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As Umatilla County moves to Phase 1 of Gov. Kate Brown's reopening plan, Milton-Freewater businesses slowly begin to emerge

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This story has been modified since its initial publication to reflect a correction.

MILTON-FREEWATER — Friday’s reopening at Burger Hut was more like a family reunion, owner Jennifer Bishop said.

Nearly two months after pandemic restrictions closed restaurant dining rooms in favor of takeout, drive-thru and deliveries, Gov. Kate Brown’s late approval Thursday of Umatilla County’s Phase 1 reopening restored a familiar tradition at the Main Street eatery.

At 8 a.m. on the nose Friday, Bishop welcomed some of her morning regulars back to their favorite haunt.

“We haven’t seen any coffee drinkers for months,” she said. “That’s where all the friendships are. Some of these people are like family.”

With business having continued at the window for the indelible eatery that normally draws students during lunch from nearby McLoughlin High School and bolstered by $1,000 from Baker Boyer Bank last week to feed front-line health care employees, Burger Hut was well positioned to meet guidelines spelled out for the opening, Bishop said.

Those include spacing tables at least 6 feet apart, providing face masks for employees and ending consumption of food and drinks by 10 p.m.

But even with the green light for Phase 1 not all businesses were ready to proceed.

In the first phase — an advancement from the statewide baseline reopening — restaurants, bars, retailers and personal service providers can reopen as long as they adhere to guidelines established for each sector.

A number of businesses eligible but not necessarily stocked with personal protective equipment were taking a bit more time to develop their strategies.

Operators of Milton-City Pizza, 1014 S. Main St., posted they plan to reopen the dining area Tuesday.

“We are excited to see you all seated and enjoying your food,” the post on social media said. “Until then we will do To Go and delivery only.”

Operators at Watermill Winery and Blue Mountain Cider Co. continued through the weekend with their “contactless” model of curbside pickup and delivery.

“We’re discussing how to reopen and how to fulfill the guidelines,” said Tristan Grau, the winery’s Direct to Consumer manager.

Grau said the winery and cidery have been able to serve club members and loyal customers through shipping and grocery sales while foot traffic is eliminated.

But even if the tasting room at Watermill opens, that doesn’t mean traffic will be back to normal. Visitors who travel to taste wine account for a major portion of tasting room traffic. And without the approval of nonessential traffic there’s a strong chance in-house visits will still be few and far between.

Not so of the cidery’s TapHouse, known as a draw for local guests, Grau said. But that operation presents a whole other set of challenges as operators determine how to maintain distances for customers, among other things.

Wineries are in a particularly interesting position for the change. Though wine-lovers are a target market of area tourism, the Oregon portion of the Walla Walla Valley Appellation is home to a smaller portion of the actual tasting rooms that draw visitors. The majority are on the other side of the Washington border in Walla Walla, where the community remains in the first phase of Gov. Jay Inslee’s reopening strategy that does not include restaurants or, for that matter, tasting rooms.

Consequently, few visitors are likely to make the trip without the entire Valley open, industry representatives say.

Meanwhile, those in wine continue to work on the best ways to maintain distancing requirements for tastings that often involve guests lingering about to sample and savor.

“Everyone’s trying to figure out how to manage that,” said Liz Knapke, communications and marketing director for the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance. “Mostly it seems having a reservation system is the most logical approach.”

That’s been part of the discussion at Watermill, too, Grau said.

However positive a sign the advance to Phase 1 may be for economic recovery, there are as many difficult turns to navigate.

A voice message at Shangri-La Salon & Boutique in the former Carnegie library building at 815 S. Main St. said the business will open Tuesday, as shipments of protective equipment and sanitation materials have taken longer than expected to arrive.

But owner and stylist Jeanne Ehmer said clients on the books for Tuesday and Wednesday know they may be called to re-book their appointments.

“If I feel like I can do it safely, if I feel like I can adhere, I’ll open,” she said.

Ehmer’s challenges are massive though. Even if she can open, she only has two boxes of perm solution on hand due to delays in shipments right before the statewide closures March 19.

Some hair color arrived in the weeks after the closure. She sat at the salon each day to receive deliveries on orders placed for the salon and her gift shop.

She tried to wisely look ahead at purchases of gloves, which have gone up from $9.99 two months ago for boxes of 100 to about $28.99 now for their equivalent, and sanitizer, that jumped from around the $20 mark for a 1-gallon supply to anywhere from $50 to $75 now.

But that didn’t completely prepare her for the the multi-page printout of requirements for salons that includes placing each towel in the salon in individual plastic bags, draping each client in a clean cape, having enough smocks to change with each client or even stocking disposable smocks/gowns for one-time use — not an easy find or purchase at this point.

Add to that list that each client must wait in the vehicle until being called or texted for the all-clear to enter the building, removal of magazines, newspapers, snacks and beverages, asking a line of COVID-19-screening questions, and that stylists must change into clean clothes before leaving the business each day.

Ehmer said trying to comply with wearing a mask is difficult because she wears glasses and still hasn’t found a solution for how to avoid fogging her lenses.

Using her husband for test runs, she’s tried to manage how to balance breathing and fogging while performing pedicures.

“Cut, cut, cut, breathe,” she said.

In her 52nd year not only as a stylist but also as an instructor licensed in six states, she’s flirted with retirement at 70 now. But she also has the conundrum of her retail boutique.

Before the closure, she stocked spring inventory. It included, for instance, about $1,200 worth of chocolates expected to get customers through Valentine’s Day, Easter and Mother’s Day. And then she lost business for all of it, starting with massive flooding through the area in early February.

A couple of weeks ago, she donated it all to a local food bank. A $556 grant from the city will help her with utility bills. But knowing how to navigate — even with the reopening — is unclear.

“I’m hoping this can ease up in a couple of months,” Ehmer said. “If it doesn’t I don’t know if I can do this.”

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Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at or 509-526-8321.

Vicki covers business and economic development, including tourism, the Port of Walla Walla and the Strictly Business column, as well as features. She has been reporting for the Union-Bulletin since late 2001.