COVID-19 risk levels have improved enough to allow limited indoor dining to resume in 10 more Oregon counties on Friday. That includes the Portland metro area, where inside service at bars and restaurants has been banned since November.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced the state’s updated county risk levels Tuesday. Twelve counties showed improvement. Ten counties moved out of the most dire “extreme risk” category, including Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties in the Portland area. The state also moved Clatsop, Columbia, Deschutes, Hood River, Klamath and Linn counties from “extreme risk” into the “high risk” category and bumped Morrow County to “moderate risk.”

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That means 14 Oregon counties are still considered at extreme risk for the transmission of COVID-19.

Signs on the windows of the Mad Greek Deli & Tavern stating they are open for takeout in Portland, Oregon. On Monday, March 16, 2020, Gov. Kate Brown ordered restaurants and bars to stop all on-site dining and limit food sales to takeout and delivery service only to help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

Signs on the windows of the Mad Greek Deli stating they are open for takeout in Portland, Oregon, taken March 19, 2020.

Claudia Meza / OPB

The reclassification opens the door, quite literally, for businesses such as gyms that have closed or drastically reduced service since the first iteration of the governor’s “freeze” in mid-November.

In counties considered at “high risk” a broader range of business and social activity is allowed:

- Indoor dining at bars and restaurants increases to 25% indoor capacity or 50 people, whichever is smaller. Outdoor seating increases to 75 people.

- Indoor recreation and fitness facilities, such as gyms and pools, increase to 25% capacity or 50 people, whichever is smaller.

- Indoor entertainment establishments, such as theaters and museums, increase to 25% occupancy or 50 people, whichever is smaller.

- Long-term care facilities can resume indoor visitation and continue outdoor visits.

The Oregon Health Authority notes that all these activities assume people will continue wearing masks and following proper hand hygiene and physical distancing guidelines.

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Jason Brandt, the head of the Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association, said many restaurant operators greeted the news with relief – and trepidation.

“They’re excited to get back open again,” he said. “At the same time, there’s a bit of fear out there about how long it will last.”

Because the state updates county risk levels every two weeks, restaurant owners must weigh the costs of ramping up again – including buying food and rehiring staff – against the possibility of shutting down indoor service in a matter of weeks. Brandt said some restaurant operators with viable outdoor options might choose to keep their dining rooms closed for now.

“We’re only able to offer two weeks of employment certainty at a time,” he said. “And that creates apprehension and some anxiety about what the right decision is, even though you technically can open in a number of places starting Friday.”

The decision to reopen certain businesses was prompted by a return to safer levels of COVID-19 circulation. But reopening does come with increased risk, and there are several concerning new COVID-19 variants circulating in the U.S., some of which have been identified in Oregon.

Some of these variants are more contagious, some may be more deadly, and some have made vaccines less effective. When the new variants arrived in some countries, they caused cases to skyrocket and forced governments to implement new social distancing restrictions. One variant from South Africa proved so resistant to the AstraZeneca vaccine it was taken off the market.

It is unclear how much these variants have spread in Oregon. Only a few cases have been identified so far, but epidemiologists remain concerned. In a White House press conference Monday, U.S. COVID-19 chief Anthony Fauci said that the B.1.1.7 variant, which flooded hospitals in Britain despite social distancing restrictions, could be the dominant strain in the U.S. by the end of March.

The spread of coronavirus variants worries Michael Gibbons, who, with his wife, has owned Portland’s Papa Haydn restaurants since 1978. He doesn’t plan to reopen his dining rooms Friday, even though he can.

“If it was safe, I would do it, but I don’t think it is,” Gibbons said. “Indoor dining in itself is dangerous, unless you know of a way for people to eat with a mask on.”

His three restaurants will continue take-out service. One location has outdoor dining. Gibbons has laid off about 80 people since the pandemic hit last March.

In her announcement, Brown thanked Oregonians for their efforts, but warned them to stay vigilant in light of the new coronavirus variants.

“This means continuing to wear masks, keep our physical distance, and avoid indoor gatherings,” she said in a statement. “If we want to keep businesses open, reopen schools for in-person instruction, and stay safe, we must keep up our guard. Until vaccines are more widely available, case counts could go back up if we don’t keep following safety measures.”

The next reassignment of risk levels will take effect Feb. 26.

OPB reporter Erin Ross contributed to this report.

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