Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has adopted a regional, metrics-driven approach to re-opening the state’s economy, and eastern Oregon counties will likely be among the first to begin the process, Sen. Lynn Findley (R-Vale) told constituents during a virtual town hall Thursday, April 23.
Findley was joined by Reps. Daniel Bonham (R-The Dalles) of House District 59 and Mark Owens (R-Crane ) of House District 60. All three are part of an emergency legislative board which also met Thursday to address emergency budgetary issues raised by the coronavirus pandemic. The board approved $50 million in emergency funding. (See related story.)
Findley said counties were being asked to make their own plans for reopening their economies, based on metrics set by the governor. “We will need state help with the PPE (personal protective equipment) and testing metrics,” he said. “Our communities will have to work with that. But we will gradually reopen as we figure this out. We have to start this economy back up.”
Because there are fewer cases of COVID-19 in eastern Oregon, and because communities are “naturally socially distanced” due to geography, counties east of the Cascade mountains will likely be among the first to reopen.
“The Oregon Health Authority and the counties need to make sure they have all they need in place to stay safe,” Findley said. Reopening will occur industry by industry.
Owens said current plans for the state involve a three phase process in regards to social gatherings: Phase one would allow gatherings of 10 or fewer, and could begin when no new cases of COVID-19 were reported over a 14 day period. Phase two would allow gatherings of 25-50, based on monitoring and testing metrics, and phase three would be a return to normal. No metrics have been set for phase three, Owens said.
No dates have been set for when the phased reopening can begin. “The governor’s plan had no dates, we don’t even know when we can enter phase one, even if the metrics are all met,” said Owens. “We want to be in phase two by May 15.”
All three legislators agreed limited reopening could begin as early as May 1, but mid May was more likely. They also agreed that large gatherings like Fourth of July festivals and county fairs were unlikely to occur.
“I fear fair will likely not go on as normal,” Findley explained. “We will find a way to make sure the kids who have been raising animals are able to sell those animals,” he said. Tillamook County has already canceled its fair, and others are following suite, he said.
Asked about the coming school year, Findley said it was likely “brick and mortar” schools would remain closed in the fall, with students continuing to learn online and at home.
He said new cases of the coronavirus are still being reported, and until a vaccine is developed, that was a “new normal.” As a result, social distancing measures, coupled with testing for and tracking of the virus, will continue for some time. A vaccine is still a year or more away, he said.
“These are new, uncertain and difficult times,” Findley said.
When asked about testing capacity and availability, Owens said it remains a challenge but “I feel we could have adequate testing soon, that would meet the governor’s requirements for reopening.”
The legislators were also asked what would happen if some counties, with few cases of the virus, were reopened and travel from urban communities harder hit by the virus began visiting.
Findley said he hoped urban communities would respect the need for rural communities to reopen their communities safely, and see if that is working, without a flood if visitors into those areas.
Bonham also said there were real concerns as people moved to or through the region to work or visit. “The folks at the coast are very concerned, because that will put coastal residents at risk,” he said. He noted that in the Gorge, farm workers are already arriving from out-of-state to work the harvest. “That’s a great thing, the last thing we need is to leave our fruit hanging on the trees,” he said. “But it does create a health risk, and could impact the parameters in regards to the metrics for reopening,” he said. “It will be something we have to watch and monitor.”
Bonham added that it was a big win for the district to have the state adopt regional metrics for the reopening. “They were looking at a statewide approach, and they now recognize that we have very different metrics out here,” he said. “We now have an industry specific and geographic specific approach.”
Bonham said people wanted to get back to work. “This is why we have the economic council to restart the economy. People are already deciding to go back to work or church — but it’s better if we have guidelines and methods and procedures in place for that, so we can do it right.”