Camas restaurants, bars cope with new round of COVID-19 restrictions

Covered outdoor dining patios, takeout orders and federal CARES Act funds help small businesses survive pandemic hardships

Santa and Mrs. Claus wave to passersby outside Salud! Wine Bar at 224 N.E. Third Ave., in Camas on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020.

Owner Kevin Taylor stands by the front door of his Birch Street Uptown Lounge in Camas. Birch Street closed temporarily in November 2020, during the most recent round of statewide COVID-19 shutdowns. Taylor said he plans to "hunker down" until reopening is safe for his employees and customers. (Contributed photo courtesy of Kevin Taylor)

Three days after Gov. Jay Inslee announced he was extending a three-week ban on indoor dining to help get explosive COVID-19 case rates under control, the owners of Salud! Wine Bar in downtown Camas found themselves rushing to prepare takeout orders for their drive-up “Santa Delivery” event.

“The Santa delivery kept us busy,” said Raechill Dotson. “We started at 4:30 and ended at 7:30. Every 15 minutes, we had another driver pull up in front of Salud! to get their takeout and have their picture taken with Santa.”

The event is one of many things Dotson and her husband, Tony Olgiati Dotson, have tried to keep their business alive during the COVID-19 pandemic and its statewide shutdowns.

“We’re doing everything we can possibly do,” Dotson told the Post-Record this week. “We’re not giving up.”

When it opened on Northeast Third Avenue in downtown Camas in 2017, the owners of Salud! envisioned a wine bar with wine lockers for members in the back and space for wine tastings, food pairings and live music in the front.

The concept worked well for several years. Then COVID-19 hit.

Offering takeout during the first indoor dining shutdown in March worked out for many Camas-Washougal restaurants, but it wasn’t going to work for Salud!

“All we had was a wine bar with music on the weekends,” Dotson said. “It’s hard to do takeout with charcuterie boards, pizzas and desserts.”

The wine bar applied for grants and financial help through the first round of the federal government’s coronavirus relief CARES Act, but had no luck securing funds to help them through the shutdown.

Instead, the owners changed course.

Olgiati Dotson’s father came from Italy and his grandmother had taught him a few of the family’s cooking secrets. Within weeks of the first indoor dining shutdowns, Salud! was on its way to becoming a full-fledged Italian family restaurant.

“Tony always wanted Salud! to be an Italian restaurant, so his dream came true,” Dotson said of her husband. “We started with lasagna and pizzas.”

When COVID-19 numbers dropped and the state allowed limited indoor and outdoor dining in the late spring and summer, Salud! grew its Italian food offerings and was able to seat customers at 50 percent capacity. The restaurant secured approval to transition to family dining instead of 21-and-over-only, and put family specials and children’s meals on the menu.

The arrangement worked for a few months. Then COVID-19 numbers exploded again in the fall and the governor again shutdown indoor dining, showing research that found indoor spaces, like restaurants, bars and gyms, where people cannot wear face coverings at all times, are at high risk for COVID-19 transmission.

“It’s killing us,” Dotson said of the pandemic and its restrictions on indoor dining and live music venues. “We did so well on Friday and Saturday nights with our live music. And we had Bingo, trivia, football, Bachelorette viewings … we had something nearly every night.”

Now, Salud!’s owners are depending on their loyal customers to help get them through the current round of shutdowns. Already, they’ve had a group of customers fund the purchase of a tarp to cover the restaurant’s outdoor back patio.

“They’re so wonderful,” Dotson said of the customers, who have since set up a GoFundMe to help pay for the $4,000 tarp. “We have to figure out the heating inside of it and the ventilation … but it will all be up to code.”

Eventually, the restaurant will be able to accommodate up to 50 customers on the covered back patio with tables spaced six feet apart and face covering requirements for customers who are not at their tables, eating and drinking. The Dotsons have a big screen set up on the patio and hope to show live, remote concerts with some of the bands that used to play live in Salud!’s front room, as well as show football games and host tv viewing parties. They also have blankets to help keep customers warm throughout the winter months.

The restaurant will continue its Santa takeout event this weekend on Friday and Saturday, Dec. 18-19, and will offer food specials throughout the holiday season. To learn more about the restaurant or make a reservation to pickup takeout while Santa is onsite, visit saludwine.com.

Like many restaurant owners in Camas-Washougal, Dotson said she hopes Congress will soon pass another round of COVID-19 relief that includes aid to businesses like hers that are struggling during the pandemic.

‘We were finally hitting our stride’

At another Northeast Third Avenue business in downtown Camas, A Beer at a Time owner Shelby Piersol said she relied on money from the federal government’s first round of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funding for businesses impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When this first hit, it was rough, but the PPP money got us through it,” Piersol said. “We know other people weren’t as lucky.”

The PPP money only covered one month of employee expenses at A Beer at a Time, though, and Piersol had to pivot to make things work after that first month of shutdowns last spring.

Fortunately, Piersol had seen the shutdowns coming and prepared to shift to outdoor dining during the pandemic’s early days.

“I told my husband, ‘This isn’t going to go away. The way it’s going, it’s going to be pretty serious,'” Piersol said.

In July, Piersol took steps to ready A Beer at a Time’s enclosed patio for the coming fall and winter months.

“I ordered heaters and got two of the last three that were left,” she said. Then, she made arrangements to get a gas line put in to fuel those heaters, and arranged for fire marshal inspectors to come make sure everything was working properly.

The heated, enclosed-but-still-ventilated back patio opened just in time for the holidays.

“We finished the day before Thanksgiving. The fire marshal approved it … and by the time we opened at 11 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day, we had a heated patio,” Piersol said.

Piersol said she also relied on takeout orders to get her through the first round of shutdowns, but added that selling customers who live in areas far from downtown Camas on the idea of picking up a burger that might be lukewarm by the time it gets to their home is tough for restaurants operating in smaller, rural communities.

“I do think takeout and delivery is crucial though, and we were lucky to have someone open a local delivery service, Skip the Trip,” Piersol said. “Without people picking up their orders and getting takeout, we wouldn’t have made it through those first months.”

Piersol, who is still recovering from a heart attack she had two months before the start of the pandemic and at increased risk of having a severe form of COVID-19, said she is a stickler for following the COVID-safety rules and doesn’t put up with people who say they don’t want to wear a face covering.

“We hear that a lot at the pub — ‘I’m not going to wear a mask’ — but I tell them, ‘It’s not about you. It’s about protecting the person in front of you, protecting the people around you,'” Piersol said. “This really is such a horrible disease. And we don’t even know the long-term effects yet. So there’s no excuse not to wear a mask.”

Like Salud!, A Beer at a Time relied on its live music events to draw in customers, and Piersol said going nearly a year without music has been tough.

“It’s hard because, pre-COVID, we were finally hitting our stride after five years in Camas,” Piersol said. “We had live music and it was so popular … and we were the only place in town that had a comedy night. We would fill all 83 seats on those nights. So, it’s been hard to not have that.”

Piersol said she does finally see reason for hope, though.

“There is hope on the horizon. And this is a good community. The people have been really, really supportive,” Piersol said. “They understand that we’re just trying to do our best.”

‘We’ll be back when it’s safe to reopen’

Other downtown Camas restaurant and bar owners have said they are counting on the community’s support not only during the pandemic but after vaccinations have taken hold and life returns to a greater sense of normalcy.

“We’re just hunkering down. And we’ll be back when it’s safe to reopen. I just don’t think that time is now. It might not be until late January or February,” Kevin Taylor, owner of Birch Street Uptown Lounge at 311 N.E. Birch St. in downtown Camas, told the Post-Record this week.

The 10-year-old upscale cocktail lounge shutdown completely in March, and Taylor said those first few weeks were tough.

“We had no money. It was scary,” Taylor said.

The business was able to secure a forgivable PPP loan for $19,000 as well as a small loan through the state to help cover costs from the first shutdown.

“We were able to hunker down and pay rent and survive,” Taylor said.

Throughout the summer, the cocktail lounge was able to offer limited indoor and outdoor seating and begin serving its creative cocktails once again.

“We weren’t able to have live jazz, but at least the tables were full every night,” Taylor said. “That got us through the summer, so I’m pleased about that.”

Although there was some pushback on the lounge’s face-covering requirements during the first few weeks of the summertime reopening, Taylor said most of his customers understand the science behind the COVID-19 safety protocols and were happy to follow the rules.

“We’ve been very tough on mask compliance,” Taylor said. “And, unlike other places, we’ve had no sick employees.”

When he saw COVID cases rising again in the community this fall, Taylor said he knew another shutdown was likely.

“I’m comfortable closing,” he said. “It’s not great … and I hate having employees laid off, but I don’t want to have anyone getting sick.”

Taylor said he plans to use money from state loans and grants, which came from the initial installment of federal CARES Act monies, to help his business survive this recent shutdown.

“Hopefully we won’t have to use all of it,” Taylor said. “But it’s there if we need it.”

In the meantime, Taylor is taking advantage of the bar’s temporary closure and catching up on some of the bigger maintenance projects like revarnishing the bar and painting the walls that are nearly impossible to accomplish when the business is open full-time.

And, although the cocktail lounge owner knows he is making the right decision putting safety and science over profit, he said he still longs for those pre-COVID days at Birch Street.

“I miss our musicians and the whole atmosphere we built over a decade,” Taylor said. “Sometimes, I’d look out and see the roses and candles and the band playing just right, and I knew we’d hit that sweet spot.”

Asked what people could do to support his business during the pandemic, Taylor had just one answer: “Frankly, I just want our customers to come back once it’s safe for us to reopen. Just come back.”