Oregon Counties In The Dark About Friday Reopening Odds

By Emily Cureton Cook (OPB)
Bend, Ore. May 13, 2020 10:51 p.m.

Oregon doesn’t have one plan to reopen its economy. It will have 36: one for each county in the state.

But how and when those plans get approval from the Oregon Health Authority remains riddled with uncertainty, just days before elected leaders from 33 counties hope to lift restrictions on businesses.


In Lane County, home to the state’s third-largest city, officials on Wednesday didn’t know when to expect authorization to ease some coronavirus safety restrictions that have been in place since mid-March.

“Lane County submitted its phase one application to the governor on Friday, May 8 and we are still waiting to hear back on approval,“ county administrator Steve Mokrohisky said. “It is certainly possible that the governor will release the information publicly at the same time she notifies communities.”

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown is expected to make announcements at a 10 a.m. press conference with OHA on Thursday.

Starting Friday, new rules apply statewide to retail stores, such as requiring face coverings for employees and limiting the number of customers to allow physical distancing. Transit and child care are also subject to new rules, though as of Wednesday afternoon specifics of those rules weren't available.

“My sense is that we will see a group of businesses who are ready to open right away ... and others who will need a bit more time to understand and implement the guidelines,” Bend Chamber of Commerce CEO Katy Brooks said in an email.


For restaurants, bars and personal service providers like hair salons, revival hinges on promises of local governments to have sufficient capacity for testing, treating, and tracking coronavirus cases.

Among other things, counties need to show OHA that hospital admissions for COVID-19 are declining (this doesn't apply to counties with five or fewer total positive cases), that they have the staff and ability to contact trace 95% of new cases within 24 hours, and that they have hotel rooms available for anyone who can't self-isolate, such as homeless residents.

In the most populous county east of the Cascades, some resources fall short of the benchmarks.

Deschutes County, which has nearly 200,000 residents, has six contact tracers thus far. That's one fifth the staffing laid out in the governor's prerequisites. The County Commission agreed to hire four more tracers this week, still significantly short of the benchmark of 15 tracers per 100,000 residents.

Another concern is Central Oregon’s status as a tourism destination, with second homes galore. The region’s population swells in the summer months, while health care capacity estimates are based on permanent residents only.

“Our case investigation is conducted through the county of residence, so we cannot detect if visitors from other states or counties … later test positive,” Deschutes County Health Director George Conway recently told the Bend City Council, adding: “The testing capacity has not been great here. It’s been in parallel with the rest of the country, with substantial difficulties in supply chain.”

Deschutes County’s eagerness to reopen, even as some health care resources appear to be lacking, is similar to other plans OHA received from counties this week, where officials are under intense pressure to restore economic activity.

State Rep. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, said county officials in his north-central Oregon district have grown increasingly restive in recent weeks. One even suggested they would be willing to reopen large gatherings like festivals or sporting events well ahead of state permissions to do so. Bonham declined to name the official.

“You know what I’m nervous about? That counties are going to say, ‘We’re done,’” Bonham said.

OPB's Dirk VanderHart contributed to this story.