Elected leaders from Eastern Oregon counties who signed on to a letter asking Gov. Kate Brown for changes to her approach to COVID-19 shutdowns say the letter was not in direct response to the current two-week “freeze,” but was crafted over several weeks as an outline of what they hope to see happen as the state continues to address fluctuations in COVID-19 numbers.
The letter, dated Nov. 18 and signed by 51 county commissioners and state legislators, asks Brown to allow restaurants and bars to stay open throughout the pandemic, to fully reopen schools, to reopen state agencies such as DMV offices to the public and to allow religious leaders to use their own best judgment in operating their places of worship. It also urges her to allow local elected officials to work with county health departments to come up with their own versions of Phase 1 and Phase 2 for COVID-19 regulations.
“A one-size-fits-all approach to shutting down the state was logical and appropriate in March when the onset of this pandemic was new and was unknown,” the letter states. “Over time, we have learned, adapted, adjusted and improved. Keeping counties and regions in a Phase II for an indefinite period of time is a one-size-fits-all approach that does not work any longer.”
Wallowa County, as of Tuesday, Nov. 24, had 70 cases, and no new cases in a week, but on Tuesday afternoon Oregon Health Authority reported a third death in the county — an 89-year-old woman with underlying conditions who died on Nov. 9.
Wallowa County Commissioner Todd Nash said many who signed the letter hoped to get it to the governor sooner.
“There were a number of us who wanted to send this letter some time ago, but felt like there was a decision made to not send it prior to the election and make it a political stand,” Nash said.
The letter in a nutshell, Nash said, is essentially a request for counties to have their own autonomy when it comes to the COVID-19 response and not be placed under an umbrella that may work for some regions of the state and not others.
“We want to engage with the governor and come up with the plans that best suit our own communities,” he said. “I had access to the governor (Wednesday) night and visited with her a little bit. She’s not ready, at this point, to drop the matrix and just have them be guidelines. She still wants them to be enforceable. I suggested they be guidelines and the state be a place that can be a point of reference for how the caseload is going, what is best practices, those sort of things, and allow the people to monitor their own behavior.”
Susan Roberts, the other Wallowa County commissioner to sign the letter, said she signed encouraging Brown to talk with local leaders, rather than at them.
She also said different counties should be approached in different manners, noting that decisions that would work for Wallowa County wouldn’t necessarily work for Multnomah.
“We are different out here. We are never given the ability to make the decision (for ourselves),” Roberts said.
She said this portion of the state being overlooked isn’t a problem unique to the pandemic, but that it has instead been exacerbated by it.
“This is an ongoing conversation we have had for years. This pandemic just makes it more forefront than other subjects have in the past,” she said. “This is not an uncommon thread for us.”
Roberts noted another point of frustration in how often details change.
“The changing metrics, and the changing rules, and guidelines, nothing is stable. It fluctuates so much,” she said. “People get really irritated at being told something Monday, something on Tuesday and something else on Thursday….You want the autonomy to make your own decision.”
As for the timing of the letter, Roberts said she wanted it sent “a month and a half ago.”
“That’s where I disagreed with the rest of the body. I thought we should send it when we prepared it,” she said, adding she didn’t see sending it sooner as a political chip. “To us it was a statement we wanted to be involved in our destiny.”
As for the meaning behind a more ominous statement in the letter — “the future of our state’s survival is at risk” — Nash said that referred to businesses that could have to shutter for good and the impact of that move.
“There’s so many broad-reaching impacts,” he said. “If you shut down a restaurant, the high-end steaks that would be served there have an impact on the beef industry. It has a cascading effect and a tremendous amount of dollars that it impacts. We’ve made it through so far, and I won’t speak for everybody, but some people won’t recover from this financially.”
Roberts added she isn’t confident the letter will bring about change or discussion, but said the commissioners intend to continue working for a solution.
“We’ll work through all the channels we normally work through and keep working,” she said. “We keep moving, we keep trying different avenues and methodologies to reach the governor or any of her staff.”
State Sen. Lynn Findley, a Republican from Vale, said he and other legislators had been working on drafts of the letter for about three weeks before sending it to the governor’s office on Wednesday, Nov. 18.
Since discussion of the letter started weeks ago, the COVID-19 landscape in Oregon looks different. On Nov. 1, Oregon Health Authority reported 524 new cases of COVID-19. Since then the state has repeatedly set new records for daily case counts. The most recent record was Nov. 22 with 1,517 new cases.
Findley, whose district includes parts of 11 counties, said his main goal is to promote a “dialogue” between the governor and other state officials and legislators, county commissioners, school administrators and other local officials in rural counties.
He said he wants the state to give more autonomy to local officials in designing strategies to combat the spread of COVID-19.
He notes that during the spring, the state required counties to submit detailed plans for state approval before moving into Phase 1, which relaxed some of the restrictions on businesses, church services and other activities that the governor had imposed in March at the outset of the pandemic.
Findley contends that approach “is totally ignored now.”
He laments that in place of pandemic planning that acknowledges the different effects the virus has had in rural Oregon, state officials have switched to a “one-size-fits-all” strategy — including the two-week statewide freeze in effect from Nov. 18 through Dec. 2.
He concedes that one reference in the letter about rural communities slowing the spread of COVID-19 has been overtaken, to some extent, by subsequent trends in new cases.
“Clearly the situation seems to continue to escalate, and the numbers in most of the (legislative) districts are pretty darn high, which is unfortunate,” he said.
Nonetheless, Findley stands by his belief that statewide restrictions such as the two-week freeze fail to reflect the differences between rural and urban areas.
Wheeler County, for instance, has reported only one COVID-19 case during the pandemic.
House District 58 State Rep.-elect Bobby Levy, R-Echo, added her signature to the letter because she believes the individual differences of counties should be taken into account.
“I signed onto this letter because I believe it’s true. Hospitalizations in the metro shouldn’t automatically mean that our rural communities suffer the consequences. Our children need to be in school full time. Our churches need to be open to attend. State business need to open back up and serve the communities they have left behind,’’ Levy said in an email to EO Media Group.
Levy signed the letter before the governor’s freeze took effect and said on Thursday, Nov. 19, her feelings about the COVID-19 lockdown issue have not changed since then. She remains very concerned about how the state’s handling of the pandemic is impacting the district she is set to represent.
“We have small communities that heavily rely on summer tourism and rodeos that were unable to count on those funds to carry them through the winter months. We all are doing our best to help keep our communities safe and financially afloat — but shutting down businesses, schools and churches that have no correlation to outbreaks is not the answer. I want to make sure that HD58 and the rest of Oregon has a fighting chance to survive this pandemic. Physically, fiscally, and mentally,’’ Levy said.
Levy will succeed three-term State Rep. Greg Barreto, R-Cove, when she is sworn in January. Barreto, who did not run for reelection, signed the letter for a fundamental reason.
“I read it and I agreed with it,’’ he said.
The representative said he objects to how the governor’s mandates are the same for all counties despite their differences, a point also made in the letter.
“The shutdowns are carte blanche throughout the state,’’ Barreto said.
He describes Brown’s measures as unnecessarily draconian, ones which are having draconian-like impacts.
“You can not shut down schools and businesses and not expect huge consequences,’’ Barreto said.
He also said the governor should not be focusing on COVID-19 rates but rather at how many cases of it are hospitalizing people and requiring respirators. Barreto said these are the statistics which really matter.
Barreto said that rather than issuing strict orders, Brown should be asking people to take individual responsibility and providing guidelines for them to follow in an effort to reduce COVID-19 rates.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated.
La Grande Observer reporter Dick Mason, East Oregonian reporter Bryce Dole, and Baker City Herald editor Jason Jacoby and Hermiston Herald editor Jade McDowell contributed to this report.