Kindness to All: Celebrating Oregon’s Frontline Workers

Susan Seubert,  Photographer
August 26, 2020

Editor’s note: Call destinations before you visit to make sure they’re open. Stay posted on what Oregon’s phased reopening means for you, and follow these steps for social distancing outdoors. Also, remember to bring your face covering, required for all of Oregon’s public indoor spaces and outdoors when keeping 6 feet of distance isn’t possible. Here’s what to know about Oregon’s outdoors right now.

Like all of us, they’re living in an upside-down world. In this time of unprecedented uncertainty, Oregon’s hospitality workers and small-business owners keep showing up every day to try to make the rest of us feel just a little better. They’re in the kitchen preparing fresh, comforting food. They’re the friendly faces behind the check-in desk and the invisible hands that made your hotel room sparkling clean. They’re ready to help you pick out the next great read for the family. The kindness of Oregon’s frontline workers, always unparalleled, has never been more needed, and we’ve never been more grateful. We talked to six resilient members of this community to learn how they have been managing. Here are their heartfelt words.

Chef/owners like Han Ly Hwang was one of many in the restaurant industry that jumped in to help feed the jobless, including his own employees when they were temporarily out of work.

Han Ly Hwang

Owner of Kim Jong Grillin, Portland

“On March 17, every restaurant in Portland closed and thousands of people were out of work. That kicked me into high gear. I said to my employees, ‘Let’s just feed people for free.’ As awesome as that was, I couldn’t pay my guys. I did a very modest GoFundMe campaign to cover them until they got unemployment.

My main responsibilities have changed a lot. Normally, I do all the prep in the morning, and my guys come in and execute the food. Lately, I find that I work for my employees. I have just been wanting to make sure they are good. That is one of my biggest priorities right now.

The hardest thing for me is that the industry is not going back. Everything has changed. There are restaurants that are gone forever. The supply chain is very difficult. If you are going into this industry, you are going in gloved up, masked up and cooking a certain way.

I’m now in the mindset that if I have my doors open, I’m stoked. The change is here and we’re moving forward. The sooner more people move on, they will find the same beauty I did. That is what COVID has done for me; it has widened my heart.”

 

Housekeepers like Audie Belew were already meticulous about cleaning, but now are working tirelessly to meet the strict hygiene standards as required by the state's new lodging protocols.

Audie Belew

Housekeeper at Starry Night Inn, Seaside

“When we closed, I didn’t have a job for several months. We are fortunate to live in one of the safer pockets, but then out-of-town individuals started coming out here like it was a vacation. The rest of us Coasties were locked in our houses. I thank the local law enforcement because they really locked it down.

The hardest thing for me has been the uncertainty — not that life was so simple and certain before. But I have a small child, and I worry about her future. I feel sorry for her because she doesn’t have any friends to play with. I also worry that someone we love might contract the virus.

We were already meticulous about cleanliness, but we stepped that up when we reopened. Any housekeeper is already under a tight deadline, so adding extra steps does add stress because it adds more time. I’m confident when a guest arrives [that] they are stepping into a very hygienic space.

Recently, we had guests come stay who had been in quarantine for four months. They hadn’t been anywhere or done anything fun. They said it was such a relief to find a place that was not in the middle of a crowd that was so hygienic and homey. It is a good feeling to know we can offer that.”

Executive chefs like Jesse Romero are busy helping their teams navigate the new normal as restaurants do their best to keep customers happy, whether dining in or ordering food to go.

Jesse Romero

Executive Chef at Solstice Wood Fire Pizza, Café & Bar, Hood River

“As a chef, I work with the seasons. There is a rhythm and flow to each season. Within that, there is normally clarity about the things you need to do to sustain the business. All that has been wiped away. We are trying to plan for a future that is unknown — not just in our industry but the human race entirely.

My day-to-day has changed. It has switched to taking care of people and making sure my staff have what they need in and out of work. My crew has been very resilient. I’m very proud of how they have been able to take what has been dealt and create a new normal. When you go through hard times in life, your work can help you navigate them. I feel that way about this crew and this restaurant. I feel good about my community. We are a healthy community and we help each other.

Life can be pretty simple: eating healthy, drinking water, being sanitary and helping each other. Those things go a long way. Right now, some of the best remedies are those same things. I think we got away from taking care of ourselves. Now we are reeling things back in and allowing simple things to take care of us.”

Hotel front-desk agent Sheryl Paul relies on guests to follow face-covering requirements, use hand sanitizer and keep socially distanced — all while trying to be welcoming and personable to the guests.

Sheryl Paul

Front Desk Agent at Surfsand Resort, Cannon Beach

“I got furloughed the day that Clatsop County really shut it down. Oregon hadn’t quite shut down, and we got hit pretty hard by day travelers. It was a little overwhelming, because the media was saying, ‘Stay home,’ and it was like everyone woke up and said, ‘Let’s go on vacation.’

The first month was OK, but I missed my work family. We opened back up toward the end of May. We have our masks and hand sanitizer and signs everywhere, but we are trying to be welcoming and personable for the guests.

I have some [frequently] returning guests. Before, they would pull up and we could hug and catch up on how everything had been since their last visit. Now you have to smile with a mask on and be louder. I am such a smiley person; you can tell I am smiling with a mask on. I think everyone is so excited to be back here and see our familiar faces.

Everyone has been spending so much time with family, which I think is a positive thing. My son enjoyed having Mommy and Daddy both home. It is a scary time, but when you have your home life and work life so close-knit, it makes it more bearable.”

Shop owners like Jenny Cohen are going above and beyond with customer service — making product suggestions, addressing state protocols and balancing their time with their families' own needs at home.

Jenny Cohen

Co-owner of Waucoma Bookstore, Hood River

“We initially transitioned to online sales and curbside pickup. Now we have the entryway set up with a few tables. This allows customers to browse new releases and staff recommendations while maintaining a safe distance. We’re happy to suggest titles and bring books from deeper in the store. It’s like having a pop-up in our own shop, and it allows us to interact with customers safely. 

Our staff is like family. I have asthma and some of the younger staff said, ‘If I get COVID, I don’t want to pass it on to you.’ It would just take one person getting sick to shut down our entire operation. We decided to err on the side of safety.

The hardest thing for me is balancing being a mom and running a small business. I go to the bookstore at 5 a.m. to work a few hours. Then I switch with my husband so he can run the daily operations while I work from home and care for our 3-year-old son.  

We really rely on our local customers. They’ve been very appreciative that we have been open the whole time, especially when the library was closed. This whole thing has made us rethink what we carry in the store. We are looking at everything with new eyes.”

With a mobile truck and brick-and-mortar location in Northeast Portland, "Mikey" and his crew at Trap Kitchen have been working around the clock to help support efforts to feed local communities in need.

“Mikey”

Manager at Trap Kitchen, Portland

“Our thing is about giving back to the community, so we feed people for free all the time. We were watching everything unfolding, and we just went with the flow. First the kids were out of school, and we said, ‘How are we going to feed the kids?’ Then everything shut down and we were like, ‘Oh, now we gotta feed everybody!’

The protests [for Black Lives Matter in downtown Portland] haven’t really affected us. One of the cool things is that people from so many different walks of life come and eat at Trap. We have been able to hear so many opinions on what is going on down there.

A lot of celebrities, musicians, actors and actresses reach out to us when they want to touch the streets. [Portland-born rapper] Aminé said, ‘I want to do something to feed the people on the frontline.’ We matched his budget and fed over 350 people.

The hardest thing for me personally is my sister has sickle cell [anemia], and she has a super-weak immune system. It is hard having to keep your distance from someone you love.

Everybody has their role to play during this moment, and we are just doing what we are good at doing. We are all staying positive and trying to move forward doing the work so the dream becomes a reality.”

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About The
Author

Eileen Garvin
Eileen Garvin lives and writes in Hood River. When she’s not hunched over her keyboard or digging in the garden, you can find her mountain biking, kiteboarding, hiking, skiing or camping somewhere in Oregon.

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