Portland Saw 80 Percent Decline in Foot Traffic Amid Protests, Riots, Violence, COVID

Portland, Oregon reported seeing an 80-percent decrease in foot traffic in the downtown area over the past year, according to a study conducted by the Portland Business Alliance, as tourists shied away from COVID restrictions and nightly protests.

Many of Portland's popular events including the Rose Festival, brew fests and drag shows were canceled in 2020, or postponed or held virtually. On top of COVID-19 social distancing and isolation mandates, the Trump administration labeled Portland an "anarchist jurisdiction" due to the number of clashes between protestors and police.

A survey conducted by the city last month found 68 percent of people said their top reason for not visiting Portland was due to the riots and protests. Still, Portland hopes to recover as restrictions are lifted by Gov. Kate Brown, and Oregon is aiming to have the economy fully reopened by late June or early July.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

BLM protest Portland
A Black Lives Matter protest gathers in downtown on April 16 in Portland, Ore. Protests erupted Friday after Portland Police shot and killed a homeless man in Lents Park. Nathan Howard/Getty Images

The smell of fresh empanadas wafted through the stands at Portland's Saturday Market. People talked through their masks with artists as others sifted through fork windchimes, crystal necklaces, tie dye dresses and clay mugs.

The weekly event was smaller than in years past, but longtime attendees say it was a sign of life being breathed back into downtown.

Nine blocks away, past businesses still shuttered with plywood boards—the names of Black people killed by police painted onto them—a panhandler leaned against a fence outside the federal courthouse in an area that was choked with tear gas last summer as thousands of protesters seized the streets. It's now overwhelmed by a makeshift homeless camp.

The scenes are from a city trying to emerge from one of its most wrenching periods, one that saw its reputation go from quirky "Portlandia" to violent dystopia in the minds of many on the outside looking in.

The Pacific Northwest city had best been known nationally for its ambrosial food scene, craft breweries and nature-loving hipsters.

"It does feel kind of like someone dropped a bomb in some areas [of Portland], but I think they're very contained areas," said Ocean Howell, a professor at the University of Portland who teaches urban history and planning. "I think there's likely some businesses that are gone and aren't coming back. And there are just some people, generally, who are kind of spooked from everything."

City officials insist Portland is resilient as they launch a revitalization plan—in the form of citywide cleanups of protest damage, aggressive encampment removals, increased homeless services and police reform—to repair its reputation.

But even the city's famously liberal locals grew weary of months of racial justice protests, increased shootings, a more noticeable homeless population and strict COVID-19 restrictions.

When the pandemic reached Portland in March 2020, businesses boarded up, turned off neon "open" signs and sent employees home.

"A year ago, when we were at the end of the longest economic expansion in post-World War history in this country. We had 100,000-plus individuals coming in and out of downtown daily," said Andrew Hoan, president and CEO of the Portland Business Alliance. "And then, overnight, they disappeared."

A year later there are still "pockets" in the city that seem frozen in a scene from six months ago. However, officials say there is hope and already noticeable signs of recovery.

"We're in a virtuous cycle now, where one element feeds the other," Hoan said, noting customers are again lining up outside the famous Powell's Books and fans are returning to Timbers' soccer games.

"Office workers start to breathe life into the retail scene and hospitality scene, and that sends a signal to other retailers and hospitality owners," he said.

While all cities have dealt with the impact of COVID, Portland faced additional challenges over the past year—from a large homeless population, to nearby "once-in-generation" wildfires, to winter ice storms that left tens of thousands without power. But the events that challenged the city's reputation the most was political violence on top of racial awakening.

The Rose City was thrust into the national spotlight over the summer as people attended nightly racial justice protests. Photos of thousands of people laying on the historic Burnside Bridge for eight minutes and 46 seconds in remembrance of George Floyd captivated the nation.

But as time passed, scenes of chaos emerged: violent clashes between protesters and federal agents sent by Trump. In late August, a Trump supporter was shot and killed downtown when a large caravan of Trump supporters and Black Lives Matter protesters clashed in the streets.

Even with most protests taking place within a few blocks, news of the mayhem stretched across the country.

Hoan said participants who were violent or damaged businesses negatively affected the city's reputation.

"And we're dealing with the consequences now," he said.

Protests continue in the city and sometimes turn violent, but that activity is concentrated in small areas.

"I get the impression that some people from outside the area, from some of the news coverage, get the impression that the whole city is just a warzone between antifa and Proud Boys, and that's really not the case," Howell said.

Based on a survey conducted by the city last month, 68 percent of people said their top reason for not visiting was due to riots and protests.

In recent months, Portland officials have committed millions of dollars to cleaning up downtown—removing graffiti, clearing large homeless encampments and restoring damaged buildings.

In addition, the mayor's office has launched a reputation and rebranding effort.

"We're doggedly determined to recover," Mayor Ted Wheeler said in his State of the City address this year. "Our community has what it takes to move forward to a much greater future."

Homeless man in Portland
Frank, a homeless man sits in his tent with a river view in Portland, Ore., on June 5. Until a year ago, the city was best known nationally for its ambrosial food scene, craft breweries and “Portlandia” hipsters. Now, months-long protests following the killing of George Floyd, a surge in deadly gun violence, and an increasingly visible homeless population have many questioning whether Oregon’s largest city can recover. Paula Bronstein/AP Photo