Most Oregon Counties Could Enter Next Reopening Phase By Friday

Thirty-one Oregon counties could move into the next phase of reopening businesses and restaurants on Friday.

For Oregon, Phase 2 is a key hurdle as the state moves away from its March shutdown, which helped stem the virus but did not eradicate it.  It allows indoor gatherings of up to 50 people, doubling the 25-person limit. Large venues like theaters or places of worship can have up to 250 people provided they have enough space for physical distancing. 

Oregon likely will stay at Phase 2 for months as researchers seek a cure or vaccine, Gov. Kate Brown told reporters Wednesday. 

“People all over the globe understand that we will continue living with the threat of the virus until there is a widely available treatment or vaccine,” Brown said. 

Workplace rules loosen under the new phase. The state still encourages people to work from home when possible, but no longer requires it. 

The state will make decisions on a county-by-county basis. To qualify, a county needs to be in Phase 1 for at least 21 days and control the virus’ spread. 

Counties must show they have enough contact tracers to find the source of new cases within 24 hours. Counties need to identify the source of infection for  70% of new cases. 

Hard-hit Portland-area counties took longer to reopen. Five of the state’s 36 counties do not meet the qualifications to apply for the next phase: Multnomah, Washington, Clackamas, Marion and Polk. Only one of them -- Multnomah -- has yet to enter Phase 1. Multnomah County commissioners, who heard Wednesday from public health officials, plan to submit an application to reopen Friday, with the intention of opening a week later on June 12. 

The county has hired 52% of the 122 staff necessary to do the contract tracing, said Kim Toevs, director of communicable disease and harm reduction. The county wants tracers who speak Spanish, Russian and Vietnamese to be able to communicate with those communities, Toevs said.

Phase 2 allows bars and restaurants to stay open until midnight instead of 10 p.m. and allows bowling alleys and arcades to reopen. Zoos, museums and outdoor gardens also can reopen.

The pandemic is not over, though. Brown encouraged people to continue practicing physical distancing, wearing masks and avoiding large gatherings.

“Any reopening comes with risk,” Brown said. “That’s just a fact of life now.”

Large crowds have gathered nightly in cities around the state, with hundreds in such places as Eugene, Bend and Grants Pass, and throngs by the thousands in Portland to protest the killing of an unarmed black man by a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Many people have worn masks but few have respected the 6-foot social distancing rule.

Dr. Jennifer Vines, Multnomah County’s health officer, said the county could start to see increased infections from protests by next Wednesday. But Vines said it’s too soon to know how many cases will emerge or whether the county will see increased hospitalizations. The infection threat tends to be lower outdoors because the viral particles are not contained in a closed space, epidemiologists say. Still, close exposure over 10 minutes, for example, can lead to infection. 

The number of cases in hospitals is trending down. Oregon had 102 hospitalizations on Tuesday involving patients with COVID-19 or a suspected case. Two weeks ago, 161 people were hospitalized.

“It’s safe to say our situation is stable,” Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen said.
Dr. Dean Sidelinger, state health officer and epidemiologist, said the authority will continue to evaluate data for counties after they reopen. The state can impose tailored restrictions for counties that experience a spike in new cases, he said. 

“Reopening is not an off-on switch,” he said.

State officials say their decisions on when counties can reopen are based on data but the Oregon Health Authority has declined to release that, according to a report by The Oregonian/OregonLive. The agency said it is protected from releasing investigatory data under a revision to the Oregon Revised Statutes that allows public health to keep certain information secret. The health authority pushed for that change before the Legislature, arguing  that people wouldn’t cooperate in an investigation if the state is forced to release key information.

Allen said the authority will send more than $11 million this week to local health departments and tribes for expanded contact tracing. The authority will work directly with community-based organizations and have contact tracers who can speak different languages to reach marginalized communities. 

“We canot contain the coronavirus without doing something about the social inequities,” Allen said.

Allen said the protests of the killing of George Floyd have “exposed the fundamental flaws in our social justice system.” Floyd, an African American man, died May 25 when a Minneapolis police officer pressed his leg against his neck for nearly nine minutes during an arrest. 

“At OHA, we’ve been too slow to recognize that threat and act on it,” Allen said. “For that, I’m truly sorry. OHA will do better.”

You can reach Ben Botkin at [email protected] or via Twitter @BenBotkin1.

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