The leaders of Oregon, Portland and Multnomah County say they want Oregonians to stick close to home except for essential functions. 

But they don’t seem united on how they’ll do that. 

At a Friday night press conference, Gov. Kate Brown, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury announced a policy they’re calling “stay home, stay healthy.”

The plan is ostensibly one part order to Oregonians, one part public information campaign. But even the central players struggled to outline its pieces, with apparent confusion about precisely what was being proposed. 

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler speaks at a press conference to address the coronavirus pandemic in Portland, Ore., Friday, March 20, 2020.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler speaks at a press conference to address the coronavirus pandemic in Portland, Ore., Friday, March 20, 2020.

Bradley W. Parks/OPB

One thing that was clear: Brown, Wheeler, and Kafoury are calling on all Oregonians to maintain strict social distancing practices to slow the spread of COVID-19.  

“There is still time for us to make a difference,” Brown said. “We all need to stay home to stay healthy.”

Wheeler alluded to a statewide order he said would limit person-to-person contact. He said people would still be allowed to visit the grocery store, go outside for walks and visit ailing relatives. But the rules will be similar, he said to those in place in California and other states that have implemented so-called “shelter-in-place rules.” 

“This is not a lockdown,” Wheeler said. “This will be a ‘stay at home unless it’s absolutely necessary’ order.”

The governor didn’t go that far. While Wheeler said he would like to see a statewide push to enforce social distancing, Brown said she’s not supporting a statewide version of the shelter-in-place policy California adopted.

Officials insisted Friday that those differences had been smoothed out, even if their combined statements didn’t suggest as much. 

“We’re doing this together,” Wheeler said. “We’re not doing this at the city level and the county level. Now we’re doing it statewide.” 

The messaging was supposed to be a way for the three leaders to show they were largely united in their approach to stemming the spread of COVID-19 — even as they’ve disagreed on the severity of necessary measures this week.

While Brown has repeatedly declined to issue a shelter-in-place order — opting instead to ask citizens to voluntarily exercise caution — Wheeler has been preparing a possible order for Portland alone.

“The city of Portland is prepared to act independently, but we would rather not,” he said. “Pandemic flu knows no boundaries. We would like to work with as many jurisdictions as will work with us.”

While confusion reigned following the conference, staffers and officials said the message was not what many people perceived: That Brown was still unwilling to issue a shelter-in-place order, and Wheeler was willing to act unilaterally. 

At a press conference to address the coronavirus pandemic in Portland, Gov. Kate Brown said, "There is still time for us to make a difference. We all need to stay home to stay healthy."

At a press conference to address the coronavirus pandemic in Portland, Gov. Kate Brown said, “There is still time for us to make a difference. We all need to stay home to stay healthy.”

Bradley W. Parks/OPB

Instead, they said that the three officials had agreed to a plan that would include many of the provisions of the shelter-in-place orders that have cropped up around the country, without as many regulations on businesses. 

The plan involves a directive that people largely remain in their homes, though not one that would be enforced by law enforcement, according to one official. That will be partnered with new restrictions ordering the closure of businesses like gyms and theaters, where people aren’t easily able to keep six feet apart. 

Brown’s office is leery of any blanket order that would classify businesses as “essential” or “non-essential” and the fights such classifications could stir up. Business groups have warned of dire long-term consequences if state leaders go too far in restricting economic activity. 

Under shelter-in-place orders that have cropped up in California, Illinois and New York in recent days, residents are directed to remain in their homes except to complete essential tasks like purchasing groceries, visiting pharmacies, or even grabbing take-out. Outdoor activity like walks or jogs are also allowed.

While politicians consider their options, Oregon health care professionals have increasingly called on them to take sterner action. Most recently, a trio of doctors at Oregon Health and Science University told lawmakers on Friday that the state should consider ordering people to stay indoors.

“Curfews and shelter-in-place orders like other cities may seem extreme, but we should be considering them at this moment,” Dr. Renee Edwards, OHSU’s chief medical officer, said at a hearing of a legislative committee tasked with responding to the pandemic.. “I implore all Oregonians to present a unified front in this matter and stay at home against the threat of COVID-19.”

Edwards and her colleagues presented the committee with modeling that suggested Oregon’s hospital resources could be quickly overwhelmed if the virus spreads unhampered, without effective social distancing measures to slow its transmission.

According to the models, COVID-19 patients could require 1,000 acute-care hospital beds and 400 intensive care unit beds by April 16. As of Friday afternoon, the Oregon Health Authority had reported just 114 confirmed cases of the disease in the state and Josephine County had reported one other.

Since March 12, Brown has taken a series of escalating steps designed to implement social distancing, including shuttering schools, largely closing bars and restaurants, and banning gatherings of more than 25 people. 

Health officials say it won’t be clear for weeks whether those measures are working.