ENTERPRISE — Wallowa County is angry.
At least, the more than 150 protesters were who gathered on the courthouse lawn Wednesday, Sept. 1, to register their objections to Gov. Kate Brown’s mandate requiring all public employees get vaccinated against coronavirus.
Two of their number attended the meeting of the Wallowa County Board of Commissioners that morning to address the situation. But the commissioners weren’t sure they could do anything more than they’ve already done.
“I’m here to speak on behalf of friends, family, businesses, teachers, the state and others,” said Todd Rogers, of Help Our Kids Succeed. “I’d like to give my time over to Hilary Miller, who has a nice presentation for you guys.”
“Everybody has the right to choose the vaccine if they want it and everybody has the right to not choose it if they don’t want it,” Miller said prior to the meeting. “We are not an anti-vaccination group. We are a pro-medical choice and bodily autonomy group.”
As she told the commissioners, “I’m a wife, mother, registered nurse, veteran and co-creator of — and Wallowa group leader of — the Northeastern Oregon Stop the Mandate Coalition. I am speaking on behalf of this coalition.
“We are a grassroots group erected from the recent COVID-19 vaccination mandate from Gov. (Kate) Brown, which threatens our livelihoods and liberties. With almost 500 members just by word of mouth, we are comprised of health care workers, law enforcement officers, state workers, teachers and others affected by this mandate. In addition, we are joined outside by members of the HOKS group — Help Our Kids Succeed — this Northeast Oregon coalition is a tri-county coalition, but just within Wallowa County, between our numbers and the HOKS group makes up almost 300 Wallowa County citizens.”
On Aug. 19, Brown issued an executive order requiring public employees, such as educators, medical professionals and emergency services, to have completed doses of the vaccine by Oct. 18 or face the consequences, which could include fines or termination of employment. Employers, such as schools and hospitals, also could face fines.
The order does allow for religious or medical exemptions, although it does not explain the details on those or how they will be determined valid.
But those opposing the mandate are not sitting idly by, Miller said.
“We are here to let you know our stand: We will not tolerate the threats and coercion from Gov. Brown into medical treatment,” she read from a prepared statement. “It strikes me to the core as a medical professional. We have heard our leadership in Oregon say they are counting on health care workers ‘bluffing.’ ... Let there be no question: No one is bluffing. A poll in our coalition resulted in 83% of respondents (said they) will not get the vaccine despite the mandate; 13% have already received the vaccines and stand against the mandate. We are educated and intelligent people in these professions. We have either had COVID, had the vaccine or been offered the vaccine. This is not about a vaccine at this point. Our group and most of the members of the health care and law enforcement professions stand with the Constitution of the United States supporting bodily autonomy, freedom, the right to pursuit of happiness and liberty for all.”
Miller said the coalition also is seeking advice and guidance from others planning legal action to halt the mandate.
“The repercussions of these vaccine mandates will be severe,” Miller said. “Fire departments and ambulance services comprised of family-like workers will be nonexistent, leaving no emergency response. Our hospital won’t have staff to care for patients and will struggle to stay open. And, if that’s not enough, the crippling will extend much further than just the health care system. Teachers who haven’t already retired early or quit will leave their profession. Public schools will shut down. State workers not given options for exemption will leave our state aching for forestry employees for prevention and protection of forest fires, social services, child-protective services, state police, department of transportation road services and many more core services that will be nonfunctioning due to the mandate.
“We are standing up here and now saying this is going to end.”
Rogers was concerned that critical employees could lose their jobs.
“Just in talking to people, one of the fears is that we might have 25-50% of our hospital staff get fired; 25-35 to 40% of our teachers getting fired,” he said.
Commissioner Todd Nash agreed and said it goes beyond the workers one thinks of at the forefront.
“It goes on and on. I got a call from one of the brand inspector supervisors,” said Nash, who is a cattle rancher. “There are 16 brand inspectors in the state of Oregon and if this goes through the way it looks right now, they’ll have four. We don’t know how we’d conduct commerce with livestock. There’s a whole litany of things. It’s very concerning how this thing all shakes out.”
Commissioners’ help sought
“We don’t want this for our community. We want to work with you to help put an end to this. We recognize that your power is limited, but on Aug. 26, the governor stated that counties across the state are vying for local control, but not one county has come forward and offered a plan on how to control the spread (of coronavirus.) We view this as a huge opportunity and we are seeking an open format to dialogue and put together a plan to present to the governor,” Miller said. “I know this is not the end of mandates from Gov. Brown. Many studies done show masks, frequent testing, lockdowns don’t work and we may be looking at vaccine failure with the new variants. So let’s not double-down on failed measures.”
Miller asked the commissioners about setting up a meeting to build a plan to take to the governor.
“Actually, I was on that call before the governor came out with that statement,” Nash said, “and I said, ‘Our plan may look different than what you surmise.’ So there’s a number of our businesses that have offered curbside service, they’ve offered home delivery, there are residents who’ve went to deliver food or offer vaccines at people’s homes. So our community did work together to try to provide for those who are vulnerable and those who felt threatened, and so we did have a plan.”
He said other commissioners have weighed in.
“Commissioner (Susan) Roberts was mentioned — as she often is — she talks to the governor more than I do,” Nash said. “Our vaccination rate for frontier Oregon is higher than most — if not the highest — of any frontier county. The things that we provided, she acknowledged, but didn’t accept that as a plan, either.”
As Roberts told the crowd outside the courthouse after the meeting, she’s often in communication with the governor.
“I’ve known the governor for 40 years and we’ve never agreed on anything, but at least I can talk to her,” Roberts said, adding that she often takes a hard stand with Brown. “Someday, you come up to the third floor (of the courthouse) when I’m talking to the governor and you’ll see.”
Nash and the others weren’t sure of anything constructive they can do now.
“For us to go back to her now and for her to just say ‘No,’ it does a couple of things,” he said. “We could throw a plan out there — and I think all three of us would be amenable to looking at what you might have for an idea of a plan, but if she chooses to reject and she has summarily rejected things that counties have thrown at her, it almost becomes empowering that she has the power and local control won’t get the power. Because we’ve been trying to get that from the very first.”
Commissioner John Hillock agreed.
“I’m with Todd,” he said. “We read the fine print after (the governor) spoke and one thing that comes up in the fine print that some people don’t see is that our plan has to be in excess of her plan. It’s like, ‘I’ll do my own plan and we won’t make the kids wear masks.’ Well, that doesn’t work because that’s not in excess of her plan. We can send her all the plans we want, but if we say we don’t want to vaccinate or whatever, she’s not going to accept them because they’re not in excess of her plan.”
Although the commissioners weren’t sure of what they could do to fight the governor’s mandate, they agreed that protests such as happened Sept. 1 spoke volumes — but they said such protests need to be larger and more widespread.
Outside, Rogers agreed and told the crowd they need to bring in more people to make more voices heard. He also suggested writing to lawmakers and sending letters to the editor of newspapers.
“Actions speak louder than words,” he said.
But that wasn’t enough for some.
Joseph businessman Gary Bethscheider was one of the most vocal.
“Quit being a bunch of sheep. Quit being sheep! Let’s go to the sheriff’s office and we’ll stand over there,” he hollered. “Our sheriff needs to say, ‘Enough.’ We have elected him and he needs to say ‘Enough’s enough.’”
After someone complained about schools closing because of coronavirus, Bethscheider was eager to take the protest beyond vaccines.
“Send your kids to school every day without a mask. What are they going to do about it?” he said.
Roberts again emphasized that as a board, the commissioners can’t do a whole lot beyond the public employees they supervise — not teachers, hospital staff or even law enforcement, and certainly not other governmental entities.
“As a board of commissioners, we don’t have control of anything,” she said, but urged more such gatherings as happened Sept. 1. “This is where the people (say we) have had enough.”