Rural Oregon Counties Pushing To Reopen Businesses Are Stalled By State

Officials in rural Oregon are clamoring to reopen. They’ve crafted plans to resume business operations and revive their shuttered economies. But they’re stuck awaiting a green light from Gov. Kate Brown.

On April 20, Brown’s office unveiled a draft  plan to reopen the state on a gradual basis. The plan envisions each county devising its own path towards reopening, with various sectors reopened in phases.

County leaders got to work, shaping their own path forward. They laid out details about hospital resources, their testing ability and restrictions for businesses like barber shops and restaurants. 

But now they’re stuck.

Some county leaders say the state’s roadmap is vague. They want more information about how much personal protective equipment they should have, for example, or how many contract tracers they need to try to curtail the spread of the virus by notifying people who may have been exposed so they can self-quarantine.

“In my opinion, the state is completely unprepared to consider reopening at any level, anywhere at this point,” Douglas County Commissioner Chris Boice said in an interview. 

A spokeswoman for the governor’s office said rural Oregon counties could well be the first to reopen. But officials need more time. 

“Timelines for reopening communities will be driven by solid data on the spread of COVID-19, county by county as appropriate, and as each region is able to meet criteria set forth for a safe reopening,” Elizabeth Merah, a Brown spokeswoman, said in an email. “Given current data trends, we would expect that the first counties that could be eligible to begin the process of reopening will be in rural Oregon -- but only if we can ensure those counties have adequate testing capacity, sufficient supplies of personal protective equipment and the public health staff.” 

The pandemic has made Oregon’s rural-urban divide more apparent than ever. Statewide more than 2,500 hundred people have been infected with the virus and more than 100 have died. But the toll has mostly hit urban areas. Some rural counties have cases in the single digits or no cases at all, including Baker, Gilliam, Lake and Wheeler counties. No one has died from COVID-19 in 25 counties, mostly rural areas. But more populous areas like Multnomah, Washington, Clackamas and Marion counties have had hundreds of cases each and dozens of deaths. 

Yet all of Oregon’s 36 counties have had to shut down, and all are hurting economically. 

Brown has repeatedly said that the state needs to be cautious and not move too quickly, to prevent a misfire. That philosophy was reflected in a 13-page draft plan obtained by The Lund Report that her office emailed to county and industry leaders on Tuesday. The proposal suggests reopening various sectors at a different pace and gradually moving towards situations involving crowds. 

But county officials want more than that. They want to know when they can start to reopen.

Douglas County sent its letter for reopening to the governor’s office on Friday. Jackson, Josephine, Curry and Coos counties signed the letter, backing Douglas County’s efforts to reopen. Those counties still need their own plans to reopen.

Regional Solutions Coordinator Alex Cambell, with the governor’s office, told the counties in an email that the state has not issued “standards” for reopening. “We expect to issue clear guidance next week on what information to include and how to request permission to move to Phase 1.”

Boice indicated that his peers in other rural counties are becoming frustrated with the state asking them to move forward and then putting up roadblocks.

“We’ve already asked for permission to move to Phase 1, and the state is not prepared,” Boice said.

Counties Make Educated Guesses

Brown’s plan laid out general principles for reopening.

It says counties will need a sufficient stock of personal protective equipment and room in hospitals to accommodate a potential surge in cases. They also must show a decrease in new COVID-19 cases. 

The framework outlines phases, with counties gradually moving towards a return to life as it was before. For example, restaurants and bars will open initially with limited seating. Crowded venues like sports games and concerts will open last. 

Counties went to work on their plans. 

“In light of that, counties started to put together the framework of what their plans would look like for phase 1,” said Gina Nikkel, executive director of the Association of Oregon Counties.

Four days after counties received the framework, the governor’s office told the association the state is working on more details and guidance for counties.

“Counties with very few or no cases certainly want to open,” Nikkel said. "As you can imagine, there’s economic devastation all over the place.”

Counties In Different Situations

Counties are at various stages in their plans. The early contenders for reopening that have notified the governor’s office already are Harney, Umatilla, Douglas and Baker counties. 

Other counties are right behind them: Jackson, Grant, Malheur, Coos and Polk are sending in plans soon. 

Counties are tasked with coming up with plans that will pass muster with the governor’s office without having all the details about how those plans should look. 

Polk County Commissioner Craig Pope said he intends to have a draft plan ready by Friday or Monday. Pope said the task requires guesswork without clear direction from state officials. 

“I’ve been asking for contact tracing requirements,” Pope said. “I don’t have an answer.” 

Still, the county is forging ahead based on the April 20 presentation. If necessary, the county can add information to the plan after learning more information, Pope said.

“We’re going to say based on what we know for our county, counting our levels of infections, here’s what we think we need to do,” Pope said.

Starting Early, But Not Rebels

The first counties with plans are sharing them with each other and working on templates to help others come up with their own guidelines. 

Rural leaders say they expect their initial reopening plans to change after they get more feedback from the state. They said they’re not trying to downplay the state’s authority. 

Umatilla County Commissioner George Murdock said his county is not trying to “cowboy” the process. “We’re trying to do the right procedures,” Murdock said. “We’re trying to work with the governor’s office. We’re not going to be rebels.”

So far, no one is asking the county to reconsider, Murdock said. 

“We have not yet gotten a call from the state saying, ‘Are you out of your mind?’” Murdock said.

St. Anthony Hospital in Pendleton supports the county’s plan, spokeswoman Emily Smith said in a statement.

“The county’s plan is consistent with the framework announced last week by Governor Kate Brown, continuing to encourage residents to practice social distancing, limit nonessential travel, and work from home whenever possible,” Smith said. 

Baker County Commissioner Mark Bennett said the county will need to refine some areas, including the isolation strategy for care settings such as substance abuse treatment centers and long-term residential care facilities.

The county also has trained 14 employees to work as contact tracers if necessary. 

Baker County’s plans also call for restaurants and hair salons to keep a log of customers to make contact tracing easier.  He said the information would stay confidential.

“It’s not like the county sheriff would be getting it,” he said.

Bennett said the state has kept in touch with the county and is providing regular feedback. He said the county expects changes because it’s applying early. 

Harney County Judge Pete Runnels said the county had its first confirmed case of COVID-19 this week. He said that case doesn’t change the county’s request to open because the county needs to move forward and balance public health and the economy, Runnels said. 

“We’re going to have to learn to live with this,” he said. “I think you’ll see a lot of plexiglass at a lot of places. You’ll see masks. You’ll see gloves.”

Harney County’s plan states it has capacity for a surge. Harney District Hospital spokeswoman Samantha White said the hospital has reviewed the plan, but declined to comment further. 

Other Counties Close Behind

Other counties are finalizing plans this week, hoping to soon send them to the state. 

Malheur County in Eastern Oregon has a plan it intends to share with the state this week, county Judge Dan Joyce said. 

The county borders Idaho, which means it has to consider that state in its planning process.  Sarah Poe, director of the Malheur County Health Department, said an estimated 40,000 people traveled through Ontario each day before the pandemic, including from nearby Boise, a rapidly growing western city. 

“As a border community, we really have to be aware of the impact that we have on each other’s communities,” Poe said. 

Coos County Commissioner John Sweet the county is prepared to reopen once it receives final guidance from the governor’s office. The coastal county relies on tourism, though Sweet is urging the public not to rush the process. 

“I think it’s time to be patient,” Sweet said. “We have to be very cautious and the county leadership at least is interested in setting the stage for reopening, but we want to do it in such a manner that we don’t cause further infections.”

Grant County Commissioner Jim Hamsher said the county hopes to submit a plan later this week. 

“We didn’t hold off,” he said. “We just went ahead with the planning process anyway.”

Hamsher said businesses in the county have an advantage. A one-chair barber shop can avoid crowds, he said. 

Blue Mountain Hospital in John Day will provide input to Grant County officials. CEO Derek Daly said he will work on reviewing plans and provide feedback about bed capacity and personal protective equipment levels. The hospital has avoided the influx of virus patients that hit many urban hospitals. Grant County only had one positive case of COVID-19 in mid-March. 

Jackson County officials expect to submit a plan once they get more criteria from the governor’s office. 

“I can only say the sooner the better,” said Jackson County Commissioner Bob Strosser. “It’s tough to submit a plan when you don’t have criteria.”

He said communication could be better, but avoided criticizing state officials. 

“That’s a loaded question because anytime you’re dealing with communication, it could always be done better,” he said. “That’s not a criticism. This is rapidly changing. Rather than criticize, I would much rather focus on moving forward.

Merah, with the governor’s office, says the state is reviewing information from counties that want to reopen. The state will issue more guidance soon, Merah said.

“This is not a process that will happen overnight or statewide all at once, and we recognize that some areas of the state will take longer to reopen than others,” she said.

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


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