Oregon’s performance venues and tourist attractions are beginning to reopen

Amy Yerman of Vancouver, Wash., was thrilled to return to skating at Oaks Park, April 13, 2021. Yerman says she has been skating there since she was a child and couldn't wait to return.  Skating sessions are limited to 50 people.

Amy Yerman of Vancouver, Wash., was thrilled to return to skating at Oaks Park, April 13, 2021. Yerman says she has been skating there since she was a child and couldn’t wait to return. Skating sessions are limited to 50 people.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff/OPB

Oaks Amusement Park in Portland will open for the first time in a year on Saturday, the latest proof that Oregon’s tourism attractions and public spaces are beginning to stir after a year of pandemic shutdowns — and the latest test of public attitudes toward resuming pre-COVID -19 life with new safety precautions in place.

“We’re going to be implementing social distancing requirements,” said parks events director, Emily MacKay. “Increased sanitation, encouraging people to wash their hands, all of those things that over the last year we’ve learned how to do in the essential things, now we’re going to apply to the fun things.”

New precautions include changes in how people buy tickets — that will be online — and a shuttered children’s play area. Everyone will have to wear a mask on rides to protect staff workers, who have to get in close to make sure safety harnesses and lap belts are in place.

For venues such as Oaks Park, the guidelines on precisely how and when to reopen aren’t crystal clear. There’s no letter from the state specifically saying, “OK, reopen now.” Instead, state leaders put out guidance, and organizations must decide whether they can operate within the rules.

In the case of Oaks Park, which is classified as an outdoor entertainment venue in Multnomah County, the current state rules allow the reopening of 15% capacity.

“Really we just need to get going again,” MacKay said.

Maximum capacity at the park used to be 16,000 people. Now the park is limiting itself to 1,500, so there should not be crowds or long lines. Managers think they can operate with so few visitors because the park is a nonprofit; back in 1985, the family that owns it made the shift to help ensure one of the country’s oldest continually operating amusement parks would survive.

“All of the buildings you see, those are original from 1905,” MacKay said. “You know that your grandparents, great grandparents, great great grandparents came here. They met in the roller rink. Their first date was on the Ferris wheel. You get to do that too.”

Oaks Park events director Emily MacKay says the park will be well under the 16,000-person capacity when it reopens.

Oaks Park events director Emily MacKay says the park will be well under the 16,000-person capacity when it reopens.

Kristian Foden Vencil

Tourist attractions and large venues across Oregon are trying to answer the same questions as Oaks Park: How many people should they let in? What sanitation requirements do they need? Can they stay financially viable given new limits and requirements?

For some places, the answers aren’t positive. The Portland Children’s Museum, for example, is closing after nearly 75 years. The museum’s board said the pandemic and the funding model, which relies on paid admissions, have made survival impossible.

That may not be the end of the venerable old institution. Jane Moisan, a Portland lawyer, said supporters have already raised more than $100,000 to keep the museum and an associated charter school open.

She thinks once Oregon reaches herd immunity, the outlook will be brighter. “With the support of the community these are obstacles that we see as surmountable,” she said.

Organizers of other live performance venues and tourist attractions, such as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Pendleton Roundup, have written to the state to say they’re frustrated at the lack of reopening clarity.

The state says both outdoor and indoor venues can operate, but only at modified capacities. And how many people organizations can welcome back depends on location. In low-risk counties, the limit might be 50%. In high-risk counties, it’s more like 15%.

Venues are still reopening: Last week, the Portland Thorns became the first professional sports team in Oregon to welcome back fans.

Vicki Jacobs feels safe skating at Oaks Park, April 13, 2021 with all the safety precautions in place.  Skating sessions are limited to 50 people, and social-distancing and masks are required.

Vicki Jacobs feels safe skating at Oaks Park, April 13, 2021 with all the safety precautions in place. Skating sessions are limited to 50 people, and social-distancing and masks are required.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff/OPB

But how is the public reacting as venues open?

At the Oaks Park roller rink, 71-year-old Vicki Jacobs said this week that she wouldn’t be there if she didn’t feel safe.

“There are strict rules about wearing a mask, and I don’t hesitate to tell others: ‘Put that over your nose,’” she said. “I’ve caught a few. But most people are conscious about what we all have to do.”

Jacobs has been vaccinated and feels like the exercise she gets on the rink outweighs the risk of skating with 50 people.

“A life is a lot to lose,” she said. “I’m not going to be the cause of anyone else going down either.”

.