Gov. Kate Brown announced Thursday morning that most Oregon counties will be allowed to take the first step toward lifting emergency limits on activity put in place since March by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a phone-in press conference Thursday, Brown said she realized that the decision to reopen some but not all counties would be seen as too little by residents who want to accelerate an economic rebound and too much by those concerned that it could lead to another spike in infections.
“But my job is to make hard decisions, even when they are unpopular,” Brown said. “When it comes to the health and safety of Oregonians, the buck stops here.”
Those getting the green light for partial reopening include Deschutes County in Central Oregon, Lane and Linn counties in the Willamette Valley and most southern and Eastern Oregon counties.
While most of Oregon’s 36 counties qualified to reopen, about 2.23 million residents — more than half the state’s estimated 4.22 million population — live in counties not covered by Thursday’s decisions.
The state’s three largest counties — Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas — did not file a request, saying they were not yet prepared to reopen. They represent nearly 1.8 million residents.
Marion and Polk counties, with a combined population of about 417,000, had their applications rejected because of concerns over high infection rates. Umatilla County, Jefferson County and Morrow County applications were approved later in the day Thursday.
Among Oregon’s five largest counties, only one — Lane County at No. 5, which includes the city of Eugene — can re-open.
The patchwork of openings means that some counties will see restaurants, salons, gyms and other establishments returning to business.
Brown said the moves were a clear-eyed attempt to balance the sometimes competing goals of public health and economic revival from a crisis that has put millions out of work.
“The shared goals of good public health and a strong economy are intimately connected,” she said. “It’s not an either/or scenario. As we reopen parts of our economy, we know and expect that there may be an uptick in new coronavirus cases.”
Brown said there will be no assured path to both ensuring public health and allowing the economy to recover in the foreseeable future. She likened the moves announced Thursday as the equivalent of stepping out on ice without truly knowing how thick or thin it might be underfoot.
“Reopening any part of our state comes with risk,” Brown said. “This virus is still very dangerous. Until there is a reliable treatment or a vaccine, unfortunately, we will not be able to go back to life as we knew it.”
But the fact that large swaths of the most populous areas won’t see a change has Brown and state officials worried that residents in those areas could travel to areas such as the Oregon coast, Deschutes County and cities like Eugene where they can enjoy relative freedom to eat, drink and socialize. That could expose the open counties to outside infection from counties that remain closed.
“We hope that people will stay close to home,” Brown said.
Oregon has recorded over 3,000 positive cases and 137 deaths during the coronavirus pandemic. The state has recorded among the lowest per capita infections and deaths in the nation.
Overall, about 1.4 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the United States, with 85,601 deaths through Wednesday. Worldwide, about 4.37 million have tested positive and 298,000 have died.
Oregon counties were invited last week to submit plans to have some of the restrictions under Brown’s March closure orders lifted.
They had to meet a list of standards set by the Oregon Health Authority, including evidence that the county could test for COVID-19 infections and had the staff available to trace the contacts of anyone with a positive result.
Each county also had to account for its ability to isolate positive cases, including homeless people who did not have the resources to do so on their own. Counties had to show they could provide medical care and hospital space if there was another outbreak.
The next step will be to see if the loosened restrictions will not lead to a spike in cases. In three weeks, each county’s infection statistics will be reviewed, including hospital use, ability to trace cases and adherence to social distancing guidelines. If successful, counties would be eligible in June or early July to move on to less restrictive controls, which have not fully been detailed yet. Larger group gatherings are one of the most likely results, as well as allowing more visits to elder care facilities, which have been a major infection point. Brown encouraged residents to retain the resolve and patience most have shown so far, so that the isolation that led to a less-than-expected impact on the state doesn’t go to waste with a resurgence.
She said she understood the frustrations of residents who have had to deal with restrictions on their lives, closed businesses and lost jobs.
“I know this is hard,” she said.
Brown said she is hopeful that, if infection trends remain in check, schools might be able to reopen in time for the fall semester.
“Education is the game changer for families across the state,” Brown said.
But it’s too early to make a call on that and many other aspects of public life.
“We are going to have to be more nimble and flexible,” she said. “It’s not going to be like last fall.”
If there is an increase in infections, Brown said the restrictions could be reinstated. However, she declined to say how the restrictions would be imposed and enforced.
“If we can’t beat back the virus, we will implement restrictions,” she said.
As for those who openly flout the rules, Brown said she is hoping for community cooperation in keeping Oregon safe.
“I know there are a few outliers, but they do not reflect the majority,” Brown said.
Brown said that outside enforcement was much less effective than what had worked so far: community cooperation.
“We are all in this together,” Brown said. “We need to be thoughtful and considerate of our neighbors.”