocating Over $28 Billion for Restaurants

On Thursday, March 11, President Joe Biden signed into law a new stimulus package with significant help for the nation’s restaurant industry. The American Rescue Plan has allocated $28.6 billion in relief grants for food businesses, including restaurants, food carts, and bars. Of that funding, $5 billion has specifically been set aside for food businesses whose annual gross receipts were below $500,000, and grants will not exceed $10 million for restaurant groups and $5 million for individual businesses. The first 21 days of the period that these grants are distributed, businesses owned by veterans, women, and marginalized groups will be prioritized.

This restaurant relief package is a version of the Restaurants Act, a bill drafted and brought to congress by Portland’s own Rep. Earl Blumenauer. That bill — a $120 billion grant program — eventually was tacked on to the second version of the Heroes Act, which never passed the Senate. This restaurant relief package was salvaged from the remains of the restaurant act, added to the American Rescue Plan in a more limited form.

Although it’s not $120 billion in grants, this restaurant relief package is significant, nationwide assistance specifically focused on the foodservice industry, which has been absolutely decimated by the coronavirus pandemic. Although Oregon has seen a handful of small-scale grant programs over the last year, the American Rescue Plan allocates aid specifically for this industry on a national scale, without the financial hang-ups or debt of the Paycheck Protection Program. And, in many ways, this specific package would not exist without the specific work of Oregon’s food industry.

When Oregon restaurant owners and food service workers watched coronavirus creep into the state in early March 2020, they knew to call Erika Polmar. Now the executive director of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, Polmar was living a very different life two years ago. The founder of Plate and Pitchfork, a business organizing farm dinners and agritourism opportunities in Oregon, Polmar isn’t exactly green to legislative work; she has advocated for farmers with state and local government, and served as an agritourism and land use policy consultant for Travel Oregon since 2016.

On March 13, 2020, a group of 70 Oregon industry professionals, including people like chef Naomi Pomeroy and then-Submarine Hospitality partner Luke Dirks, met at the event space within Ava Gene’s building in Southeast Portland to discuss a plan moving forward for the restaurant industry in the face of novel coronavirus.

They knew they needed help from the local government, but they weren’t sure how to get it. Chefs like Doug Adams of Bullard reached out to Polmar for help, knowing her legislative background. Polmar drafted an open letter to Gov. Kate Brown, asking for things like a moratorium on commercial evictions, a ban on onsite dining, unemployment insurance for furloughed restaurant workers, and grant programs, specifically set aside for businesses with fewer than 125 employees to help with the loss in profits. More than 150 food service workers and business owners signed the open letter.

That letter, in many ways, was a starting point for a massive wave of grassroots activism on the part of the restaurant industry. That initial meeting of restaurant workers was an early version of the Portland Independent Restaurant Alliance; that organization, in turn, shifted into the Independent Restaurant Alliance of Oregon, which advocates for local restaurant owners across the state. 

Chef marketing and talent agent Andrew Chason reached out to Pomeroy — the owner of the now-closed Beast, Expatriate, and Ripe Cooperative — to connect her with the earliest iterations of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, and created a path for initial conversations with celebrity chefs like Tom Colicchio and José Andrés discussing restaurant relief policy and goals on a national scale. Pomeroy decided she couldn’t be on any call or coalition without Polmar. “She understands legislation very well,” Pomeroy says. “I knew I wouldn’t do it without Erika.”

The Independent Restaurant Coalition’s goal, early on, was to figure out how a grant program would work for restaurant owners — one that provided aid with the understanding that COVID-19 was going to be a long-term problem for the food service industry. “[The Paycheck Protection Program] was an eight-week solution, which has become an 18-month problem,” Polmar says. “Not only did it not work for restaurants, it was based on employment. It was a short-term solution.” So they began talking to more restaurant owners around the country, to build some sort of grassroots campaign to advocate for independent restaurants on the congressional level.

Meanwhile, Rep. Blumenauer was trying to figure out the right way to help the restaurant industry. Blumenauer, a Portland-born politician who has represented Oregon’s third district since 1996, has used Portland restaurants and cafes as the setting for conversations with constituents for decades, especially during campaigns. By the spring of 2020, Blumenauer knew he had to do something. “There were a number of late-night anguished text messages I received about challenges in the first round of the Paycheck Protection Program; it didn’t look like it was going to work for them,” Blumenauer says. “Hearing the stories directly was very powerful for me.”

So, Blumenauer’s office began talking to Portland restaurant owners, people like Han Oak’s Peter Cho, Coquine’s Katy Millard, Pomeroy, and Kann chef Gregory Gourdet. The congressman’s team connected with the Independent Restaurant Coalition, who had been gathering their own research. The IRC developed a one-pager of policy recommendations, and began working with Blumenauer as he drafted the Restaurants Act. “Mr. Blumenauer was making calls to constituents early on, but one of the very first calls I had with him related to restaurant relief was via my agricultural relationships,” Polmar says. “I was talking about what we needed, and he straight-up asked, ‘What do you need, how can we help?’ … He listens, but he doesn’t sit back and wait — he jumps into action.”

He announced the plan to introduce the Restaurants Act on May 20, 2020. Now, almost 10 months later, the independent restaurants are finally seeing some form of national aid. But the legacy of the Restaurants Act extends beyond this piece of legislation. In many ways, it was a foundational step forward in how the independent restaurant industry advocates for itself on a policymaking level in Washington, D.C. While industry groups like the National Restaurant Association do have influence in policy-making on the national stage, they don’t necessarily represent the interests of smaller-scale restaurant industry — the foundation of Portland’s food scene and restaurant markets around the country. “My impression is that the Restaurant Association pays most attention to the people who pay the bills, the Olive Gardens and Burger Kings, who are ubiquitous around the country, but don’t have the same impact [that] the independent restaurants have,” Blumenauer says. “The McDonald’s, the Pizza Huts, they aren’t iconic meeting spaces. They could be anywhere.”

Now that the American Rescue Plan has been signed into law, Polmar and Pomeroy have a whole other task at hand: They’re visiting restaurant owners, holding Zoom meetings, and trying to make sure small business owners around the state and country know about the funding that will soon be available to them. “Getting people to know about this is really challenging,” Pomeroy says. “I don’t think a ton of people know that there’s 28.6 billion dollars sitting there … There’s still a lot of work to be done.”

Beyond that point, however, grassroots efforts like the IRC, as well as the countless local independent restaurant alliances nationwide, will still have a significant policy-making agenda to tackle. Once the industry is free of the grips of COVID-19, there are still numerous issues that disproportionately affect small restaurants and food service workers; the hope is, these groups of restaurant owners will still have a voice in their statehouses with their lawmakers. But in many ways, this specific piece of legislation — the restaurant relief in the American Rescue Plan — started with a letter an Oregon food business owner wrote to her governor. “We used many of the principles that were in the original letter to Kate Brown as a starting point, but I don’t want to overstate here, we had a policy committee of 10 people,” Polmar says. “It’s not a bunch of economists and policymakers; it was a bunch of business owners. What we did was very Schoolhouse Rock: The bill got to Capitol Hill because a bunch of citizens talked to their lawmaker and the lawmaker said, ‘Yes this should be a bill.’”

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Brian Casey