Is Oregon, or at least Portland, moving toward new restrictions to blunt the coronavirus’ spread?

“Shelter in place” was the virtually unspoken expression at a news conference Friday evening called by Gov. Kate Brown, Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler. They announced a “stay home, stay healthy” policy to fight the pandemic. Wheeler said an order was coming Monday.

“The order will be along the lines of ‘stay within your house unless absolutely necessary,’” he said, later explaining that the city would not call it “shelter in place” because, technically, that means to stay in place while an immediate crisis or catastrophe passes.

Streets sit empty during morning rush hour in downtown Portland, Ore., during coronavirus pandemic, March 20, 2020.

Streets sit empty during morning rush hour in downtown Portland, Ore., during coronavirus pandemic, March 20, 2020.

Stephani Gordon/OPB

In a call with reporters earlier Friday, and at the evening news conference the same day, the governor stopped short of advocating such action statewide. She continued to implore Oregonians to follow social distancing guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus.

“For me, the bottom line is if there is evidence that Oregonians are not complying with the aggressive social distancing measures I have put in place, I will need to take more restrictive measures,” she said.

What Is ‘Shelter In Place’?

In its most basic form, shelter in place is exactly what it sounds like – stay where you are. It has been largely used during acute emergency situations, like acts of terrorism, when venturing out could expose a person to a dangerous situation. The Oregon Office of the State Fire Marshal has shelter in place guidelines for schools to protect students and staff from “chemical, radiological, or biological contaminants released into the environment.” 

But during the coronavirus pandemic, shelter-in-place orders have not been defined nearly so restrictively.

So far, in most other U.S. states with shelter-in-place directives, officials are ordering people to stay in their homes, but people can venture out to meet essential needs. In some cases, outdoor activities like hiking and biking in public spaces and parks are allowed.

Wheeler indicated Friday that the order he’s working on for the city of Portland likely would include similar provisions.

Some States Already Sheltering In Place

On Thursday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a mandatory and indefinite stay-at-home order for the entire state. Under California’s model, people must remain in their residences except to “get food, care for a relative or friend, get necessary health care, or go to an essential job. If you go out, keep at least 6 feet of distance.” 

Illinois and New York announced similar restrictions Friday, and more states are expected to follow.

As of Friday afternoon, Washington state, which has the second-largest number of COVID-19 cases nationwide, had not adopted shelter-in-place rules, although the governor had asked that people over the age of 60 adopt the practice for their own safety. 

Who Is Affected?

Shelter-in-place orders that aim to minimize the spread of the coronavirus have exempted some people to keep society functioning. People who work in critical services are usually excluded from an order – these can include workers in healthcare and law enforcement, and at grocery stores, banks and pharmacies. 

In addition, the federal government has identified critical categories of infrastructure during the COVID-19 outbreak. These industries and sectors include energy, water and wastewater, transportation, dams, critical manufacturing, communications, and food and agriculture.

On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said that the wood products sector is also an essential industry. 

“Our industry will continue to support the supply chain of materials critical to response and recovery efforts,” Oregon-based Roseburg Forest Products CEO Grady Mulbery said in a statement Friday. 

Roseburg said its veneer plant in Northern California will continue  operating during the pandemic, even as most people in that state have been ordered to stay at home.

Some local jurisdictions are also making exceptions to shelter-in-place orders in response to social conditions. In San Francisco, people who are homeless are exempt from the city’s shelter-in-place order, but they are advised to seek shelter. 

How Are These Orders Enforced?

Because coronavirus-prompted stay-at-home orders are so new, it will take a while for the details of enforcement to shake out.

In California, the Office of Emergency Services is in charge of enforcing that state’s stay-at-home order. People who violate the order can be charged with a misdemeanor and face fines of up to $1,000 and six months in prison. 

Enforcement guidelines for previous COVID-19 orders in Oregon say violators could be charged with a Class C misdemeanor – punishable by up to 30 days in jail and $1,250 fine. Penalties could be similar if a similar stay-at-home order were issued.

Mayor Wheeler made clear that he does not consider it a good use of police resources to enforce such an order in that manner. Instead, he said police would encourage people they encounter who are out and about to return home.

“We’re not going to turn the Portland metro area into a police state,” Wheeler said.

How Long Could A Stay-At-Home Order Last?

This is about as difficult to predict as the course of the pandemic itself. 

California’s stay-at-home order will last “until further notice.” The order in Illinois has an end date of April 7.

The goal of all of these state orders is to “flatten the curve” –  a sudden spike in COVID-19 infections could overwhelm our health care systems. Instead, health officials and government leaders want to slow the spread of the virus, so there is enough time and there are sufficient resources to care for people.

Without a current shelter-in-place order, Oregon leaders are asking residents to voluntarily act to flatten the curve.

“I’m encouraging and urging Oregonians to stay home. I want to say, ‘Don’t travel for spring break, stay home.’ This is one of those circumstances… that as individuals, our actions matter every single day,” Brown said.

“And for Oregonians – whether you live in rural Oregon, whether you live in urban Oregon – your activities, what you do on a day-by-day basis during this coronavirus epidemic, is truly a matter of life and death.”