UPDATE (3:59 p.m. PT) — Nearly the entirety of Oregon, including some of its largest cities, will begin the slow process of reigniting their economies as early as Friday.
Gov. Kate Brown announced Thursday the state has given permission to 28 of the state’s 36 counties to reopen bars, restaurants, personal services businesses and malls as of May 15. The list encapsulates five of the state’s 10 most populous cities — including Eugene, Bend and Medford — which will begin the halting process toward resuming more typical operations.
Three additional counties — Jefferson, Morrow, and Umatilla — received permission to reopen after Brown’s announcement, bringing the total up to 31.
At the same time, state officials refused applications by Marion and Polk counties to begin reopening, amid concerns over increased hospitalizations in the Salem area.
Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties, the three central counties in the Portland metro area, have not applied to reopen.
“My job is to make hard decisions, even when they are unpopular,” Brown said in a press conference. “When it comes to the health and safety of Oregonians, the buck stops here.”
The 31 counties given permission to enter phase one of the governor’s reopening framework are: Baker, Benton, Clatsop, Columbia, Coos, Crook, Curry, Deschutes, Douglas, Gilliam, Grant, Harney, Hood River, Jackson, Jefferson, Josephine, Klamath, Lake, Lane, Lincoln, Linn, Malheur, Morrow, Sherman, Tillamook, Umatilla, Union, Wallowa, Wasco, Wheeler and Yamhill.
The reopenings that will begin in many corners of the state on Friday are the most significant steps toward pre-pandemic life that Oregon will have seen since March, when Brown issued a series of executive orders that shuttered schools and many businesses and ordered citizens to remain in their homes whenever possible.
Not only will many businesses be able to resume operations in phase one counties, but social gatherings of up to 25 people will be permitted.
But many uncertainties remain. Businesses allowed to reopen under phase one will need to ensure strict social distancing measures and operate under a host of restrictive guidelines that will likely make business feel anything but normal.
Bars and restaurants must close by 10 p.m. and eliminate most bar seating. Businesses like salons can accept business by appointment only and must ask customers if they have experienced symptoms of illness and keep contact details for their clients, in case investigators need to use them to track an outbreak.
Under forthcoming guidelines, gyms will also be allowed to open in phase one counties but will need to close showers and pools. Brown said. Retail businesses like boutiques, furniture stores and art galleries throughout the state will be allowed to reopen Friday, regardless of a county’s status.
In all cases, vulnerable populations such as people over 60 or who have underlying health conditions are encouraged to stay home as much as possible. Brown issued an executive order Thursday morning officially putting her reopening framework into place.
Officials also stressed that resuming aspects of normal life comes with the possibility Oregon could see its COVID-19 infections spike.
“I want to be clear that reopening does not come without risks,” the governor said in a memo issued to county officials. “With every restriction lifted we know transmission of the virus has the potential to increase.”
Whether or not the increased economic activity is taking a meaningful toll won’t be apparent for weeks, health officials said.
In order to qualify for phase one of the state’s reopening framework, counties had to meet a set of requirements set out by Brown and the Oregon Health Authority. They included proof that a county has the ability to test and track COVID-19 when it emerged, has adequate hospital resources to handle an outbreak, and has a plan to isolate coronavirus patients who could not do so on their own.
In addition, emergency room visits by people with COVID-19-like symptoms must remain low throughout the state, and qualifying counties cannot see an uptick in coronavirus hospitalizations.
In at least one area, some counties have fallen short of those benchmarks. The state has required that counties employ 15 contact tracers for every 100,000 residents, in order to ensure that outbreaks can be swiftly tracked down.
For larger counties like Lane and Deschutes, that proved a difficult mark to hit. Both counties said in their applications that, while they were able to track existing cases quickly, reaching the threshold set by the Oregon Health Authority could amount to overkill in the current environment.
“To meet this requirement, Lane County would need 56 contact tracers, even though we currently only have 13 active cases,” that county wrote in its May 8 submission.
The argument worked.
“Rather than requiring them to basically hire people who wouldn’t have anything to do right now, we wanted to know that they had a solid plan that would allow them to ramp up quickly,” OHA director Pat Allen said Thursday.
Counties approved for reopening Friday account for a fifth of Oregon’s confirmed or presumptive cases of COVID-19: 689 of the 3,416 cases the state had reported as of May 13. The counties have logged 24 of the state’s 134 deaths from the disease.
The largest single group of those, eight deaths, occurred in Linn County, which had reported a combined 105 confirmed and presumptive infections as of Wednesday. Those cases have partly been driven by an outbreak in a veterans’ home in the county.
Seven of the counties approved to reopen this week have seen new cases emerge at rates higher than the statewide average over the last two weeks. Coos County saw its number of cases double from 15 to 30 in that time, an increase owing in part to an outbreak at Shutter Creek Correctional Institution. Malheur County saw its cases rise from seven to 15. Officials have suggested that such increases are to be expected as testing capacity expands.
It’s unclear how widely businesses will immediately take advantage of the loosened restrictions. Even those that do could see heightened anxiety among staff.
“I read the Deschutes County’s application myself as well as a few other counties just to see how probable approval would be and I was not impressed,” said Carina Peterson, a Bend prep cook whose employer plans to reopen Friday. “I’m also nervous about giving up unemployment benefits (about $10 more an hour than I usually earn) to work less than full time in a dangerous environment.”
Counties that can operate for three weeks under phase one of Brown’s plan without a significant uptick in cases or hospital usage, and can maintain an ability to trace new cases quickly, will become eligible to move on to phase two. Brown’s office has not revealed precise details of that phase, though it is expected to permit more types of businesses, larger social gatherings and visitations at congregate care facilities.
In cases where counties see an increase in hospitalizations or infections, health officials may elect to reinstitute restrictions, Brown has said.
Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, represents a district with some of the state’s least densely populated areas and its lowest infection rates. He praised the reopenings and said rural Oregon’s businesses and schools should be handled differently.
“How do we get back to our churches, our fairs, our livestock sales?” Owens said. “How do we plan if we have to wait for a vaccine or cure? To some of my constituents, that seems unconstitutional”
Ten Oregon church leaders filed a lawsuit against the governor earlier this month, arguing her executive orders are unconstitutional.
While most of the state may now be at least partly open for business, Brown and state health officials say nothing has changed for people in the Portland metro area and other counties that remain under Brown’s March 23 stay-home order.
“We are asking folks in the metro area to be thoughtful of their fellow Oregonians and to stay home and limit their travel to essential need,” Brown said. “We obviously don’t want to overwhelm the rest of Oregon.”