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and Ellen Morris Bishop

Exactly when Oregon Gov. Kate Brown might begin reopening Oregon’s rural counties is uncertain.

Umatilla County Commissioner George Murdock is thinking May. Wallowa County Commissioner Susan Roberts is convinced it will be June — or later. The date remains uncertain, based on a 90 minute conference call with about 80 county commissioners late Monday afternoon.

Roberts said a June opening “...would be a disaster for us.”

Roberts sent a letter to Brown, signed by commissioners from Grant County and eight other Eastern Oregon counties requesting a “conversation” about re-opening for those counties, on Thursday instigating the meeting. Pressure from Republican lawmakers provided additional motivation.

“Commissioners are under tremendous pressure in their counties to reopen for business,” Umatilla County Commissioner George Murdock said afterward. “I felt like it’s actually progressing. The conversation about opening up, with the notable exception of large groups, is almost progressing more quickly than I had anticipated.”

He added, “Now, by moving right along, we’re talking about mid-May or so.”

Roberts was far less optimistic.

“I’m angry and frustrated,” she said. “We had asked for a conversation between the governor and Eastern Oregon to ask about opening up our small communities, and we got nothing. We didn’t get any real answers for our small business owners, just ‘we need to review that, and set up committees.’ So basically what it is: No, we’re not going to allow the state to open, and we’re not going to talk with Eastern Oregon.”

Roberts was also unhappy with the seeming unavailability of funds from the federal coronavirus relief bill $1.6 billion payment to Oregon for communities and counties in Eastern Oregon.

“We had costs due to COVID-19 in our county, and we should be able to recover those costs out of this fund,” she said. “And Brown told us she was not sure she could do that.”

Gov. Brown expects to release a more detailed draft plan next week. It will not contain dates for when businesses might reopen and social distancing restrictions might be eased. Instead, it will require meeting criteria that Brown announced last week, combined with President Donald Trump’s recommendations.

In a statement released after the meeting, Brown specified that “timelines for reopening communities will be driven by solid data on the spread of COVID-19, county by county as appropriate ... We would expect that the first counties ... eligible to begin the process of reopening will be in rural Oregon — but only if we can ensure those counties have adequate testing capacity, sufficient supplies of personal protective equipment and the public health staff for contact tracing.”

Information discussed in the call also indicated that each Oregon county would have to certify that it had adequate hospital beds to handle a surge in COVID-19 cases and sufficient personal protective equipment for medical personnel and first responders.

Unlike in some states, Brown is focusing on a regional approach.

“The main thing the governor told us is that there clearly are counties, particularly in Eastern Oregon and southeastern Oregon, that have zero cases or maybe one case, and they should be prioritized for reopening in a way that’s consistent with maintaining public health,” Nik Blosser, Brown’s chief of staff, said. “So how quickly can we do that and what’s the framework we need for them?”

Blosser said the governor’s Medical Advisory Panel was working through plans this week on comprehensive testing, contact tracing and isolating people with coronavirus; allowing non-emergency medical and dental procedures to resume; and the specific metrics required statewide and regionally for that reopening to recur.

In Wallowa County, Dr. Ronald Polk expressed concern about opening without adequate testing.

“We have been told that there are sufficient tests available for everyone to be tested. This appears not yet to be the case...” he said. “I would like to see a full court press on getting tests distributed throughout the rural health departments to find out the extent of disease before reopening.”

Dr. Bob Dannenhoffer, the Douglas County health officer, said he knew of no Oregon county that was yet meeting all criteria laid out last week by Trump for initial reopening. Dannenhoffer is a member of Brown’s panel but emphasized his views were his own, not the panel’s.

Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, noted that new cases of COVID-19 are declining in Deschutes County but the coronavirus will not disappear for a long time.

“We need to learn how to live with the virus and still continue on. The current shutdown and having 300,000 Oregonians essentially unemployed because of it is completely unsustainable and is going to cause serious problems — catastrophic problems, I would say — with the state being able to fund important programs,” he said. “I think we really need to look at a county-by-county opening of the state.”

Oregon Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr., R-Grants Pass, agreed the state must learn to maintain both public health and a healthy economy. The place to start is with rural health care, he said.

“Our hospitals in rural Oregon are really hurting right now. They need to get back to work, both for their income but also for all those people who need their hip replaced, bypass surgery, all that stuff,” he said.

Two Eastern Oregon lawmakers, Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, and Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, proposed using Harney County as a pilot project, citing its lack of COVID-19 cases, its small population and its isolation from other communities.

This is not a proposal to open businesses. This is a proposal to recognize the health hazards and the health risks and work through those and mitigate restrictions...,” Findley said.

He Owens put together a proposal that includes ideas for how the community could mitigate health risks and how specific types of businesses could enforce social distancing.

“We’ve got a little more work to do it, but not a lot. And we hope we can get the governor to agree with running a pilot,” Findley said. “If we can’t make a pilot work there, we can’t make it work anywhere.”

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