Oregon governor Kate Brown speaks at a press conference the afternoon of March 16, 2020. Dave Killen/staff, the Oregonian
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This article was originally published by the Oregonian/OregonLive, one of more than a dozen news organizations throughout the state sharing their coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak to help inform Oregonians about this evolving health issue.
Come May 15, Oregon will take its first steps along the tightrope of reopening public life, tentatively lifting its coronavirus stay-home order and once again changing the rules of social and economic engagement across the state.
It’s another grand social experiment, largely dependent on the willingness of citizens and businesses to comply with and adapt to new restrictions, and the ability of local governments and health systems to quickly react to any surge in new cases.
Even then, the outcome is unknown, and the consequences potentially grave.
At the helm of this unprecedented public endeavor is Gov. Kate Brown. Her leadership and lockdown of the state in the past seven weeks has been both praised and condemned. And this may be the most politically, economically and socially fraught moment of all.
Can Oregonians responsibly manage a phased reopening? Or will they reignite a local pandemic, wasting nearly two months of economic and social sacrifice only to see infection rates and deaths spiral?
Brown held a news conference Thursday morning to outline a broad set of policies that her policy advisers — working with other states, local officials and business leaders in specific industries — have crafted to navigate the coming months of uncertainty. They include public health prerequisites counties will have to meet to begin that process; a new statewide face mask policy; and conditions that individual businesses will need to meet to get up and running.
“Reopening any part of our state comes with risk,” Brown said. “This virus is still very dangerous and it still poses a great threat. Until there is a vaccine, unfortunately, we will not be going back to life as we knew it. Not here in Oregon or frankly anywhere. I know this can be a really tough reality to face.”
Indeed, despite some easing of earlier stay-home orders, Brown said large gatherings will remain off limits. Live sports events, concerts, theater, festivals and conventions won’t be permitted until there is effective prevention and treatment available. That means they’ll be restricted through September at least, putting a damper on Oregonians’ summer bliss and a question mark over fall football, soccer and other cultural touchstones. Even that may be optimistic based on the current state of vaccines and immunity levels in the population.
On the other hand, outdoor recreation, restaurants, shopping malls, breweries, salons, and yes, tattoo parlors, will be creeping back into existence, provided their counties get approval to reopen, and they can live with — and economically survive — under the new guidance.
The first phase of reopening will be phased in geographically. Starting this Friday, each of Oregon’s 36 counties can submit plans demonstrating that they can meet seven public health criteria. Those include declining levels of COVID-19 hospital admissions over a 14-day period; minimum levels of testing and contact tracing capacity; adequate hospital surge capacity, quarantine facilities and personal protection equipment; and finalized sector guidelines from the state to communicate to individual businesses.
The governor’s office will determine if those plans pass muster, and if so, allow counties to start reopening as early as May 15. Phase 1 will last at least 21 days, at which point, absent a surge in cases, the counties can consider further easing of restrictions, though phase two guidelines are still undefined.
If, however, the number of new cases exceeds the ability of the local public health workforce to track new cases; if more than 30% of new cases can’t be traced to existing persons with the virus; or, if there is a 5% or greater increase in new cases over a week, the state guidelines say it will be time to “stop, watch, and redirect.”
It’s not entirely clear how that would play out, however.
Testing and contact tracing capacity may be the big roadblocks to reopening, certainly in urban counties, while rural counties with few active cases may more easily meet the thresholds, which Brown announced last week. The governor wants to ensure geographic regions can test at least 30 people per 10,000 residents weekly, a goal that only two of nine “health regions” defined by the state were meeting as of last week.
Oregon Health Authority Director Pat Allen said Thursday that testing capacity has ramped up since then, with 2,500 test results received statewide on Thursday. He explained counties don’t have to test the full 30 per 100,000 each week but must have the capacity to do so.
That could make it more difficult or the state’s largest counties — Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas — to meet the threshold.
“The more rural a county is…the more likely it is to be in a position to successfully apply,” Allen said Thursday.
The governor has defined seven health regions in the state comprised of contiguous counties. Some of her reopening criteria – testing supply, hospital capacity and PPE supply – depend on regional, versus county compliance, so it’s unclear if that will limit some other counties’ ability to reopen early.
Brown also wants to ensure each county has at least 15 contact tracers per 100,000 people. That benchmark is lower than what a coalition of national public health officials advise is necessary during the pandemic. And numbers released by the Oregon Health Authority last week showed many counties, including those in the Portland metro area, would need to add dozens of tracers in May before reopening could be considered.
The governor has already announced lifting restrictions on non-emergency medical procedures, and a limited reopening of outdoor recreation.
In order to reopen, outdoor recreation areas in Oregon must implement social distancing mandates, clean frequently-touched surfaces, and prohibit all group gatherings including contact sports, Gov. Brown announced Thursday.
Day-use areas prone to crowds will remain closed, according to the Phase 1 plan, as well as all overnight use areas, including campgrounds. On Tuesday, Brown said all parks in the Columbia Gorge will also stay closed, as well as coastal areas “that are not yet ready to welcome visitors back.”
Personal service providers will need to ask customers specific COVID-19 screening questions before appointments and record client information in case of a positive coronavirus test related to their business if they reopen under the governor’s plan. These providers, which include tattoo artists, salons and massage therapists, will also be required to both provide and wear masks while providing services, and clients must stay outside or in their cars while waiting for appointments.
The governor’s guidance specific to food businesses suggests spartan times will continue for Oregon’s restaurants, bars and brewpubs. Businesses hoping to reopen dining rooms closed since March 17 will have to do so with tables spaced at least six feet apart. Employees will be required to wear masks provided by each business, with all food and drink consumption ending by 10 p.m. Businesses unable to operate under those restrictions will be limited to takeout and delivery.
As first reported by The Oregonian/OregonLive.com Tuesday, the new guidance removes language suggesting restaurants and bars track customer names and other information
Additionally, self-service operations including buffets, salad bars, soda machines and growler refilling stations are prohibited and condiments should be offered in single-serving packages. Employees will be required to wear masks, and businesses will be required to provide them. Pool tables, karaoke machines and bowling are prohibited during phase one, though video lottery machines and juke boxes are allowed, so long as they can be spaced at least six feet apart and disinfected between players.
Retail stores, meanwhile, will be required to limit the number of customers in stores, and mandate that employees wear face coverings and frequently clean high-traffic areas in phase one of the recovery plan.
The industry guidance includes specific requirements for shopping malls as well. Malls must set maximum occupancy and configure common areas, such as food courts, in a way that will allow six feet of distance to be maintained between customers, as well as post signs to discourage groups from congregating.
Nik Blosser, the governor’s chief of staff, said Wednesday that some standalone retail stores that were previously closed — furniture stores, art galleries, jewelry shops and boutiques – would be allowed to reopen as of May 15 if they can meet distancing requirements because they are generally thought to be able to follow retail guidelines.
The state will also be lifting some restrictions on childcare, summer school, camps and youth programs for the summer, though detailed guidelines are not yet available. They will still be subject to “quite a few restrictions,” Blosser said.
The state will be implementing a new statewide “face covering” policy as well. Employees in businesses where six-foot distancing is difficult — grocery stores, pharmacies, public transit, personal services, and ride share services – will be required to wear face covering. It also will be “strongly recommended” that those businesses establish their own mandatory face covering policies for customers. The policy, which will be finalized in coming days, also includes the strong recommendation that masks be worn in any indoor public space where six feet of physical distancing can’t be maintained.
The governor’s reopening rules can be enforced. Businesses violating physical distancing rules can be reported to Oregon’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration, which can take enforcement action.
Under the current state of emergency, individual violations of the governor’s rules violating is a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by up to 30 days in jail, a fine of up to $1,250, or both.
But those kind of actions seem unlikely.
“Throughout this crisis, local law enforcement’s first focus has been to work with members of the public to educate them about complying with the Governor’s orders and the importance of physical distancing,” said Liz Merah, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office. “During a public health crisis, we want Oregon law enforcement officers to be focused on urgent public health and safety needs. Criminal penalties will be a last resort, and law enforcement will seek voluntary compliance first.
Oregonian staff writers Lizzy Acker, James Hale, Jamie Goldberg, Michael Russell and Brad Schmidt contributed to this story