Tom Buck and his wife, Jeannie, opened Cork Cellars on January 1 with the protocols that were in place before the shutdown of indoor dining. photo by Jim Cornelius
Tom Buck and his wife, Jeannie, opened Cork Cellars on January 1 with the protocols that were in place before the shutdown of indoor dining. photo by Jim Cornelius
For Tom and Jeannie Gilgenberg Buck, keeping their wine bar and bistro closed indefinitely isn’t an option. The couple opened Cork Cellars for in-restaurant dining on January 1 — in spite of state mandates prohibiting indoor dining in counties deemed at “extreme risk” in the current surge of COVID-19 cases.

“Tom and I seriously considered closing,” Jeannie told The Nugget on December 31. “If we don’t do this, there will not be a Cork Cellars.”

The restaurant opened with the same safety and sanitation protocols that were in place before Governor Kate Brown and the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) imposed tighter restrictions in November. Those restrictions prohibit all indoor dining, gym openings, and indoor entertainment in “extreme risk” counties — including Deschutes — in an effort to blunt a surge in COVID-19 cases that has seen more hospitalizations and fatalities in Oregon than at any time during the pandemic.

The bistro will require patrons wear masks when not at the table eating, will separate diners, and will not offer wine tasting or music events.

The couple argues that restaurants with safety protocols including heavy sanitation efforts in place have not been shown to be a significant factor in COVID-19 spread.

“Restaurants have never been this clean ever,” Jeannie said. “I’ve worked in many, and they’ve never been this clean, ever.”

While comprehensive data is not available from OHA, Tom Buck cites numbers from New York and California that indicate that restaurants account for 1.4 percent of cases. In all areas, the vast majority of cases in the current surge can be traced to small social gatherings in homes.

“You’re pushing people out of restaurants where it’s monitored and controlled into a free-for-all in people’s living rooms,” Buck said.

The couple also notes that there are inconsistencies in the way restrictions are imposed on different business sectors.

“Airlines are still functioning and you can sit two inches away from somebody and eat on an airplane without a mask,” Jeannie said.

She noted that one of the observations that pushed her and Tom into their decision to open was “going to Costco and seeing a lunchroom full of people who were not social distancing or wearing masks while they were eating.”

Cork Cellars is part of a groundswell of resistance to mandates to fully close indoor dining.

Emily Cureton of Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) reported on December 30 on a restaurant in Redmond that has defied closure mandates, noting that, “…defiance is growing, with businesses, activists, and a budding coalition of mayors allying to promote a coordinated rebellion that begins New Year’s Day.”

“The only way for my family and my staff to survive is to not comply with the executive order,’’ Westside Local restaurant owner Amber Amos in Redmond told OPB.

The story further noted that, “Meetings … have been happening around Central Oregon in recent weeks, drawing business owners and public officials in Redmond, Madras, Bend and Prineville, while being promoted and guarded by local activists, some of whom are armed.”

The owners of Cork Cellars face potential sanctions from state authorities, including fines administered through Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the withdrawal of their liquor license by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC).

In response to the movement to open restaurants in spite of restrictions, Governor Kate Brown issued a statement and a warning last week:

“I have directed Oregon OSHA and the OLCC to deploy all available resources to ensure businesses are in compliance. I expect enforcement agencies to continue to use an education first approach, but Oregonians need to understand that these rules are enforceable under law. For businesses that refuse to comply, OSHA and OLCC staff are empowered to take administrative action including issuing citations, fines, and Red Warning Notices if necessary.”

Brown asserted that, “Help is on the way for struggling businesses. I proposed new resources for rent relief for businesses in the third special session, and I expect a new round of federal aid to be delivered soon. We can’t waiver in our response to the virus now, when the end is finally in sight and resources are on the way.” (See sidebar at right for full statement.)

The owners of Cork Cellars say they feel that they’re out of options.

Jeannie noted that they have paid staff and bills out of their pockets throughout the closure, which can’t be sustained indefinitely. Operating on a takeout-only basis doesn’t cover costs.

“We can’t keep living like this,” Jeannie said.

While they appreciate the community support they received through a GoFundMe campaign in July, they don’t feel that they can continue to ask the community to subsidize them.

“We just want the opportunity to serve the community and make a living,” Tom said.