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730 Days Later: A New Reality

It was on March 17th 2020, 2 years ago today, that Oregon’s Governor enacted a mandate requiring the closure of indoor dining at bars, breweries, and restaurants. Within those first few weeks of uncertainty, countless businesses closed, at least temporarily, and thousands of retail workers were furloughed. Hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, and toilet paper were scarce, if available at all.

It’s crazy to think it’s been 2 years since COVID-19 shook us to our core. And it seems safe to say that our perception of time in general has shifted, like so many pivots we’ve all taken to adapt to this ever morphing pandemic reality.

Here’s a look back at what’s changed for me, what we’ve lived through, and what’s on the horizon.

Priorities

Over the first 4 to 6 weeks of the pandemic arriving in Portland, I worked from home and wasn’t up for visiting 20+ chain stores each week. Visiting the grocery store before masks became common was an uncomfortable task.

Remember, the mask mandate that ended last weekend wasn’t initially in place until July 1st, 2020, so we were walking down one-way store aisles, trusting no one, cursing under our breath (and behind masks) those who didn’t subscribe to the idea of protecting others around us. And while that changed over time, the politicization of masks, and eventually vaccines, is still with us today.

Yet when I look back at how all of this has affected me and those who still work in the beer industry, it’s not quite an easy answer. For starters, I began to spend more time across a larger swath of the Portland-metro area. Having grown into and expanded my role at work (Day One Distribution) I’ve met and become friends with folks at other distributors, at new and growing bottle shops, and of course through my regular interactions with local and west coast breweries.

A deserted downtown Portland – Saturday, April 25th 2020 at 12:30pm

The result of this greater investment in community and my day job, combined with the change in societal behavior I’ve seen in general, has had a direct impact on my desire to write as I am now. Call it motivation, a smaller bandwidth, or a lack of energy, but I’m just not doing this like I used to.

I suppose that as things began to open up last summer, I opted for in person contact with a steady flow of brief Instagram snippets, rather than a full-on investment of time and energy into this particular media format which continues to slowly decline. But in the end, my priorities have changed and while I miss writing as much as I used to, I don’t feel like I need the catharsis of writing anymore. I see this being a good development in my own life story, having spent a lot of the past 14 years using writing as a means of release.

Phased Out

Beers out at Tulip Shop Tavern last Thursday

I could be wrong, but things seem more normal today than they have been in 2 years… and even that feels weird to think, especially when considering that this whole thing certainly isn’t over yet (which we’ll get to). Though when revisiting my first article after “the shutdown,” McMenamin’s had furloughed almost their entire staff of 3,000, not to mention an estimated 100,000 out of work in the Oregon retail industry, plus thousands in the local beer industry.

From here we began to see the quick proliferation of compulsive hand-washing, breweries doing home delivery service, curb-side pick-up, filling crowlers (which were quickly in short supply), all primarily handled by owners and maybe a few staff in the early days. Some of these services are still provided at a handful of breweries, but not at all like it once was.

It was a complete 180° pivot for breweries and taprooms away from draft and straight to packaged beer. And we quickly began to accrue a litany of new vocabulary to explain our present condition… the new normal, pivots, phased re-openings by county, parklets, mandates, and on and on.

I even maintained an up-to-date list of locations across the Portland-metro and Vancouver that were still open as well as what delivery or on-site services they provided. All the events and beer fests stopped. Days felt like weeks, months like years. It was surreal and all too real, all at once.

Taking a knee on the Morrison Bridge during the march for George Floyd & Breonna Taylor, June 4th 2020

By late May/early June the Black Live Matter protests began in earnest all over the country, with Portland primarily witnessing peaceful protests early on, yet went on to endure 104 consecutive nights of protest including the arrival of federal troops, the “Trump Cruise,” and countless other clashes. The streak only broken when an extreme amount of smoke flooded the Willamette Valley as wildfires engulfed the state in early September. The impact of the protests, people now working from home, and the itinerant folks living on the streets downtown is tough to measure, as the area is still struggling to recover.

By November we’d been through three waves of the virus, the “re-opening” of counties, the protests and wildfires, then there was the month long “freeze” of indoor service as case counts hit their highest peaks yet. The last article I wrote in this series was upon the 1 year anniversary of the shut-down, writing that “unless something earth shattering happens over the next 4 months, this will be the last entry in my series about the pandemic in Oregon.”

How wrong I was. Over the past 8 months we’ve since been hit with both the Delta and Omicron waves of the virus, with the latter’s case counts peaking at more than 3 times the two-week rolling average in January of 2021. As much as I always try to be a harbinger of positivity, I was optimistically wrong.

And while this series of upticks in cases again caused a change in social and buying patterns, the beat goes on for those of us who’ve been working as hard as ever. With many businesses often understaffed, raw materials in short supply, and supply chains experiencing delays like we’ve never seen before, the day-to-day grind of work and everyday life continues to reek of survival mode. While it now feels like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, nothing’s definitive and our collective exhaustion is real.

On The Days To Come

In case you missed it, the mask mandate officially ended early Saturday morning and while I visited a number of breweries/taprooms in Portland where many patrons were maskless, I also visited multiple grocery stores in Happy Valley & Milwaukie on Sunday and was stunned to find at least 75-80% of customers still opting to wear masks.

This comfort in continuing to wear masks is a good thing being I’ve already read reports of a hybrid strain of the Delta and Omicron variants dubbed Deltacron. The good news is that this “recombinant variant” is pretty rare and hasn’t shown any indication of being able to spread exponentially. There have also been reports of an Omicron sub-variant known as BA.2 which was originally identified in November, yet it’s unlikely “to cause a new surge in the United States and probably won’t.” Testing is just getting underway, so nothing’s certain yet and it still seems that the virus is in decline, for now.

The crowd at SheBrew 2022 in NW Portland

As for getting back to normal? I don’t quite know what that will look like. Am I happy that live sports venues, concerts, beer festivals, and other large gatherings are back? Sure… but am I ready to participate in any or all of them? I’m just not sure yet. Returning to SheBrew last week, the last festival many in Portland attended before COVID, was exciting and a little overwhelming for me – so many people in a relatively small indoor space, it was over-stimulation at it’s best.

We’re also seeing the return of smaller beer events too – tap takeovers, “meet the brewer” nights, bingo/cribbage/trivia and more have all returned to places where they were once regularly scheduled. Steady events are keeping a lot of places going, so if you haven’t checked in with your local lately, be sure to stop into see what they’re up to.

It really feels like we’re almost out of the woods, yet this has also gone on so long now – despite the social distancing, masks and vaccines, that I just don’t know what to expect anymore. Though I’m feeling even more optimistic than a year ago and am ready to return to whatever normal is again… with a little more perspective and insight in our back pockets to help us through whatever else is yet to come.

And if you haven’t already come to terms with the idea that things aren’t quite going back to the way they were, it’s time to embrace this new reality. We’ll be better off for it.

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