Cheerful Tortoise, the fabled family-owned dive bar located on Portland State’s campus known for its dollar-beers, karaoke, and quirky—also occasionally inflammatory—daily marquee messages, celebrated its 70th anniversary this year.
But there was no celebration.
On April 30, due to rapidly rising COVID-19 cases, Multnomah County moved back into the “extreme risk” category of Governor Kate Brown’s COVID-19 restrictions, limiting indoor dining capacity for restaurants and bars. According to Amy Nichols, owner of Cheerful Tortoise, the bar barely survived the last two COVID-19 shutdowns.
“I didn’t actually think I would survive the second [shutdown],” Nichols said. “Luckily I had some friends provide some extra funds that helped me. If it wasn’t for them I probably would have shut down [Cheerful Tortoise]. We can’t make it.”
Nichols started working at Cheerful Tortoise as a server in 1999 when she was 21. She purchased the bar, along with the sister bar Cheerful Bullpen—also located downtown—in 2008. According to Nichols, there have been five owners who have owned both bars in their history. Cheerful Bullpen has been in operation since 1948, Cheerful Tortoise since 1951.
This year, Nichols converted Cheerful Bullpen into a convenience store to help offset the financial toll of operating a bar during the pandemic. It worked well, and she thought about doing the same thing with Cheerful Tortoise, but couldn’t bring herself to do it.
“I grew up in that bar,” Nichols said. “It’s hard. I have a really hard time going there.”
According to Nichols, state and federal relief has been marginally helpful. She was able to get on the Paycheck Protection Program at the beginning of the pandemic, which helped; but ultimately, she said, rapidly rising costs and Oregon’s COVID-19 restrictions continue to cause financial strain.
Nichols has purchased food, kegs and other perishable items that went bad because of unexpected shutdowns. She mentioned that all of her fees for licensing doubled without warning, that she’s now paying $800 instead of $400 annually for a liquor license. Plus, she’s still paying full-price for rent on the building despite capacity limits, she said, and staffing the bar has become more and more difficult.
“We’re in the middle of a shutdown and there was no relief or discounts,” Nichols said. “There were no breaks.”
One thing that bothers Nichols about the “extreme risk” restrictions is that businesses are allowed to have up to six people inside to play video poker, but food and drink cannot be served inside.
“It’s bullshit,” Nichols said. “It’s like they’re picking and choosing restrictions randomly.”
Brown announced on May 4 that the latest restrictions will be lifted on May 7, allowing restaurants to serve patrons in-doors once again. But Nichols said that this latest shutdown might have pushed her over the edge: “I want out of the Tortoise,” she said.
According to Nichols, it’s more than the financial strain; it’s also the environment of downtown Portland, where there are many people experiencing houselessness and frequent protests.
Nichols said that the old and expensive stain-glass windows at Cheerful Tortoise were broken in August by protesters, and that multiple houseless camps have cropped up near both Cheerful Tortoise and Cheerful Bullpen.
“I don’t want to be in downtown Multnomah County once we get back to full whatever,” she said. “I don’t want to be downtown unless something drastically changes.”
She said that no sale will happen for at least a couple of years, but at the moment, her plan is to get out.
More than anything, it’s loss of community that makes Nichols sad when reflecting on Cheerful Tortoise and the pandemic.
“It’s not just a college bar, it’s home for a lot of people,” Nichols said.
She talked about how a lot of older patrons who frequented Cheerful Tortoise—some who don’t even drink—saw the bar as a social outlet and a place of community.
“That’s been the hardest part for me during all of this, because those guys are alone,” Nichols said. “They don’t have any family. The Tortoise is their family.”
“Luckily we got a lot of their numbers and stuff and we were able to reach out to them and make sure that they were ok,” Nichols continued. “But it was hard.”
Cheerful Tortoise has been fiercely criticized for some of its daily marquee messages, especially during the pandemic. Nichols has also made posts and comments using Cheerful Tortoise’s social media accounts criticizing Governor Brown and COVID-19 restrictions, and some people have accused Nichols and Cheerful Tortoise as being anti-lockdown, inflammatory and racist.
“It’s sad because people are just quick to judge instead of taking the time to figure out the whole story,” Nichols said. “I have three little ones. I have my youngest and then I have a nine-year-old and a six-year-old, and so to have the pandemic happen, and then the kids can’t go to school and things like that—just don’t be so quick to judge. It’s easy to read a post and just assume something versus just taking the time to talk to somebody. There’s so much of that these days. It’s really sad.”
Ultimately, Nichols is grateful for her friends that were able to support the bar through the financial challenges wrought by the pandemic.
“Support the little guys,” Nichols said.
Nichols wasn’t the only Oregon business owner unhappy with the latest shutdown, especially as vaccinations are being administered and hospitals have space. Oregon Unemployment Department data shows Oregon had 149 fewer restaurants at the end of 2020 versus the end of 2019, the first decline in overall establishments in a decade, according to The Oregonian.
“A lot of prices for things have increased drastically, and we can’t even open our doors,” Nichols said.
After the shutdown?
“We’ll be open, but dollar-beer is gone.”