Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced Tuesday that she is designating 15 counties as “extreme risk” for COVID-19 spread, and imposing strict limits on restaurants, businesses, places of worship, and social gatherings. The restrictions are an attempt to curb a steep rise in cases and preserve hospital capacity statewide.
The new risk level designations will take effect Friday and last through at least May 6.
Most large cities in the state — Portland, Gresham, Eugene, Salem, Bend and Medford — are in extreme risk counties and will face the new restrictions.
Counties affected include: Baker, Clackamas, Columbia, Crook, Deschutes, Grant, Jackson, Josephine, Klamath, Lane, Linn, Marion, Multnomah, Polk and Wasco.
The extreme risk designation triggers stringent limits on many public activities, including an outright ban on indoor dining at restaurants.
The designation is based on county case rates and test positivity rates that indicate widespread COVID-19 transmission, as well as a statewide indicator that hospital capacity may be under strain: more than 300 COVID-19 patients hospitalized. As of Tuesday, 328 people were hospitalized for COVID-19.
Brown said she understands the impact of a closure yet again on businesses, and urged Oregonians to do their part by getting vaccinated.
“My goal is to lift these restrictions as soon as it is safely possible, and keep Oregon on the path for lifting most health and safety requirements by the end of June so we can fully reopen our economy,” she said.
“But we will only get there if enough Oregonians get vaccinated. There are appointments available right now all across the state.”
Earlier this month, Brown said she would no longer designate counties as extreme risk until there was an indication hospital capacity could be overwhelmed, given the impact vaccination would have on blunting the worst outcomes of the pandemic. COVID-19 hospitalizations at that time were at roughly half the threshold Brown said would indicate a strain on capacity.
Now, just three weeks later, as more contagious strains of the coronavirus take root across the state, hospitalizations have exceeded that 300 mark.
The most common variant now circulating in the Pacific Northwest is B.1.1.7 — a strain first identified in the United Kingdom. It is now responsible for about 40 percent of cases in the region, the CDC estimates. It spreads much more easily between people than the variants that caused previous waves of infection in Oregon.
Scientists believe that the available vaccines provide strong protection against infection by the B.1.1.7 variant — but just 40 percent of Oregonians have received at least one dose of the vaccine so far, leaving many in the state vulnerable to a fourth wave of infection.
Doctors and public health officials are warning they are seeing younger COVID-19 patients, without underlying conditions, hospitalized and even in intensive care.
“Oregon has among the lowest overall case counts and deaths of all states, but our cases are now growing faster than almost any other state. We can’t let our guard down now,” said Becky Hultberg, president and CEO of the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems.
As of Tuesday, about 11 percent of ICU beds statewide were occupied by COVID-19 patients, according to data hospitals report daily to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Few hospitals are reporting imminent capacity problems: just four said they expect critical staffing shortages within the week, while 52 said they are not facing immediate staffing shortages, according to the HHS data.
Many restaurant owners in soon-to-be extreme risk counties braced for yet another indoor dining ban with a collective grimace.
“I don’t know if I can make it through another shutdown,” said Tracy Roundy, co-owner of Gramma’s Corner Kitchen in Milwaukie. “It will be the third shutdown in the last year.”
Roundy and her mother own the Clackamas County diner together — “a lifelong dream” for her mom. After Friday, they will still have a handful of outdoor tables, but Roundy said she would have to lay off staff again. She grew emotional listing the steps they’d taken to keep the restaurant afloat: the plexiglass between tables, the extra sanitation, paying for delivery services, applying for federal loans, using personal savings, borrowing money from family and friends.
“Honestly, it makes me angry,” she said. “How hard we’ve fought to stay in business.”
Some restaurant owners worry another shutdown, and another round of layoffs, will make it even harder to hire workers back.
Ashley Baldwin, co-owner of The Hive Social in Oregon City, said staffing up after the winter shutdown was difficult enough.
“We had a lot of people who either decided they didn’t want to be in this industry because it was too much of a rollercoaster, or other restaurants that they had also worked at were desperate for more time from them,” she said.
Baldwin worried that even a short shutdown would drive staff away, making it hard to operate normally — and recoup losses — when restrictions ease.
Brown said counties would stay in the extreme risk category for a maximum of three weeks. If Oregon still exceeds 300 people hospitalized for COVID-19 at that time, she said she will ask for new recommendations from the Oregon Health Authority for how to curb the spread of the virus.
The governor’s office announced two additional measures to help businesses hurt by coronavirus restrictions. Outdoor capacity limits will expand from 50 to 100 people for bars and restaurants in extreme risk counties, providing physical distancing remains in place. The governor’s office also said it was working with state lawmakers on a $20 million emergency relief package to help businesses in extreme risk counties. The funds would be administered as grants through Business Oregon’s commercial rent relief program.