Twenty-six Oregon counties will soon move into a second phase of reopening, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced Thursday, marking the latest step to restoring a semblance of daily life and allowing more Oregonians to return to work amid the pandemic.
The list of counties allowed to ease restrictions Friday, Saturday or Monday stretches across the state, from rural eastern Oregon to southern Oregon and even into parts of the southern Willamette Valley. The looser rules mean restaurants and bars can stay open later, bowling alleys and movie theaters can reopen, and churches can welcome in more people.
But three counties that sought approval — Deschutes, Jefferson and Umatilla — were not immediately approved to reopen but could be as soon as tonight. Seven others, largely in the Portland and Salem areas, have not yet applied.
“Any reopening comes with risk,” Brown said in a statement. “That’s just a fact of life right now. We need to reduce the risk that comes with reopening. So, fellow Oregonians, you have further opportunity to show that you are looking out for your friends, family and neighbors.”
Counties approved to move into Phase 2 Friday are: Benton, Curry, Douglas, Grant, Jackson, Klamath, Lake, Lane, Linn, Morrow, Union, Wallowa, Wasco and Wheeler.
Counties approved for Saturday are: Baker, Clatsop, Columbia, Coos, Crook, Gilliam, Harney, Josephine, Malheur, Sherman and Yamhill. Tillamook County will move into the second phase Monday.
Brown’s approval Thursday comes even as the Oregon Health Authority is under scrutiny about its transparency for calculating whether counties have met the reopening criteria set by state public health officials. The state created an online dashboard to monitor county progress on six metrics but has refused to release the underlying data so those calculations can be replicated.
The lack of transparency makes it impossible to independently corroborate whether counties are meeting the goals outlined by the Oregon Health Authority. But state officials have said they look at those metrics holistically, and even some counties that didn’t meet each indicator Thursday, according to the state’s dashboard, nonetheless earned Brown’s approval.
State health officials said they now hope to make underlying data available to the public next week.
Phase 2 further eases restrictions initially implemented by Brown in March to slow the spread of coronavirus. Most Oregon counties were approved to enter Phase 1 on May 15 and had to wait 21 days, without seeing signs of trouble, before being allowed to move into Phase 2.
The looser Phase 2 rules allow indoor gatherings generally limited to 50 people and outdoor gatherings to 100 people. Churches and other civic organizations can welcome up to 250 people, depending on occupancy size, sanitation protocols and the ability to keep people apart.
Major changes include allowing restaurants and bars to stay open until midnight and increase capacity with outdoor seating. Bowling alleys, swimming pools and movie theaters can also operate with appropriate safety measures. Office employees are still encouraged to work from home if possible.
Public health officials expect Oregon counties approved for the second phase will remain there for months.
Brown allowed Lane and Wasco counties to move into Phase 2 even though they did not meet all of the state’s listed criteria.
Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state health officer and epidemiologist, said Lane County’s increase in cases was among only 10 total infections, and half of the recent infections could be traced back to a source. Given the county’s relatively large population and small case count, Sidelinger said, officials “felt confident” in the ability to stay on top of the virus.
Wasco County also saw an increase in cases and did not identify the source of infections frequently enough to meet state standards. But Sidelinger said recent cases rose from 0 to six and officials aren’t overly concerned about community spread in the rural area.
Although Brown did not initially approve Deschutes, Jefferson and Umatilla counties, each could soon receive the greenlight, Sidelinger said.
Deschutes did not trace enough infections to a known source, Jefferson saw an increase in infections and the rate of positive tests, and Umatilla could not identify the source of enough infections and reported a higher rate of positive tests.
But Sidelinger said state health officials spoke with county officials and received satisfactory explanations Thursday. Sidelinger said he anticipated likely recommending to Brown that each be allowed to move into Phase 2.
Meanwhile, two other counties eligible to enter a second phase — Hood River and Lincoln — have yet to apply. But Sidelinger said he also anticipated each would likely be recommended for approval if they “didn’t have any red flags.”
Clackamas and Washington counties near Portland, and Marion and Polk counties in the Salem area, are not yet eligible to move into Phase 2 because not enough time has elapsed. Each county also failed to meet at least one indicator in the state’s latest dashboard. Sidelinger said officials would take a closer look at eligibility when they seek approval in coming weeks.
Multnomah County, meanwhile, is eyeing a June 12 reopening into Phase 1. Asked about the likelihood that Brown would approve reopening the state’s most populous county, Sidelinger said: “I’m not good at gambling, so I’m not going to give you odds.”
But given a rise in cases, and other indicators, Sidelinger noted that both the state and county are looking at “moving forward cautiously.”
Oregon through Thursday has recorded 4,350 coronavirus infections out of more than 139,000 people tested, giving it one of the lowest infection rates in the country. Oregon has recorded 159 deaths, also one of the lowest rates nationwide.
The number of daily infections reported by the health authority has been on the upswing over the past two weeks, however. That includes the 76 reported Thursday, with 30 of those among Multnomah County residents.
Sidelinger said he can’t point to any new cases directly tied to Memorial Day activities but noted that the timeline for new cases across Oregon now coincides with infections that could have been spread during the holiday weekend.
Despite Oregon’s comparatively low infections and deaths nationally, state officials have been cautious in their reopening efforts — sometimes drawing ire from business owners and others. One in five Oregonians has lost jobs amid the pandemic, and the state’s unemployment system has become overwhelmed.
Brown credited Oregonians’ adherence to her March stay-at-home orders for reducing transmission and putting the state in a safe place to now increase reopening efforts.
“Today, most of us live in communities where people are venturing out a bit,” she said in the statement. “We do so cautiously, looking out for friends, family and neighbors. I want to say thank you to each and every Oregonian who has made tremendous sacrifices to protect the health and safety of our communities.”
— Brad Schmidt; [email protected]; 503-294-7628; @_brad_schmidt
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