Multnomah County health officer: Despite COVID spread, businesses should stay open

By Amelia Templeton (OPB)
Aug. 4, 2020 12:18 a.m.

The county is a long way from sending students back to school, but Dr. Jennifer Vines says a new stay-at-home order isn't the answer.

The spread of COVID-19 in Oregon’s largest county is going to make it very difficult to sends students back to campus for the foreseeable future. Yet businesses and workplaces will likely stay open.

Dr. Jennifer Vines, the Multnomah County health officer, said that while the decision rests with the Multnomah County chair, she is not seeking a second “stay at home” order to reduce community spread of the virus and increase the likelihood schools can reopen for in-person classes.


“I don’t foresee a Multnomah County stay at home order in the near future,” she said. “I think we have other things that we are working with the state on and that we would like to try.”

Tri-county health officer Dr. Jennifer Vines briefs reporters at the Multnomah County Health Department in Portland, Ore., March 9, 2020. The first presumptive positive case of COVID-19 in a person living in Multnomah County brings the state’s total to 15.

Multnomah County health officer Dr. Jennifer Vines says she doesn't expect a new stay-at-home order in Oregon's largest county, despite COVID-19 increases.

Donald Orr / OPB

Vines doesn’t think bars or restaurants, which have re-opened with distancing requirements, have been a major source of COVID-19 transmission in Multnomah County.

“So far it doesn’t seem to be the businesses that have reopened that are really driving spread,” she said. “Where we definitely see spread is in people’s social gatherings.”

Related: Tracking Oregon coronavirus cases by ZIP code

Last week, Gov. Kate Brown announced new statewide requirements for reopening individual school distrcits. Counties must have 10 or fewer cases per 100,000 people per week for three consecutive weeks. The test positivity rate in the county also needs to be 5% or lower over for three weeks in a row.


The governor set lower requirements for re-starting kindergarten through third grade classes in person: 30 or fewer cases per 100,000 people for three consecutive weeks.

Many school districts, including Portland Pubic Schools, responded by announcing classes will be online only through at least November.

Vines called the criteria very stringent, but stopped short of criticizing the governor’s decision.

“It’s going to be incredibly difficult to meet that criteria,” she said. “In the meantime, I’m hoping the science will evolve, and we will learn from other jurisdictions experiences, and figure out how to get our kids back to school safely.”

In Multnomah County, spread of the disease needs to fall to no more than 81 new cases per week for 3 weeks in a row before K-12 schools can reopen. That hasn’t happened since the pandemic hit the Portland area in March, according to data published on the county’s website.

Vines says the key to reducing cases so school can start again is for people to limit their private social gatherings and to wear masks as frequently as possible.

She says camping, parties and travel to Washington and Idaho are all behaviors that are spreading COVID-19 locally.

Las week, Multnomah county was placed on a state watch list of counties where more than half of new COVID-19 cases haven’t been traced back to a known source or outbreak, indicating potentially dangerous levels of community spread.