Defiance of virus dining bans grows as restaurants flounder

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Diners sit at the Carver Hangar, a restaurant in Boring, Ore., on Jan. 6, 2021. As coronavirus deaths soar, a growing number of restaurants like Carver Hangar in states across the country are reopening in defiance of strict COVID-19 rules that have shut them down for indoor dining for weeks, or even months. (AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus)

BORING, Ore. – A line formed out the door during the lunch rush at the Carver Hangar, a family-owned restaurant and sports bar, and waitresses zipped in and out of the kitchen trying to keep up with orders as customers backed up in the lobby.

Indoor dining has been banned in much of Oregon for nearly two months, but the eatery 20 miles southeast of Portland was doing a booming business — and an illegal one. The restaurant's owners, Bryan and Liz Mitchell, fully reopened Jan. 1 in defiance of Democratic Gov. Kate Brown's COVID-19 indoor dining ban in their county despite the risk of heavy fines and surging coronavirus cases.

“We’re not going to back down because our employees still need to eat, they still need that income,” said Bryan Mitchell, as customers ate at tables spaced 6 feet apart. “The statement that we’re making is, ‘Every life is essential. You have the right to survive. Nobody should tell you what you can and cannot do to provide for your family.'”

Health officials in Oregon and other states with bans say they are necessary because people can’t wear masks when they eat, are in close proximity in smaller and often poorly ventilated spaces, and are prone to talk more loudly in a crowded dining room — all known contributors to viral spread. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists indoor dining as a “particularly high-risk” activity.

But even as coronavirus deaths soar, a growing number of restaurants in states across the country are reopening in defiance of strict COVID-19 rules that have shut them down for indoor dining for weeks, or even months. Restaurants can serve people outside or offer carry-out, but winter weather has crippled revenues from patio dining.

In Oregon, an organized effort to get businesses to reopen for indoor service starting Jan. 1 has been championed by several mayors, who formed a group to raise legal defense funds in anticipation of a court fight. Similar revolts in Michigan, Pennsylvania, California and Washington state have also gained traction, with the rule-breakers saying their industry has been unfairly singled out while other businesses, like big box stores and airlines, continue operating.

The states with the strictest dining rules are led by Democratic governors and the protests have consequently attracted the support of right-wing groups that, in some cases, have stationed armed individuals at business entrances and organized protests on behalf of owners.

In Oregon, protesters targeted the house of an inspector and the department’s top administrator after the state fined á local gym chain, Capitol Racquet Sports Inc., $90,000. On Tuesday, it added another $126,749 in fines because four locations were still open.