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Oregon Counties Can Begin Reopening As Early As May 15 Under New Framework

Oregon’s grand reopening now has a date. Maybe.

Restaurants, bars, gyms and salons in some Oregon counties could open as early as May 15, under a framework unveiled by Gov. Kate Brown on Thursday. Residents of those counties could gather in groups of up to 25 without facing potential consequences.

In addition, the governor announced, some retail stores that had been shuttered statewide can reopen as of May 15, child care centers will be allowed to operate under reduced restrictions around Oregon, and summer school and youth camps will be allowed to resume.

The news is welcome to factions who’ve been pressing for eased restrictions for weeks. Counties can begin applying to reopen Friday, but the altered orders come with caveats.

Many of the eased restrictions might be most readily granted to Oregon counties where the virus has had the least impact, and which can meet a set of prerequisites issued by the governor. More populous counties where the disease is more firmly entrenched could take longer to reopen.

"The more rural a county is... probably the more likely it is to be in a position to be in a position to successfully apply," Patrick Allen, director of the Oregon Health Authority said Thursday.  

Once allowed, the renewed economic activity also must be done in relative safety, with widespread use of face masks, strict distancing measures and some businesses required to ask patrons screening questions to determine their risk for carrying the novel coronavirus. If Oregon’s nascent success in stemming the spread of COVID-19 begins to slip, Brown’s office said, restrictions will follow.

"This virus is still very dangerous and it still poses a great threat," Brown said. "Until there is a vaccine, unfortunately we will not be able to go back to life as we knew it."

The framework is largely unsurprising. The plan had emerged piecemeal for weeks, as Brown and her staff briefed stakeholders on their latest ideas.

But the finalized plan includes some notable changes, and has seemed to grow less restrictive over time. It offers certainty for counties that want to shake the bonds of a stay-home order the governor instituted March 23. Some of those counties had tried to apply for reduced restrictions under rough drafts of the governor’s plan, only to find the state’s requirements had shifted.

As of Thursday, it was unclear what counties could meet the governor’s criteria for such steps. Allen said he expected a majority of counties could be ready.

Highlights of Brown’s plan include:

As of May 15, restrictions will automatically be eased statewide for child care services. Some retail categories Brown shuttered in March also will be allowed to reopen if they can do so safely. That includes malls, art galleries, furniture stores, jewelry stores and boutiques.

Beginning May 8, the state will begin accepting applications from counties — and from seven specific health regions the state’s 36 counties have been split into — to begin reopening. Those counties and regions must be able to meet criteria that shows cases of COVID-19 are decreasing or largely nonexistent, and that they have the capacity to test, treat, and track cases that might emerge.

Beginning May 15, any counties that meet those prerequisites will be allowed to enter phase one of the easing plan, in which restaurants and personal care services, like salons and barbershops and gyms, are allowed to reopen. Those businesses will be subject to strict guidelines that include mandatory use of face masks by staff, occupancy limits and mandatory social distancing measures. Gatherings of up to 25 people will also be allowed.

Once in phase one, counties will need to operate for three weeks without showing signs that infections are increasing and can’t be adequately tracked. If they do so, they are eligible for phase two. The second phase is still being worked out but is likely to include social gatherings of up to 100 people, reopening further businesses and limited visitations at congregate care facilities like nursing homes.

A third phase would reopen large events and gatherings but is unlikely until a treatment or vaccine becomes available for COVID-19, Brown’s chief of staff said Wednesday. The governor’s office has directed all large gatherings be canceled through September.

Separate from any of the phases, the governor’s office will provide guidelines that allow summer school, camps and youth programs to operate statewide.

While the steps of the framework are relatively straightforward, execution might be halting.

Businesses will need to learn how to operate under a new set of strictures. Bars will have to eliminate most bar seating, for instance, and close by 10 p.m. Restaurants will need to limit their occupancy to ensure parties (of 10 people or fewer) can remain at least six feet apart. That’s a step back from earlier drafts that contemplated a blanket limit of 50% a bar or restaurant’s occupancy limit.

The news of a 10 p.m. curfew for bars and restaurants disappointed restaurant owners already bracing for the revenue blow that physical distancing will require. Renee Gorham, co-owner of the Portland restaurant group Toro Bravo Inc., called the six-foot spacing requirement “incredibly understandable” but also said it would put her businesses in “a really devastating financial position.”

“To add on top of that not being able to serve food or beverage after 10 o’clock reduces our hours and our level of business even more,” she said.

The most strenuous requirements are on businesses like salons, spas, barbershops and tattoo parlors, which will be required to ask customers prior to their appointment if they have had any symptoms of COVID-19, or had close contact with someone who’s been diagnosed with the disease. Appointments must be rescheduled if the answer is “yes.” If owners are willing, the state is urging them to consider checking the temperature of each client with a touchless thermometer.

Personal service businesses are also being required to keep the contact information of each client, along with the date and time of their appointment and who served them. That’s a step meant to help track potential spread of the outbreak in a virus. Past drafts of state rules had mulled similar guidelines for restaurants and retail stores, but those were ultimately scrapped.

Nik Blosser, the governor’s chief of staff, said Wednesday that the contact tracing requirement was most necessary for salon-like environments because patrons and providers have extended close contact.

“You need to be within 6 feet of someone for 15 minutes” in order to be considered in close contact, Blosser said, citing CDC guidelines. “It was less clear that it would be useful in a restaurant setting and equally in a retail setting.”

Early drafts of the governor’s framework suggested that gyms would not be eligible for reopening under phase one of the plan. That has since changed, though the governor’s office had not released safety guidelines for gym operation as of Thursday morning.

Even with businesses reopening, it’s an open question whether people will feel comfortable patronizing them. The state has ramped up its ability to test likely COVID-19 cases, and is working to bolster its resources to track the disease when it does show up. But public health officials say any increased economic activity brings a greater chance spread will increase.

As of Wednesday morning, the state had reported 2,916 confirmed and presumptive cases of COVID-19, and 115 deaths. Public health officials believe the state's efforts to limit contact have prevented tens of thousands of infections.

"As we reopen parts of our economy, we know and expect that there may be an uptick in new coronavirus cases," Brown said.  "That's why we have to be prepared in every single corner of the state."

Of course, before much of Brown’s framework takes effect, counties must first qualify for reopening. To do so, they will need to satisfy a set of criteria aimed at ensuring the disease is occurring at low rates, and there are resources in place to address outbreaks.

Some of those criteria must first be met by the seven “health regions” the OHA has grouped counties into. These regions need to be able to show they have the ability to test at a rate of 30 per 10,000 residents per week, and that there are enough testing sites underserved communities can access. Hospitals also must have enough room and personal protective equipment to address an outbreak.

Once regional prerequisites are met, individual counties must also meet requirements. Among other things, they need to show hospital admissions for COVID-19 are declining (this doesn’t apply to counties with 5 or fewer total positive cases), that they have the staff and ability to contact trace 95% of new cases within 24 hours, and that they have hotel rooms available for anyone who can’t self-isolate, such as homeless residents.

On a statewide level, the percentage of emergency room visits for COVID-19 or flu-like symptoms needs to be below the historic average for such visits in regular flu years. According to the Oregon Health Authority, as much as 1.4% of emergency room visits are for flu or flu-like symptoms in May through September of a normal year — the flu’s “offseason.”

“If our normal ED visits for the flu or flu-like symptoms during the off-season goes above 1.5%, we will need to re-examine our plans for reinstating COVID-19 protections for the entire state,” the OHA said in a document issued last week.

As of early April, flu-like symptoms accounted for more than 2% of emergency room visits, according to data the agency shared. But Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state epidemologist, said Thursday that that rate had decreased to below 1.5%.

"We've seen that really over the last several weeks," Sidelinger said.  

It’s not clear how many counties currently qualify under Brown’s framework for a May 15 reopening. As of April 24, just two regions, accounting for six counties, met the state’s requirements for testing. It wasn’t clear Thursday morning whether others have since ramped up testing capacity.

"I think it's safe to assume that a majority of counties will be in a place by next Friday that they meet those metrics to be able to successfully reopen," Allen said. 

Plenty of counties have been quick to proclaim their readiness.

In recent days, both Jefferson and Jackson counties have issued statements suggesting they meet all the state’s requirements. The state’s sprawling health region 7— which comprises Jefferson, Deschutes, Crook, Wheeler, Grant, Klamath, Lake, and Harney counties — has suggested it meets all of its regional requirements.

In far eastern Oregon, Baker County has been especially active about calling for reopening. The county submitted a detailed proposal to Brown’s office in April laying out how it met initial criteria for expanding activity. But the state’s criteria have since changed, and it’s no longer clear that Baker County — which logged its first positive case of COVID-19 Wednesday — qualifies.

“The problem with state government is they think that one shoe fits everyone. It does not,” Baker County Chair Bill Harvey told OPB in a May 5 email, prior to a case being detected there. “We do not have any cases in Baker County and should not be held back by border counties or larger counties. In my mind the Governor should allow each county to decide to what level of open they each should move to. The Governor can not possibly know what the real needs of each county are.”

Blosser, the governor’s chief of staff, said Wednesday it was premature to talk about which counties qualify. It’s not even clear the statewide requirement on emergency visits has been met, he said.

“They might believe they’ve met [the requirements] and maybe they have,” Blosser said. “We have to review.”

OPB reporter Kate Davidson contributed to this report.

<p>With the coronavirus pandemic forcing restaurants across the country to close, seafood markets that depend on those restaurants have collapsed.</p>
<p>Cassandra Profita/OPB</p> /
<p>With the coronavirus pandemic forcing restaurants across the country to close, seafood markets that depend on those restaurants have collapsed.</p>

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting