Wasco County’s Board of Commissioners called a special meeting last week with the intent of discussing a plan to reopen sectors of the economy, and found that, while all members of the discussion agreed that they wanted to start lifting restrictions as soon as possible, there were still too many unknowns to develop a clear plan for doing so.

“I think that’s the main message I want people to understand is that everybody, I think, is on the same page: We want to move as quickly as reasonably possible,” said Commission Chair Scott Hege during the April 29 video conference. “Not too quick because we don’t want to mess things up, but everyone is on the same page.”

Before any substantial action can be taken towards reopening sectors of the local economy, emergency management coordinators need to confirm that the actions they’re taking to prepare for reopening are consistent with requirements outlined in the official state guidelines — guidelines that, as of press time Monday afternoon, had yet to be released.

The state has sent out draft planning documents for county health officials to review and offer feedback, and North Central Public Health District (NCPHD) Director Teri Thalhofer said that she expects the final documents to be released soon.

“Once we see the guidance … we will be able to look at where we’re at based on when it comes out and start to communicate what else needs to happen to get ready to open and what that timing would be,” said Thalhofer.

But waiting for state guidance does not mean that Wasco, Gillam, and Sherman counties’ Unified Command hasn’t been busy: People have been tasked with looking through other counties’ official plans for reopening and seeking out private suppliers of personal protective equipment (PPE) to help clinics, restaurants and other businesses that don’t have their own supply. “There’s a lot of work going on right now on reopening,” said Wasco County Administrator Tyler Stone, who is currently working with Unified Command.

“The wild card is, what we think we need to do for reopening, we want to make sure it’s also consistent with the state,” he added. “My sense is we’re going to have a lot of that stuff worked out when we get this final guidance already done, and then we’re just going to have to grab those little pieces that we didn’t think through.”

Discussions on reopening individual sectors of the economy, such as food service, childcare, retail or outdoor recreation, began on the state-level the week of April 20; as of publication, no official guidance had been issued to local governments or business owners. And with the Gorge entering its busiest economic season of the year, Maupin Mayor Lynn Ewing expressed concerns that, without direction, frustrated businesses would soon be taking matters into their own hands.

“Some businesses here in Maupin are nearly at rebellion state — some threatening to open ‘when they are ready,’” said Ewing via written comment. “We need a plan with a date and some direction on safety protocols ASAP. Without a commitment to some possible plan, I am afraid some will make their own decisions.” He added that he thought businesses would be willing to accept safety protocols — just not an indefinite timeline for reopening.

Maupin’s economy, like much of the Gorge’s, relies heavily on seasonal tourism to support the economy year-round. But seasonal tourism inherently requires visitors, which increase the community’s risk for contracting COVID-19.

“In the Gorge … as with the coast, we are in a really interesting position where people bring their germs out to our region, so we are very cautious,” said Thalhofer. “We want to make sure that we’re ready and that we can keep our community members safe and we don’t overwhelm the hospital system.”

Hospitals, including Mid-Columbia Medical Center in The Dalles, reopened for elective procedures beginning May 1, and while President/CEO Dennis Knox said that MCMC was ready to take that step, PPE supplies continue to be an issue.

“I am very concerned  about when we start opening up for other procedures, which we are in the process of doing,” said Knox. “And then as the community opens up and we perhaps have an increased risk of further incidents, will that supply continue in a fashion that allows us to care for patients in a safe manner.”

Official state guidance requires a 14-day supply of PPE (calculated based on the regular burn rate) for small clinics, and a 30-day supply for large facilities. MCMC is maintaining a 30-day supply and carefully monitoring the burn rate, said Knox, and said MCMC is prepared to slow down on reopening if supplies become too worrisome.

“ ... We are not getting any reassurance that we think the PPE supply chains will be normal in six months or three months,” said Thalhofer, “We are trying to get to a point where we feel comfortable that it’s good enough to start to move forward, but knowing we can take our foot off the accelerator if we need to if things freeze up for some reason.”

One of Unified Command’s main goals through the reopening process is ensuring that the community remains safe and that closures won’t have to be re-implemented once they’re lifted.

“Each sort of step along the way is just that, it’s a step, we’re going to take a step and observe,” said NCPHD Health Officer Dr. Mimi McDonell. “(We’re) really trying to be thoughtful because, as you can understand, it will be challenging to go backwards and we really want to make sure that as we move forward, that we’re doing it in a reasonable manner and absolutely … understanding the pain that this is bringing people in many many many other ways, not just the medical part, and we’re very aware of that.”

Hege acknowledged people’s frustrations with the continuing closures, and encouraged people to continue be patient.

“The reality is we’re not going to get what we want when we want it … we’re going to have to have a little more patience, we’re probably going to have to endure some more pain in the process, but at the same time I think that we want to move as quickly as we can to get open.”

For the most current information about the COVID-19 situation in Wasco, Sherman and Gilliam counties, visit the Tri-County Unified Command’s website at wascoshermangilliamcovid-19.com.

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