ASTORIA, Ore. – The COVID-19 crisis sent shockwaves through many Oregon communities, but few felt the sting as quickly and severely as Clatsop County in the northwest corner of the state.
Unemployment in the county soared to 24.4% – the second-highest jobless rate in the state – and several small, locally owned businesses shut down for the pandemic. Some closed permanently. Baked Alaska, the venerable seafood restaurant in Astoria, closed its doors for good, as did coffee houses and other small business in the historic waterfront district.
“These were all thriving businesses before the shutdown,” said Lindsay Davis, the office manager for the Oregon State University Extension Service office in Astoria. “Most of our businesses rely heavily on tourism, so even when restrictions were lifted slightly, most couldn’t continue to pay the bills while operating at only 50% capacity. The impact on our community was huge.”
Astoria was one of the first areas of Oregon to “feel the heat of the flames” from COVID-19, Davis said. Being across the Columbia River from Washington, one of the earliest hot spots for the outbreak in the U.S., prompted the Extension office in Astoria to begin planning for the pandemic in February, weeks before the problem appeared on the radar of other Oregon communities.
From the outset of the crisis, it was clear that Clatsop’s small businesses would need to be a focus for Extension. As one business after another closed permanently, folks like Davis realized the vitality of their community was in danger of being lost.
OSU Extension has formed strong partnerships and collaborations in Clatsop County. Extension employees began working with the county and Clatsop Community College’s Small Business Development Center to help business owners pivot to new models. For example, they encouraged operators who previously relied solely on walk-in customers to develop online storefronts and/or reinvent their business model.
Extension supported the efforts of the Small Business Development Center as it worked fiercely to create and deliver critical information to small businesses throughout the County, and collaborating on this frontline effort.
“The greatest need was right in front of our faces,” Davis said. “Small businesses really needed help.”
Extension’s efforts included:
- Clatsop County Extension is working with OSU’s Professional and Continuing Education division and the Small Business Development Center to develop an eight-week summer online course to help small business owners navigate the state’s ongoing business restrictions. The course will include classes on accounting, advertising, digital marketing and social media.
- Working with the community college’s Clatsop Works internship program, Extension secured a full-time summer intern to provide the community with additional small business support.
- After the county’s staff reductions during the stay-at-home order, Extension’s administrative staff stepped in to help with data-entry projects.
- Extension employees teamed up with the Oregon Army National Guard and Oregon Department of Agriculture to distribute KN95 masks and hand sanitizer to hundreds of local agricultural producers and farmworkers.
- Amanda Gladics, an assistant professor of practice for Oregon Sea Grant Extension in Astoria, began producing videos about shopping for and handling seafood during the pandemic. These replaced Gladics’ popular face-to-face program called “Shop at the Dock” in Garibaldi.
- Clatsop 4-H faculty and staff helped organize and orchestrate the delivery of over 2,500 hand-sewn masks to essential workers, including law enforcement and the U.S. Coast Guard, as well as high-risk individuals and the elderly.
The economic outlook is starting to brighten in Astoria, Seaside and other small communities. On June 5, the county starting welcoming visitors again, and many businesses and lodging establishments were able to reopen on a restricted basis.
“Everyone in our community, including those in our office, have had to pivot and learn how to do things differently,” Davis said. “We’ve had to plug into new approaches, and in the long run we’ll still be able to continue delivering programs and content in these new ways.”