The owners of the Route 99 Roadhouse, a nearly 100-year-old restaurant and bar located just outside of Canby, do not plan to contest the state’s suspension of their liquor license for not following coronavirus guidelines on wearing masks, indoor dining and occupancy limits.
“We are not disputing it,” Rachelle “Rocky” George, who owns and operates the bar with Tyson Bafford, told The Canby Current Friday. “We’re not going to court. We’re settling because we did do all of those things.”
The “how” and “why” of what they did is the important part of the story that hasn’t been told, they said, with George calling it “the game-changer for us.”
“It’s not like we just opened the doors and went crazy with it and said, ‘Do what you want, when you want, how you want,'” she said.
Bafford and George said they joined what some refer to as the “Open Oregon” movement, which calls on restaurants, gyms and other establishments to reopen for indoor services in defiance of statewide coronavirus closures — while still observing infection prevention protocols such as encouraging masks and strict disinfection procedures.
A version of the movement was championed by Sandy Mayor Stan Pulliam and adopted by some businesses throughout the state and Clackamas County — particularly in more rural communities, including Canby and Molalla.
“A lot of people fizzled out, but we did not,” George said. “We reopened; we were open for a week. We did social distancing, masks; we did every single regulation that we had been prior to the [most recent] shut-down.”
Then, following the suit of other restaurants and bars that they said have done similar things, Bafford and George reopened the Roadhouse as what they described as a “private, members-only clubhouse.”
“We had to find something that would work,” George said. “A lot of the mandates are specifically stated to ‘bars and restaurants open to the public.’ At the end of the day, we were no longer open to the public; we were open to members only.”
Patrons who came in were asked to review a list of bylaws and, if they agreed to the terms, sign a membership contract and pay a nominal fee.
“At that point, we can open up, so we did,” George said. “We brought people back inside, and if they didn’t want to wear masks, they didn’t have to. It was up to the servers whether they wanted to wear masks or not. And we moved forward.”
Oregon Liquor Control Commission representatives visited the premises twice in January, George said, once when the Roadhouse was following the mask and distancing guidelines of the Open Oregon movement — when they got a warning and a “slap on the wrist” for allowing indoor dining — and again, during the private clubhouse phase, when George said they had an hour-long, positive conversation with the inspector.
Though the Roadhouse is not the only bar or restaurant following the “clubhouse” model, it is the only one that has permitted OLCC agents inside, Bafford and George said, and they believe this is why they were singled out for enforcement.
They certainly do not think they were the worst or most flagrant actors of the Open Oregon movement.
“There are lots of groups that went crazy with it,” George said, without naming names. “We had people offer to stand in front of the building and, essentially, guard it. You know, militias and whatnot. But we declined because we don’t want to fight the big fight.”
They see the movement not as a flagrant disregard for the state’s Covid-19 rules, but rather, a simple and earnest search for a loophole.
“We have to play by the rules,” she said. “We have to play by the book and be a team player. So as much as we feel that our governor is really singling us out, and it’s frustrating, we are still going to be compliant. And the clubhouse mentality … was just a different option that we wanted to try.”
Bafford and George are frustrated, they admit, as are most owners of restaurants, bars and other small businesses, who feel like they have a “big ol’ bullseye” on their backs.
“Abso-frigging-lutely,” she said. “One-thousand percent. The bias, in how this place can be open for that, but this place can’t be open here. This place can have a lot of people packed inside, but this place can’t. We feel extremely picked on. We feel like we just can’t catch a break.”
George said she had never envisioned herself contemplating ways to skirt around OLCC guidelines, but felt she had no choice. The limited outdoor dining that is currently allowed for Clackamas County has simply not been cutting it for the Roadhouse.
“Quite frankly, I don’t know,” George said she told an OLCC agent when asked what their plan was going forward. “The nature of our business is more of a venue, not a restaurant. Yes, we sell food but it’s a fifth of our alcohol sales, and that’s not enough to sustain us.”
CARES Act initiatives like the Payroll Protection Program did not provide much help, they said, because their labor as owners did not qualify for reimbursement. It was “pennies on the dollar,” they said.
“It just didn’t work for our situation,” Bafford said.
Likewise, Route 99 chose not to do to-go bar drinks, she said, because she feared it would encourage drinking and driving.
“Morally, I can’t stand for that,” she said. “I understand that it’s trying to help businesses but as a seasoned restaurant workers of 18 years, it’s been beaten into my head l: ‘Bars don’t do to-go cups.’ we just weren’t comfortable with that.”
The periods in which the bar was open last month — particularly during the clubhouse phase — were some of the busiest (and most lucrative) the owners had ever seen. It was so crowded, they had decided to voluntarily close anyway, as a sort of “reset.”
“We realized pretty quickly that it’s not manageable in any way, shape or form, and that’s not what we wanted,” she said. “We don’t want people to feel unsafe. We don’t want people to feel crowded if they don’t want to feel crowded. So, we were prepared to step back and reset things.”
When the bar is allowed to reopen, it will follow all of the public health guidelines in place, they said, including outdoor dining. But their fate lies with the OLCC, which is expected to rule this week on the length of the Roadhouse’s suspension and the amount it will be fined.
“They understand our justification, and they understand our logic behind it,” George said of the OLCC. “They’re not shaming us for that. But they’re also not patting us on the back. It is scary.”
Hear more from George and Bafford on Episode 244 of Now Hear This: Canby, “A Difficult Road”: