The majority of Oregon counties are currently at “extreme risk” for the spread of COVID-19 and should expect to see ongoing restrictions to stem the spread of the virus even past a two-week “freeze” set to expire on Dec. 3.
But those restrictions — unveiled as part of a new framework for classifying risk in the state — will include eased regulations for bars and restaurants, which are currently limited to take-out service only. Under the new guidelines, bars and restaurants would be allowed to have a maximum of 50 customers dining outdoors, with tables limited to parties of six. Service would have to stop at 11 p.m.
Meanwhile, retail stores in 27 of Oregon’s 36 counties could see increased regulation under the new framework, with their maximum occupancy limited to half of normal. That’s tighter than the 75% occupancy limit currently in place with the statewide freeze.
The new framework, a stark departure from a tiered system of reopening the economy Brown unveiled in May, was presented Wednesday as Oregon braces for Thanksgiving and prepares for its first winter in the COVID-19 era.
Gov. Kate Brown and state health officials said in a news conference the rules strike a sustainable balance between the harshness of the “freeze” and more lenient rules that have allowed the virus to escalate its spread. Brown and other officials have faced major pushback from business groups in recent days after the decision to once again curtail businesses around the state.
“We know that there are many casualties of COVID-19 among people who have never contracted the virus,” said Patrick Allen, director of the Oregon Health Authority. “It’s stolen their livelihoods, their homes or their emotional wellbeing without ever having attacked their bodies.”
Brown and Allen also offered hopeful news, saying the state expects to receive its first batch of vaccines for COVID-19 next month. Though the details were hazy, Allen said officials were expecting the federal government to provide enough to vaccinate roughly 30,000 people initially, with more coming. Frontline health care workers would be given first priority for receiving the vaccine, he said.
“The good news is that there is some light at the end of the tunnel,” Brown said.
The new system classifies Oregon counties in one of four risk categories: extreme, high, moderate and lower. A county’s position on that scale is determined by either the rate or number of new cases a county sees in a two week period, depending on its size and the percentage of positive COVID-19 tests in the current period.
According to a chart the governor’s office released Wednesday, 21 counties are currently in the “extreme risk” category, including all three Portland metro counties, Lane County, Marion County and Deschutes County. In addition, six counties are classified as “high risk,” four are “moderate risk” and five are “lower risk.” The Oregon Health Authority will re-examine county case data next week to make a final determination of where each county will sit when the freeze ends Dec. 3. Counties will be re-classified every two weeks after that.
“We’re likely to be in this place for several months until we can complete vaccinations for all that want them,” Brown said.
Each classification in the governor’s new framework comes with its own restrictions. Extreme risk counties will be subject to many of the same rules as the freeze, with notable differences including the shift in regulations on restaurants and retail establishments. The extreme risk category changes up capacity limitations on faith-based organizations, too, which will be limited to 25% capacity indoors, as opposed to 25 people under the freeze.
Gyms and other indoor recreation facilities are still closed in extreme risk counties under the framework, but outdoor recreational facilities can operate with a capacity limit of 50 people.
With every step down the risk classification continuum, restrictions ease. For instance, in high-risk counties, restaurants and bars can serve people indoors, up to 25% of their occupancy limit, with a maximum of 75 people. If a county is in the moderate risk category, restaurants can seat at up to 50% capacity, with a maximum of 150 people. Limits on retail, indoor entertainment and indoor recreation facilities ease in similar fashion.
Even at the lowest risk level, significant restrictions will remain in place. Bars and restaurants will be limited to 50% indoor capacity, up to 300 people. Retail stores will be limited to 75% capacity, as will indoor places of worship. Outdoor venues will have a maximum capacity of 300.
“There is not a ‘no risk’ category,” Brown said. “Until our COVID-19 vaccines are widely available, health and safety precautions will remain in place.”
Though some amount of vaccine appears on the horizon, health officials on Wednesday were vague about what to expect. While Allen said the state hoped to have enough to vaccinate 30,000 people initially, he acknowledged a “lack of clarity.”
Records show that last Friday, the OHA told the Senate Republican Office it expected the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to send 194,000 doses of coronavirus vaccine. Though some vaccines require two doses, it’s unclear how that number jibes with Allen’s prediction of vaccinating 30,000 people.
“It’s not clear to us in fact what the math is,” Allen said Wednesday. “We’ve been having ongoing conversations.”
Though several promising vaccines are in the works, none has received formal approval for use. Allen said after vaccinating frontline health care workers first, the state would move on to vulnerable populations before a vaccine is widely available to the public. The CDC also is expected to send vaccines directly to congregate care facilities in the state, he said.
The new framework was announced as officials brace for a Thanksgiving holiday that may usher in a spike of cases across the state and nation. And it comes as Brown has faced fierce pushback for once again tamping down on business, even as state health officials say private gatherings have contributed most to the worrisome spread the state has seen.
In recent weeks, Oregon has repeatedly broken its own records for new daily presumed and confirmed cases, along with daily death tolls.
Since Brown instituted the freeze on Nov. 18, the spread of coronavirus has accelerated across the Northern Hemisphere of the planet, prompting fresh restrictions in much of Europe, Asia and across the U.S.
In the Pacific Northwest, Oregon and Washington health officials have reported staffing shortages and hospitals are seeing intensive care unit beds fill up. From Klamath Falls in Southern Oregon to Portland at the state’s northern border, communities have obtained refrigerated trucks to serve as portable morgues. On Tuesday, Oregon reported 21 deaths related to COVID-19, a single-day record.
Officials are concerned that multi-household gatherings and travel over the long Thanksgiving weekend may further exacerbate that spread.