Gov. Kate Brown announced Thursday that 28 of Oregon’s 36 counties — including Wallowa County — are allowed to reopen from COVID-19 restrictions as of Friday, May 15, under her Phase 1 guidelines. Additional counties were approved for opening later in the day, bringing the total opening today to 31. Only Multnomah, Polk, Washington, Marion, and Clackamas counties remain closed.
Phase 1 means that starting today, the counties approved for reopening can allow:
• Restaurants and bars to have sit-down service as long as they maintain 6 feet of distance between parties, limit parties to a maximum of 10 people, require all employees to wear face coverings and end on-site consumption by 10 p.m.
• Personal-care businesses, including barbers and salons, may open if they screen their clients prior to service, limit visits to scheduled appointments, record their client list, maintain physical distance between clients and require providers to wear face coverings.
• Gyms may reopen if they maintain 6 feet between users, close all showers and pools and have strong cleaning protocols in place.
• Also, Phase 1 will allow in-person gatherings of up to 25 people as long as physical distancing is maintained.
Brown said guidelines on public transit, summer camps and summer school programs will soon be released. She also said retail stores — most of which were never required to close — can reopen under Phase 1. These include “main street stores” such as furniture shops and other retailers that can implement physical distancing.
Office workers who have been working from home, however, must continue to do so, the governor said.
More details on Phase 1 are available online at coronavirus.oregon.gov.
Brown noted that she has received strong advocacy for reopening from county commissions. “In all of these cases, the county leaders submitted very detailed applications,” she said. “The county commissioners pressed and advocated for their counties to be reopened.”
Wallowa County’s commissioners were aware of Brown’s announcement and believe the county is more than ready to reopen. “Our businesses have been prepared since the day after they shut us down,” Susan Roberts said. “They went through the exercises the state said they had to.”
Roberts said that during the shutdown, Oregon counties have received an ever-changing list of regulations. For example, Wallowa County submitted plans that businesses, health care facilities and others had submitted, but the state wasn’t satisfied.
“The state said you don’t get to decide who opens, we’ll decide,” she said. “They wanted control. But we are ready to reopen.”
Roberts emphasized that responses from business owners and private citizens pressing the commissioners to get the state to end the shutdown were instrumental in making Wallowa County’s application one the state couldn’t reject.
“I want to thank those businesses in Wallowa County who wrote plans and sent them in because that’s what I used to send to the state,” she said. “People who work and live in those business sectors deserve the credit.”
Commissioner Todd Nash also spoke highly of the plans submitted by locals for surviving in a COVID-19 world. “When I talked to them, they had good plans,” he said. “What makes us great in America is we get to choose to reopen — at our own comfort levels — and we get to choose whom to patronize.”
The commissioners also received letters and emails from county residents for whom the shutdown was a particular hardship. Roberts said she forwarded those directly to the governor. She said that the danger of coronavirus spreading to Wallowa County has appeared minimal.
“There’s danger in everything we do in everyday life,” she said. “People just need to be aware that we have another disease to deal with. We should operate on the premise that if you’re not comfortable in doing something, you take care of yourself.”
Roberts said Brown “skirted” the issue of the state ban on large gatherings through September, which cancels most of the tourism-related events Wallowa County businesses rely upon to make it through the winter. “They really don’t have a grasp on whether to do that or not,” Roberts said. “The governor kept saying, ‘It’s really hard, it’s really hard,’ but if you’re the governor, your paycheck keeps coming in. It has a whole different connotation if you’re one who depends on that summer surge.”
Nash agreed that the tourism-related events the county relies upon should be cut some slack by the state. “Again, I think it comes down to your own comfort level,” he said.
Roberts said she hopes the county can enter Phase 2 by June 4 after the required three weeks in Phase 1. “But if there’s a huge outbreak and people start getting sick, they’ll shut us down again,” she said.
Brown said 33 counties applied for reopening. She said a team of medical experts from the Oregon Health Authority reviewed the applications and made their recommendations.
Three in the major metro area around Portland — Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties — chose not to apply. The applications of two counties, Marion and Polk, were not approved. Brown said the state will revisit their status on a weekly basis. Once any change in the status of a county is decided upon, it will be announced as soon as possible, the governor said.
Brown said the state’s efforts to battle the coronavirus likely prevented as many as 70,000 infections and 1,500 hospitalizations in Oregon.
OHA Director Pat Allen, who joined Brown at the press conference, said reopening was approved based on several factors:
• That the curve of number of the outbreaks has flattened.
• More testing has become available.
• Fewer positive test results have been recorded —last week there were just 3%.
• Hospitalization numbers have dropped significantly.
“But COVID-19 is still present in Oregon,” Allen said. “Your face coverings help protect the workers you’re around so life can return to something closer to normal.”